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Opinion: Helping prisoners obtain a degree creates a stronger workforce and safer community

Utah could be a leader nationwide by dedicating resources to help incarcerated people get a post-secondary education

SHARE Opinion: Helping prisoners obtain a degree creates a stronger workforce and safer community
A guard tower at the Utah State Prison .

A guard tower at the Utah State Prison on Sept, 14, 2020. To many obstacles confront prisoners who want to attain higher academic degrees. Easing the way would be good for the state.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Alongside a wonderful team, we direct the University of Utah Prison Education project. We provide on-site coursework and programming to incarcerated adults at the Utah State Prison in Draper and work closely with faculty and student volunteers from a diverse range of institutions in our state, including Brigham Young University, Salt Lake Community College, Snow College, Southern Utah University, Utah State University, Utah Valley University, Weber State University, and Westminster College. We are an all-volunteer initiative, and we are currently unable to meet demand.

In fact, the unmet need in our state is tremendous. There are over 200 youth incarcerated in 11 detention facilities in Utah and over 13,000 adults incarcerated in prisons and jails across our state. The vast majority do not have access to postsecondary education provided by in-state institutions.

I say “in-state institutions” because the only educational opportunity for many incarcerated people is to pay exorbitant amounts of money to enroll in correspondence coursework through out-of-state institutions. A detrimental problem faced by many formerly incarcerated people, including in Utah, is the inability to transfer credits from previous enrollments.

The handful of incarcerated people in Utah who can both access and afford credit-bearing instruction are largely unable to pursue a credential full-time. Most are able to take only one class at a time and without supports provided to non-incarcerated students like tutoring, advising, an academic library, and a computer. Internet access is prohibited to incarcerated students, severely restricting our ability to scale offerings. In collaboration with state departments of corrections, prison education programs in other states have found secure ways to provide online synchronous and asynchronous instruction, and we can do so here in Utah.

We have a strong postsecondary infrastructure in Utah, inclusive of career and technical education and licensure, and we should be working together to extend our reach into prisons, jails, and youth facilities to serve our residents in much the same way we serve our non-incarcerated communities. This is not yet happening on a large scale, and incarcerated people suffer because of it. In fact, we all do.

The national unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated people stands at a stunning 27%, compared to just below 4% for non-incarcerated people. The causal relationship between recidivism rates and employment is unmistaken, with a postsecondary credential being the key lever in making that connection.

Yet, the kind of postsecondary credential matters. Much like our aligned system of higher education in the free world, incarcerated people must be provided a range of credential options from which to choose, including short-term and stackable credentials, applied associates degrees, associate degrees, bachelors degrees, apprenticeship opportunities, and licensure. These opportunities ensure higher employment rates upon reentry and build a stronger, more diverse workforce for all of us.

There is an urgent need for guidance in creating infrastructure to ensure quality instruction and non-duplicative efforts across providers in the state. People touching every institution of higher education in our state have been involved with prison higher education, and all institutions of higher education will be eligible to facilitate federal student aid in 2023 through the reinstatement of Pell funding for eligible incarcerated people.

Many know that providing quality postsecondary education during incarceration helps create a stronger workforce, reduces state spending, creates safer communities, and perhaps most importantly, provides incarcerated people with the tools to live lives of meaning and dignity, contributing to their communities and making our economy inclusive and strong. Importantly, these discussions must include the breadth and depth of activity in the area of postsecondary education in prison and also include the voices of both currently and formerly incarcerated people.

I believe Utah can be a leader in this space. The most efficient, cost-effective, and equitable path forward is to coordinate a statewide implementation of education pathways. We should look to states like Tennessee and Washington who have implemented legislation that supports diverse credentials that meet labor market demands and brings departments of corrections and higher education together. Disjointed appropriations can cause issues with accountability, competition, quality, and over-burdening the Department of Corrections. I hope to work alongside all who are interested in doing this work.

Erin L. Castro, PhD is an Associate Professor of Higher Education and Co-Founder/Director of the University of Utah Prison Education Project. Caisa E. Royer, PhD, JD is a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Research Collaborative on Higher Education and Associate Direct of the University of Utah Prison Education Project.