College education in prisons is about to expand. Here's what's currently available for incarcerated students
College education in Wisconsin prisons is on the verge of expansion.
For the first time in about 30 years, the federal government is restoring Pell grants to incarcerated people. That means low-income students in prison will be eligible for federal college financial aid.
To understand what that might mean in Wisconsin, here's a look at the higher education currently available in state prisons.
Universities offer classes for credit, but no degree
"Alright, so I want to start with the idea of a raisin in the sun," says professor Dana Oswald.
Oswald teaches an English 100 class at Racine Correctional Institution. The classroom is decorated with Shakespeare posters and student essays are pinned to the walls.
The only indication this class is taking place in a prison are the green jumpsuits the 12 students are wearing.
They analyze Langston Hughes’ poem "Harlem" which asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?”
"It becomes like a burden to you," says student Roland Garza.
"So the dream is no longer the potential for nourishment or pleasure, it simply becomes a burden, a thing that sags," Oswald responds.
"You hate yourself because of it," another student says.
After the class, Oswald says that talking about a dream deferred carries a different weight for these students.
"I’ve had students who’ve never used the internet. They’ve been in prison for all of their adult lives," Oswald says. "So to think about the things they’ve put off — the things they don’t have access to — is very striking, when we talk about a text like that."
Oswald’s class is part of the UW-Madison Odyssey Beyond Bars program, which offers free introductory college classes at four prisons. Students are admitted based on behavior and academic testing.
Harry Robinson, 37, says he’s waited years to take a college class at Racine Correctional. He hopes education will help with his goal of owning a business when he is released.
"This class gave me the opportunity to feel free behind the walls and fences that holds me here," Robinson says. "To have this opportunity to seek education behind the wall is meaningful. It’s a way to get your mind out of here."
UW-Parkside and Marquette University also offer in-person college classes in prisons. The programs are privately-funded and free to students. Although most of them count for college credit, the programs don't culminate degrees.
Technical colleges offer online associate degrees
The most common higher education in Wisconsin prisons comes from technical colleges. MATC, Madison College and Moraine Park Technical College offer online associate degrees in more than a dozen state prisons.
"As a technical college, our primary focus is on building the workforce and driving economic development," says Moraine Park Dean of Workforce Development JoAnn Hall. "And as people re-enter out of incarceration and into their communities, this is a great way to prepare them and help them do that."
The associate degrees are funded by the federal government through an experiment called Second Chance Pell. It provides Pell grants for students in a select few prison education programs.
Students like Ashley McGraw, who is 35 and incarcerated at Taycheedah, a state women’s prison in Fond du Lac. She’s enrolled in Moraine Park’s small business management associate degree.
"I didn’t have very high thoughts of myself before, and the things that I was capable of and what I could accomplish," McGraw says. "And then I start doing the work, and I start seeing the grades, and it’s like, 'Wow, I really did know this. I really am smart.' And it makes me more hopeful for what I can achieve in the future."
Back in Dana Oswald’s classroom at Racine Correctional, the incarcerated students finish analyzing the Langston Hughes poem. Tony Caravella speaks up.
"You’re definitely upper-level right now," Caravella tells Oswald. "I feel like I’m in college, not in high school."
"No, we’re not in high school anymore," Oswald responds.
College programs in DOC facilities are only reaching about 500 students this semester. But more people in prison could access college soon. For the first time since the 1990s, Pell grant funding will be broadly available to incarcerated students.
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