Books Behind Bars
Ample studies show that educational programs behind bars are a smart bet. A 2014 study published by the RAND Corporation reported that participating inmates lower their odds of returning to prison by 43 percentage points. But the work is difficult and the funding is never enough. Many of the students had negative experiences with school. Many struggle with mental illness and the emotional legacies of trauma. Day to day, they’re coping with the stresses of prison life.
For the Rozas, educating inmates is an essential and too often overlooked component of educational justice. Their students were kids once, too, they say—many of them kids in failing schools, in hurting families, in communities burdened by poverty.
“We’ve done a really good job thinking about incarcerated people as the ‘other,’”Amy says. “We haven’t done a good job thinking about them as community members and as parents.” (Editor’s Note: This article ran in the Spring 2015 edition.)
Meghan Kuhn has been in prison since 2010, serving a 10-year sentence for armed robbery. Her son, Dominick, is five years old. She’s getting educated for him, she says, to be a better mom when he visits, and especially once she’s out. “You don’t use your mind” in prison, she says. “My thoughts feel encircled. So to come to college and open my mind back up—it’s a breath of fresh air.”
Kuhn hopes to finish her degree on Goucher’s main campus once she gets out. GPEP students earn transferable Goucher College credits, but as yet there’s no option to earn a degree in prison. Amy and her colleagues are working to change that, navigating channels within the school and with state and regional authorities.
Kuhn’s classmate, Reneé Bowman, is serving a life sentence for murder. The classes have helped her find her voice. “I write to help other people cope with stress and depression, anxiety and anger,” she says. Writing has taught her a lesson about second chances, too. “We’ve learned about [bad] first drafts,” Bowman says. “It’s okay to ball up a bunch of paper and throw it away.”
GPEP is one of a handful of prison programs like it in the country, including one run by Bard College and another by Cornell University. Others thrived in the 1970s and ’80s, but public funding dried up in 1994 when President Clinton signed a crime bill rescinding Pell Grant eligibility for prisoners. Federal “Specter funds,” named for the correctional education advocate and former senator Arlen Specter, offer limited state grants for correctional higher education programs, but Congress has failed to fund them since 2011.
The lack of higher education programs for inmates represents a giant step backward for communities, Amy says. The vast majority of prisoners eventually return to a society where some form of higher education is almost a requirement for financial sustainability. And most of them have kids. Some 65 percent of federal prisoners are parents of school-aged children, as are 70 percent of students in GPEP.
“Giving meaningful education in prison is an incredibly powerful way to partner with adults in disrupting cycles of poverty,” Amy says. “We fail when we imagine for our most vulnerable students that a GED and a paycheck-to-paycheck job is sufficient.”
Benefits of higher education extend to the cell blocks, too. Students can serve as leaders and mentors, lifting an environment often clouded by anger and boredom. “The liberal arts offer all sorts of benefits that stay in place whether or not the person will go home,” Amy says. “Hopefully, we’re not measuring the importance of higher education just in terms of recidivism.”
Prison education programs like the ones where Amy and Abby Roza work rely heavily on volunteer teachers, tutors, and mentors. Abby says, “When my students see people who have power—and who are seen as smart—take time out of their day to volunteer,” they’re affirmed in their efforts to learn. “That’s a value that I can’t provide alone.”
+ The Prison Studies Project has a national directory of postsecondary programs at U.S. prisons, including volunteer contact information: www.prisonstudiesproject.org/directory/
+ Many states’ departments of corrections have volunteer service directors. Do an online search for “[your state] department of corrections volunteer.”
+ County detention centers typically are smaller than state prisons, but many still have a volunteer coordinator. Do an online search or contact the office of the warden to inquire about opportunities.
+ If you live in the Baltimore-Washington region and are interested in volunteering with GPEP, visit www.goucher.edu/GPEP and click “Get Involved.” If you’re interested in working with Abby’s students in Hennepin County, visit “Get involved” under the “Your government” tab on the Hennepin County home page: www.hennepin.us
+ The Marshall Project (www.themarshallproject.org ) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering the criminal justice system in the United States, which incarcerates more people than any other country in the world
The Roza sisters grew up in Queens, New York, the only children of two educators. After college, Amy taught for three years in Washington, D.C., where she was named D.C. Public Schools’ first-year elementary teacher of the year. Then she moved to New York City, where she worked for Teach For America as a program director and volunteered at Rikers Island jail. She began her career in correctional education at California’s San Quentin State Prison before being tapped to lead GPEP in early 2012.
Abby taught middle school in Compton for five years before moving to Minneapolis, where she taught adult English-language learners. She took the job with Hennepin County in 2011. Though Amy and Abby are identical twins, their shared vocation isn’t attributable to a twin mind meld, they say. They simply share a belief in corrections-system education as a means to educational justice.
Abby says her students are the first to admit that criminal behavior can’t be explained away by lousy schools or dysfunctional upbringings. Even so, their stories reveal flaws in the K-12 system. Many tell Abby they took special education classes. She always asks what learning strategies they found most helpful. “Ninety-nine percent will say they don’t know. That’s totally unacceptable. That’s bigger than them,” she says. “Friends from privileged backgrounds can tell me a million things—this software, this accommodation—whereas my students can’t think of one thing.”
The special education services required by law for pre-K-12 students don’t extend to adults. Abby has no access to the Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) explaining each student’s disabilities and accommodations. Nor does she have funding for special needs assessments. “I don’t know why adult basic education and K-12 are so divided,” she says. “There’s an untapped and rich opportunity to share best practices back and forth.”
Abby’s students with special needs weren’t the only ones to slip through the cracks, she says. Many of her students can’t get enough of their classes. “I’ll say, ‘How did we miss you?’ They’ll say they didn’t want to learn, or they’ll talk about the limits of their intellectual capacity. That’s a message they received that isn’t correct,” she says.
Obama Administration Takes Steps to Offer Pell Grants to Prisoners
In July, the Obama administration unveiled the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, which would make a limited number of Pell grants available to prisoners who are within five years of release. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the pilot at the Maryland Correctional Institution - Jessup, where Amy Roza runs the Goucher College Prison Education Partnership. GPEP offers credit-bearing courses taught by Goucher faculty to about 70 eligible inmates.
Roza was honored by Duncan’s choice of venue. “It affirms the role of GPEP and GPEP students in the public conversation about mass incarceration, poverty, and educational access,” she says.
The law banning prisoners from receiving Pell grants remains on the books. But barring passage of legislation that would block the pilot, prisoners could begin receiving the grants to take courses as soon as 2016.
About the Author
Leah Fabel is a Teach For America alum (Chicago '01) and has been at One Day since 2011. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, who is also an education journalist, and their two sons.