Of the 2.3 million people currently incarcerated in the United States, only 5% have access to quality postsecondary education.

The Beehive State is certainly no exception to this widespread issue, which is why Erin Castro, associate professor of higher education at the University of Utah and co-founder of the University of Utah Prison Education Project, applied and was selected for a $750,000 grant from Ascendium Education Group to support planning for the launch of a university research center focused on postsecondary education in prisons.

"Among research-intensive, public flagship institutions, I can count on one hand the number of them that provide degree pathways to incarcerated people," Castro said.

Castro — whose research for the last 10 years has focused on prison higher education and the pathways incarcerated people take to postsecondary education after incarceration — said that she believes both the timing and the location make the U. and the state the right home for the center.

'Right time and place'

Part of Castro's optimism about why the U. should house the center is based on the people heading up the university's leadership ranks.

At his inauguration last March, U. president Taylor Randall said he wants the university to become a top 10 public university with "unsurpassed societal impact."

"I've been doing this work (for) quite some time at the University of Utah. The leadership we have, who we have in place right now, is supportive of this work (and) understands that in order for us to meet claims and desires of unsurpassed societal impact, we've got to serve our community," Castro said.

Castro said that a national center addressing the issue of postsecondary education access for incarcerated people would certainly fit that description.

"For far too long — kids and adults who have been incarcerated — we have not considered them worthy community members," Castro said. "I think this is the right time and place for it to happen. We've got the support to provide the infrastructure necessary to stand up a center like this."

However, the leadership team at the U. isn't the only thing that makes Utah a good state for the center. Castro said it's also necessary for a state that provides "not near enough" postsecondary educational opportunities for its incarcerated population.

She added that opportunity exists for the state to better and more equitably serve incarcerated people, it's just a matter of doing so.

"By and large, if you are incarcerated in the state of Utah as an adult, you don't have access to postsecondary education if you are in any of our county jails," Castro said.

Incarcerated people in the Central Utah Correctional Facility and the Utah State Correctional Facility may only have access to courses through Salt Lake Community College and Snow College, she added. And, while these programs are beneficial, neither demand nor need is currently being met.

"None of this is guaranteed. It is very feasible that, let's say, you have a high school diploma or GED and you're incarcerated and you're in a county jail, you could sit for years without access to postsecondary education," Castro said, adding that the same could go for people at either of the state correctional facilities, depending on where they're housed, what their security level is and whether or not they're deprioritized based on their crime of conviction, length of sentence and other factors.

Castro also said, in Utah, it's "common practice" to deny non-U.S. citizens access to educational programming while incarcerated.

"The state is not legally obligated to provide access to college and so, what we find is that it just doesn't happen," Castro said.

Focus on the inside and outside

The primary focus of the center, Castro said, will be on research around how postsecondary education relates to incarcerated populations.

Data that is there for other populations (sexual orientation, race age, etc.) just doesn't exist for incarcerated people.

"We can answer all sorts of questions about other populations. I can tell you what degree pathways folks are pursuing, when they graduate, how long it takes them, what kind of debt they get into — right now we simply can't answer some of those basic questions about incarcerated students and that's a detriment to them, ultimately, because it means we don't have a baseline," Castro said.

Essentially, the main goal of the center is to bring incarcerated people into the realm of postsecondary education research.

That doesn't mean research is the only goal, though. Another core function is the on-the-ground work being done within prison walls.

Volunteers at the Utah Prison Education Project work both inside and outside Utah's prisons along with six juvenile correction facilities throughout the state, devoting their time to teaching, tutoring, organizing fundraisers, reading applications, lecturing and advocacy work among other projects.

"That work is informed by the research and that work also strengthens our research. It helps us to ask better questions, it helps us to understand the nuanced obstacles that we face working with (the) Department of Corrections," Castro said.

She also hopes the center can become a resource and information hub for not just the rest of Utah and the region, but nationally.

"There is lots of opportunity here ... to expand what is provided to currently incarcerated people, to formerly incarcerated people, to the children of incarcerated people and the families of incarcerated people in our state and our region," Castro said. "Right now, what we know is they're absolutely not participating in higher education and if they enroll, they're not graduating."

Additionally, Castro said that the Utah Prison Education Project, led by director Andy Eisen, is working on creating a curriculum for a bachelor's degree program for people incarcerated at the women's-designated facility at the Utah State Correctional Facility with hopes of launching the program next year.

It would be the first of its kind in Utah.

"My hope is that the Center will serve as a national hub and a model to leverage the resources of a public, flagship research-intensive institution in addressing inequities caused by mass incarceration," Eisen said in a statement.

Why educate incarcerated people?

There is ample data that shows that postsecondary attainment is closely tied to financial outcomes.

Unemployment rates tend to be lower for people with higher levels of education, and wages tend to be higher.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly earnings for workers with a high school diploma total $809. For college degree holders, that figure is $1,334, while those with professional degrees earn $1,924 per week.

However, educational attainment can also impact other areas of someone's life.

"When someone earns a bachelor's degree, every variable that we associate with quality of life increases," Castro said. "Your life expectancy increases, the likelihood that you have access to health care increases, the likelihood that you participate in civic activities increases, your proximity to clean water increases."

The return on investment from a societal standpoint when looking at higher education and completion of a bachelor's degree is "unquestioned," Castro said.

Unfortunately, this correlation doesn't necessarily exist for incarcerated people or those with criminal records.

Castro said that this can rear its head through bias in college admissions, hiring and housing applications among other things.

"While I would like to say, 'Yeah, we would see all those kinds of same improvements,' folks with criminal histories and particularly incarceration histories, are up against an almost impossible fight here," Castro said. "They've got to work against these various biases that are built in the system."

An example of this, Castro said, is universities asking for criminal history disclosure in undergraduate applications.

"People are denied every year because of that," Castro said, adding that formerly incarcerated people looking for housing face similar challenges.

Reasons for optimism

Despite the lofty challenges that lie ahead in addressing postsecondary educational access for those incarcerated people, Castro said that collaborative efforts between different statewide groups to create a "comprehensive plan" and other efforts have given her a sense of optimism.

"The Corrections (Education) Council was created last legislative session and so they've been meeting — a group of diverse stakeholders — thinking about what should be prioritized," Castro said.

The Corrections Education Council was formed through the passing of HB226 and advises the Board of Higher Education on how education should be offered to inmates. The bill "accentuates and emphasizes" higher education programs at the Utah State Prison, which have traditionally been managed by volunteer educators (like those from the Utah Prison Education Project), bill sponsor Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, said during the 2022 legislative session.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said that the passing of the bill "shows the heart and compassion of Utah."

During the 2021 legislative session, Snow sponsored another bill that would pass, HB279, that created the Utah Tech University Higher Education for Incarcerated Youth Program.

The program allows incarcerated youth to study a wide range of subjects virtually through Utah Tech while in custody.

Despite recent efforts by the state, there is still more that can be done to bring incarcerated people under the umbrella of postsecondary education.

"I think there are some novel things happening in the state that we can be excited about, but we are not yet at a place where we have deliberately and intentionally brought in incarcerated youth and adults into our postsecondary system and I'm hopeful that the work of the center will help us get there," Castro said.

"It's ongoing work because we still have a lot of work to do."