Prison education saves lives — but it’s way too hard to get


I should be a doctor by now. I completed my associate’s degree in 2016, and, after taking a year off to weave an economic safety net of vocational training, I enrolled in a bachelor’s program in the winter of 2017. And yet here I am, six years later, still slogging through the last courses between me and my degree.

It isn’t the difficulty of my schoolwork that’s held me back, nor lack of commitment to education. My problem is that as an incarcerated student, I’ve been up against challenges that don’t exist anywhere else in the academic world.

I’ve had to navigate prison politics, lockdowns and violence while trying to learn. One quarter was split up by a month-long trip to solitary confinement. When I got out of the hole, my Asian Philosophy professor let me complete the two exams, term paper and book report I needed to finish the class. I had a week to get them done, but I ended up with an A. Another instructor failed me for missing too many days.

That was at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center, where a grant from the Sunshine Lady Foundation allowed Walla Walla Community College to establish a satellite campus. But because I still had over 15 years remaining on my sentence, a Department of Corrections policy prevented me from taking part in the program. Only through a year of letter-writing, pleading my case to administrators and gradually winning allies did I make my way in.

After enrollment, the real struggle began. In the middle of organizing my notes for a final English essay, guards came to my cell to search it. Half an hour later, all my papers were in disarray and my textbook was gone, confiscated. I had to go to the unit sergeant and persuade her to return it. The final exam for that same course had to be postponed because of a small riot in the yard, with shots fired from the gun tower.

But compared to what came later, my associate’s degree was a cinch. To continue my education, the only option was correspondence courses — which don’t sound so bad at first. You picture yourself writing long, eloquent letters with a quill pen.

Somewhere in the annals of higher learning there likely exists a functional correspondence program for prisoners, staffed with competent and committed people. But I myself have never encountered it.

I cannot convey in mere writing the frustration and outrage a poorly-run correspondence education program will provoke in students hapless enough to participate. Exams take weeks to arrive, then vanish after you complete them, lost somewhere between the prison and the college. Contract instructors change their mailing addresses without bothering to tell you; assignments drift in the void for a month before circulating back to you, creased and ink-stained. Responses from advisors are so slow and inconsistent that it may take six months to register for a class. Interest in resolving these issues is minimal.

And that was the situation before Covid. Between the total shutdown of academia and the flow of federal dollars that encouraged prison administrators to exaggerate outbreaks and extend restrictions, I went two and a half years without taking a class.

Then it was back to the grind. Trying to focus on public policy analysis in a crowded, noisy dayroom. Preparing extensively for a final exam, then having it canceled an hour before I was scheduled to meet with a proctor because of a rumble between rival gang members in the education building.

And yet I’ve been unbelievably lucky. In 1994, as part of that year’s notorious crime bill, Congress terminated prisoners’ access to Pell grants, choking off funding for prison education programs. Almost all of them shut down. College became impossible for prisoners who didn’t have the resources, luck or stubbornness to earn a degree the way I did. Between 1994 and 2019, the number of incarcerated students earning post-secondary degrees plummeted.

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By the time I transferred to Coyote Ridge, it was one of a few prisons in the country with an in-person associate’s degree program. A natural talent for argument enabled me to get into the program. After I graduated, I was in the rare position of being able to pay for bachelor’s degree courses. Take away any of those factors, and my education wouldn’t have happened.

When it axed prison education, Congress saved $35 million — then spent $7 billion to build new prisons.

Prompted by an escalating public call for prison reform, in 2020 Congress passed the FAFSA Simplification Act. Among other things, the act restored prisoners’ right to receive Pell grants, paving the way for universities to develop in-prison college degree programs for the first time in decades. Nationally, the number of prison education programs has exploded.

In some states, however, Departments of Corrections are resisting, erecting gratuitous roadblocks to stop incarcerated students from accessing grants and stalling when universities request approval to set up programs inside prisons.

Legislators in those states should follow the example of Washington State Rep. Mari Leavitt. When Washington’s Department of Corrections took a lackluster approach to implementing the new FAFSA rules, Leavitt introduced HB 2171, which would guarantee prisoners access to available Pell grants and make it easier for colleges to begin operating on a large scale in the state’s prisons.

Prison education programs do much more than simply educate. They improve public safety: studies show that earning a college degree strong reduces a person’s likelihood of recidivism. They are also a smart investment, with every dollar spent on post-secondary education averaging a $20 return due to the money saved by lowering future incarceration.

America’s prison population consists almost entirely of people from disadvantaged communities. Giving them the opportunity to earn a degree doesn’t just improve their lives, it improves the lives of their children, disrupting the cycle of poverty and incarceration — and improving our society as a whole.

Getting a college education in prison shouldn’t depend on the sort of extraordinary luck I’ve had. Education should be available to everyone with a desire to turn their life around. Bills like Rep. Leavitt’s are necessary in every state as we attempt to build a more just and equitable society to ensure that incarcerated people have a fair shot at life after prison.

Kevin Light-Roth is currently incarcerated at a Washington State prison, where he works to organize the prison community around legislative bills. He is a regular contributor to the Information for a Change legislative update page on Facebook and a member of Empowerment Avenue, a collective for incarcerated writers and artists, which facilitated the publication of this article.

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