Prison education study seeks to fill long-standing data gaps


Most inmates in state and federal prisons have access to secondary education. But when it comes to college, not much is known about what’s available.

This is one of the main obstacles that Erin Castro tries to overcome. She is the co-founder of the University of Utah Prison Education Project and said that to do that, we first need better data.

“We have known for a long time that there is a strong relationship between education level and the chances of being incarcerated in life,” Castro said. “At this point it’s really hard to answer questions about higher education in prison. “

Nationally, approximately 25% of inmates do not have high school education. Less than 4% have a college degree, compared to 29% of the general public, according to a study by the Prison Policy Initiative.

Along with several other scholars across the country, Castro recently published the first of a study in several parts examine the landscape of higher education opportunities in the US prison system, which vary widely across the country and even within states.

The first part of the study deals with admissions, enrollment and funding of higher education programs. The researchers surveyed 60 programs across the United States – not a comprehensive or representative list, but they hope it will provide some initial clues to help expand opportunities and improve the quality of programs.

Of the programs studied, most are run by a college or university and offer face-to-face classes in prisons or prisons. Only six primarily offer distance education, but each serves an average of 26 correctional facilities. Many institutions, Castro said, such as Draper Prison in Utah, do not allow online classes for security reasons, which can limit the number of students who can enroll.

Most of the programs surveyed are funded by donations, according to the study, although Castro said she was surprised to learn that tuition fees are often covered by the schools themselves. Yet money remains a significant obstacle.

Inmates find it difficult to access things like Federal Pell Grants, often due to bureaucratic hurdles like filling out basic paperwork and accessing tax records. The study found that the main reason students drop out of classes is if they are transferred to another institution.

In Utah, inmates can take professional courses offered by community and technical colleges, as well as a handful of college-level classes. But overall, Castro said the majority of people incarcerated here do not have access to a degree program.

Still, she hopes a change is underway. She said the University of Utah is launching a credited course this fall and that state lawmakers recently passed a bill that would allow incarcerated youth to to get a diploma.

While the United States spends as much as it does to keep people locked up and dismal rates recidivism, Castro maintains that the view that prisoners do not deserve an education is no longer tenable.

“Yes, we need all kinds of treatment programs and sentencing programs,” she said. “At the same time, we also need to equip people to really succeed once they are released. Having a higher education degree can help people stay out of prison, which right now is a really difficult feat. “

KUER contacted the Utah Department of Corrections but did not receive approval for an interview.

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