Incarcerated women face unique barriers to earning degrees

A recent report by the Vera Institute of Justice found that women were overrepresented among students enrolled in college prison programs in the 2020–21 academic year but underrepresented among degree or other credential earners.

The findings were unsurprising to scholars focused on incarcerated women and the heads of college programs in women’s prisons.

For women “in the prison context or in the correctional context … there are really huge hurdles, just like out there in the world,” said Brenda V. Smith, a law professor at American University and director of the law school’s Community Economic and Equity Development Law Clinic.

The report, released this month, broadly explores the “reach” of the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative, a pilot program launched by the US Department of Education in 2016 to provide financial aid to incarcerated students enrolled in academic programs at select colleges and universities . Second Chance Pell started with 67 colleges and universities offering college-in-prison programs in 28 states and has since grown to include 203 higher ed institutions in 48 states. The report draws on survey data from 64 participating institutions in the fifth year of the program.

Even as the prison population dropped nationwide during the pandemic, enrollment in Second Chance Pell programs continued to climb. Meanwhile, more than 1,900 graduates earned credentials in 2020–21, according to the report. But the data also showed gender and racial disparities in who enrolled in and completed these programs at the time.

Women made up about 15 percent of incarcerated students, which is more than double their percentage of the US prison population. Yet only 7 percent of the students who earned credentials in the 2020–21 academic year were women. Men made up 85 percent of people enrolled in these programs and 93 percent of those who earned credentials.

The report also found that 43 percent of incarcerated students in Second Chance Pell programs were white, even though they only make up 30 percent of the prison population. Meanwhile, 29 percent of students were Black and 8 percent were Latino, despite making up 33 percent and 23 percent of people in prison respectively.

The Vera Institute report shows enrollment and completion rates at a “snapshot in time,” during a pandemic that shook up higher education inside and outside prisons, making it difficult to interpret, said Margaret diZerega, initiative director of Unlocking Potential, a project by the Vera Institute that works with colleges and correctional facilities to help incarcerated students continue their education after their release.

However, the data can still offer “great jumping-off points” for people running prison education programs to consider the barriers that exist for diverse incarcerated students at a time these programs are expected to expand, she said. Starting in the 2023–24 academic year, all incarcerated people—not just those in select Second Chance Pell programs—will be able to apply for federal financial aid. Congress passed legislation ending a 26-year ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated students in December 2020.

Smith, who also heads the Project on Addressing Prison Rape at American University, said women have long faced unique obstacles to getting an education in prison, including limited program offerings and gender-based discrimination and harassment from prison staff.

She sued the District of Columbia on behalf of incarcerated women in Washington, DC, during the 1990s because they didn’t have access to college degree programs, their male counterparts.

Historically, “there was the assumption that women didn’t need access to the same types of services and classes that men had,” she said. “There was a tendency to steer women and girls into gendered kinds of programs—cooking, childcare, gardening, secretarial—and not into the kinds of industries where you would make a higher salary on the outside.”

The women Smith represented also told her correctional facility staff asked them to perform sexual acts to get into the prison’s GED program, which Smith cited as one example of the rampant sexual abuse problems in women’s prisons that can pose another barrier to their educational progress and rehabilitation .

Sheila Meiman, who directs the Returning & Incarcerated Student Education (RISE) program, an associate degree program in prisons run by Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey, said women’s graduation rates tend to lag behind men in her program in part because colleges like hers can’t afford to offer as many courses in women’s facilities.

While the number of women in prison has rapidly grown over the last 40 years, they still make up only about 7 percent of incarcerated people, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Meiman said women’s prisons tend to house fewer people, so bringing them a wide variety of course options can get “very expensive.”

Like many community colleges, Raritan Valley normally cuts on-campus classes with low enrollment to reduce costs, but in women’s prisons, small class sizes are the norm. The more classes the institution offers, the more money it spends on course materials and instruction for a relatively few students, which can also make class sizes too small for “rich discussions.” Raritan Valley offers about 10 courses per semester at men’s on average but only offered five classes at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, NJ, this past spring.

“With fewer people in any given facility, it’s challenging to offer a full range of courses every semester,” she said. “So, even aggressive learners who may be able to handle a higher credit load may not be able to take as many courses as they’d like, because they just aren’t offered. And that slows down degree progress significantly for some women who would otherwise move at a pace that would be more consistent with the average completion window.”

She wants philanthropic foundations to dedicate funding to expanding course offerings at women’s prisons, especially as colleges and universities prepare for the full reinstatement of the Pell Grant for incarcerated students.

With new access to Pell dollars, Meiman expects more colleges and universities to launch programs in prisons, including colleges that “have difficulty paying for classes that are small.”

“And I think that could disproportionately impact women in their higher ed goals. So, to me, this is the kind of thing where a broad-based philanthropic effort could make a huge difference.”

At the same time, Meiman says, college completion rates of incarcerated women are likely less bleak than they seem. Women’s sentences tend to be shorter than men’s on average—about two and a half years compared to four years, according to a 2018 report by the United States Sentencing Commission. So, Meiman hopes there are significant numbers of women that complete their degrees after their release.

“That’s just as powerful degree of completion,” she said. “But it won’t show up in the number of people who graduated in prison, even if 80 percent of their coursework was done in prison.”

Sultana Shabazz, dean of corrections education at Tacoma Community College in Washington State, said her institution is trying to develop ways to track students when they move on to other campuses outside the prison, but they don’t want to “tag” students as formerly incarcerated and risk them facing stigma at their new colleges. Her institution offers college credit for classes, vocational programs, an associate degree program and bachelor’s degree program in business at two women’s facilities in the state.

“There’s been a lot of reluctance to bring to bear serious tracking methods, because we don’t want to out students on main campuses,” she said. “We have amazing scholars who leave here who are dedicated to finishing up their degrees because they know the effect that will have not only on their lives but their children’s lives. I believe that we’d see a lot more success from the women once they leave who are truly what they started inside.”

She noted that another hurdle is that incarcerated women also often pause their education to take in-prison jobs toward the end of their sentences out of concern they won’t be able to provide for their children after their release. A majority of incarcerated women—58 percent in state or federal prisons—had children under the age of 18, compared to 47 percent of incarcerated men, according to a 2016 survey by the US Department of Justice.

“They’ve got kids waiting on them outside,” Shabazz said. “I have talked to some of them who said at some point, especially when they start getting close to the gate—getting close to release—even though they know what education can do for them, the priority becomes making some money.”

Smith, of American University, said college programs for incarcerated women have to be designed so these students can easily continue their studies after release.

“I think there can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach to increasing the educational opportunities for men and women, boys and girls in institutional settings, because women’s trajectory is very different and they need different things,” she said.

She pointed out that earning college credentials can have “huge domino effects” on the lives of incarcerated women. For example, it can help sway parole boards to knock time off of their sentences or convince social workers in the foster care system that they should be allowed to have contact with their children.

“You can go to a court or to a social worker and say, ‘I participated in this program,'” she said. “You can convince the court that you’ve turned your life around.”

Shabazz noted that the women in these programs have often absorbed sexist messaging about their capacity to succeed in school. Some students have told her about how “special” it feels to call up their kids to share their academic successes and how it leads their children to consider high school and college.

“I think for women there’s a profound transformation of thinking of yourself as a scholar, as someone who can learn,” she said. “There’s a stronger generational tie when our women envision themselves as people who can think, who can lead, who can navigate spaces. Not only do they do that for themselves, they do it for their kids. Developing that sense of self through education, I think, is super important. And once women get that, it’s amazing what happens.”

Leave a Comment