With Pell grants soon available to incarcerated students, colleges look to expand in prisons
Brittney Dixon has high hopes for her education.
"I want to get my master’s," Dixon says. "Dreaming big. I want to get into psychology, be a therapist."
The 29-year-old is incarcerated at Taycheedah, a state women’s prison in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.
"Prison is a horrible experience, but because we’re in this predicament, it’s like maybe this is what people needed to go back to school," Dixon says. "I know that I had every other excuse when I was out not to."
Wisconsin prisons have historically focused education efforts on GED classes and vocational training — not college. But that’s starting to change.
This July, incarcerated people in the U.S. will become eligible for college financial aid in the form of federal Pell grants.
The grants were stripped from people in prison during the tough-on-crime era of the 1990s — wiping out most college options behind bars.
Pell grants provide up to about $8,000 to help low-income students pay for college. Margaret diZerega is with the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit that advocated for Pell restoration and is now providing guidance to colleges interested in launching prison programs.
"When the Pell ban went into effect in ’94, there was sort of a vacuum of hope in these prisons," diZerega says. "And restoring that was so critical."
The federal government started out with baby steps. In 2015, it made funding available for a select few colleges, through an experiment called Second Chance Pell. Three Wisconsin technical colleges — Milwaukee, Madison and Moraine Park — use Second Chance Pell funding to offer online associate degrees in prisons.
Also over the last few years, universities like UW-Parkside, UW-Madison and Marquette decided to use private funding for classes in prisons.
Peter Moreno oversees UW-Madison’s Odyssey Beyond Bars program, which teaches at four prisons. He says now that the Pell grant is being fully restored, Wisconsin schools are making plans.
"Just about every college and university in the state is talking about whether they should be involved in this space, in prison education," Moreno says. "Which, boy, you look back five years ago, and that really is a dream — to have colleges and universities thinking this is potentially a space where we should be active."
Department of Corrections Education Director Ben Jones says DOC will ask colleges for Pell-funded prison education proposals in late April. Then, the department will begin the selection process.
"Part of the determination we have to make is what is the best field and area for people to be pursuing," Jones says. "And that gets into a whole lot of things. There are a number of occupations that are restricted as it relates to the impact of incarceration."
Moraine Park Technical College would like to expand its existing online bachelor's degrees to more prisons beyond the four it currently serves, according to Dean of Workforce Development JoAnn Hall.
"Our goal is to slowly expand across the state to at least four new institutions every year — to any of those institutions that are receptive — until we're in all of them," Hall says.
Right now, only one DOC facility offers a bachelor’s degree.
Marquette University professor Darren Wheelock says his school is building a regional consortium of universities that will work together to deliver bachelor’s degrees in prisons. Wheelock helps run Marquette's Education Preparedness Program, which offers classes for credit in prisons.
"The thought is it’s more tenable or more feasible resource-wise to get a number of schools to pitch in on that effort to build towards a final degree, rather than have all that rest at the foot of one institution," Wheelock says.
Peter Moreno says UW-Madison is exploring the idea of a bachelor's degree program in prisons. But he says Odyssey Beyond Bars could also play an important role as a college readiness program for incarcerated students, before they pursue a degree.
Some colleges may decide it’s not worth the effort. There are security and technology hurdles to overcome.
But the Vera Institute’s Margaret diZerega says it’s worth the cost. Education reduces recidivism and addresses racial inequity. Wisconsin incarcerates a higher percentage of Black residents than any other state.
"We have over-incarcerated people of color," diZerega says. "It is critically important to bring college access into prisons and make those opportunities available to people. And in the long-term, it could be a strategy to reduce mass incarceration."
Brittney Dixon, who is incarcerated at Taycheedah, is getting an online associates degree in entrepreneurship from Moraine Park Technical College. She’s glad more college options might be on the way, so she can continue her education.
"It’s reassuring that the system is trying to get people to reform and back into the community in a productive way," Dixon says. "Versus, you’re punished, now we’re gonna let you out and you’re going to fail."
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