(Note: The following article is written for my many comrades on the other side of the razor-wire, and for those who have a stake in their welfare and their future…and just maybe your own as well.)
Education in prison is like rehabilitation: The only way you get out rehabilitated is if you already had it to begin with, or you mostly accomplish it on your own. Prison per se is today–under the conservative regimen–workhouses for punishment and retribution.
One of the benefits of going to prison for 20+ years (not that I recommend it) is the focus one can put on some things otherwise neglected out here in the so-called free world. Family, career and other day-to-day realities, for instance, are not diversions for most prisoners.
In my own case, given a 25-yr federal prison sentence back in 1990, I definitely had the motivation to accomplish something with all that time looming in front of me. I chose to complete my neglected formal education.
Back then, practically all of the prisons in the US had nearby colleges that provided fully accredited, on-site college classes paid for by qualifying prisoners thru Pell Grants.
All prisoners, as those on the inside are aware, have an assigned job. One either works for the prison facilities, say, in the kitchen, grounds, laundry, etc. or in the prison factory (if there is one). In the federal prisons, that would be UNICOR, Federal Prison Industries, Inc.
After dinner, prisoners enjoy some relative freedom to go to lounge, watch TV, go to recreation, sports, the weight pile, or the education department. One could sign up for classes, or purchase Distance Learning courses from any number of schools listed in the Peterson’s Guide.
My old alma mater, Wayne State University in Detroit, didn’t offer Distance Learning courses, but since I had already completed three years there, they did grant me a waiver to attend other accredited schools in order to complete my degree program.
One problem with the local college is they offered only three or four courses that may or may not comport with my elective and major requirements. For the remainder, I had to purchase Distance Learning courses from other accredited schools.
External studies is probably the hardest method of learning. On-site classes are the easiest. Distance Learning requires mostly essays in order for the instructor to evaluate one’s knowledge. That includes a mid-term and final exam proctored by the prison education department.
Unfortunately, Congress eliminated Pell Grants for prisoners by 1995 despite higher education being a proven anti-recidivism factor and prisoners being responsible for less than 1% of all designated Pell Grant moneys.
Virtually all of the colleges offering on-site courses ended with the demise of prisoner Pell Grants.
Given the 1980 corporatist regime of Ronald Reagan, the “War on Drugs,” and new Guideline draconian sentencing (1987), the prison systems rose from under 500,000 in 1980 to over 2 ½ million (counting undocumented immigrants) today.
The US now holds the largest prison gulag in the history of the world. Less than 5% of that total are convicted of violent, predatory crimes.
I was fortunate in that I had a prison job in UNICOR and for 14 of my prison years I averaged earnings over $200/mo. I also had support from family and friends in order to afford external study costs.
Even then, given the often arbitrary punitive prison rules, regs and transfers, it took me 10 years to complete my undergraduate degree.
Checking out a number of schools (very few offer graduate courses) I found one that offered accredited graduate courses in psychology, law and a couple of other subjects. That was California Southern University.
One of the main problems with graduate courses as opposed to undergrad is the time limit. You can take all the time you need for undergrad. For instance, my own undergrad degree program started in 1968. It took me 32 years to complete.
In grad school (masters and doctorates) you have to follow the same course curriculum and time schedule as students on campus. Also, all the costs, classes and texts are the same as campus curriculums.
For extraordinary circumstances you can get extensions but they’re very limited. Don’t commence such a course unless you feel secure that you can complete it in the time designated.
Prisoners need to have exceptional patience and communication skills to navigate the prison staff. Books and such, for instance, must first be sent to the prison education department before being given to the student-prisoner, your Case Manager needs to be on-board, etc.
I completed my Masters program in three years, and my doctorate in psychology (PsyD) in another three. All toll, my education took me 16 years and over $30,000. I’m sure it would be far more expensive today, assuming it is even possible. In fact, today achieving that same accomplishment is far more difficult.
The new problem is the fact that as the prisons and general economy have become more and more conservative, these same universities now require all external study students to have on-line access to the Internet.
I’m not aware of any prisoners anywhere—certainly not in the federal system—who have such access. I may have been one of the very last prisoners to acquire a doctorate without such access.
At the same time as Congress killed Pell Grants to prisoners, they mandated that all prisoners acquire GEDs or attend such classes (given by other prisoners as a second job) until they do. Failure to comply results in further draconian loss of privileges.
Prison staff thus largely administer their respective education departments as another punitive exercise…their default mechanism.
Key to graduate courses and degree programs for prisoners is finding a school that is willing to grant such vis-à-vis the US mails. I would not say it’s impossible, but it would take exceptional perseverence and creativity.
Any prisoner that has the external support necessary is quite fortunate indeed.