This College-In-Prison Program Nearly Destroyed My Higher Ed Plans

All the credits couldn’t transfer, but still, I persevered

Prior to my incarceration in 1997, I was a student at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, and I originally thought that I would never be able to complete my degree once incarcerated. I had always loved education, and I was grateful to be able to enroll in college at the Indiana Women’s Prison (IWP) in 1998. At IWP, students worked days and attended classes at night. College programs in the Indiana Department of Correction (IDOC) were funded with state dollars. (I attended around four years after the Omnibus Crime Bill under the Clinton Administration ended Pell Grants to incarcerated people in 1994.)

Similar to the Pell Grant, the Indiana higher education programs received funds through the State Student Assistance Commission of Indiana (SSACI), which allowed incarcerated students eight semesters to earn a bachelor’s degree. Most university programs in the state offered students access to associate and bachelor’s degrees. When I arrived at IWP there were two colleges with satellite programs at the facility. It was a rare and amazing choice: Ball State University and Martin University. Both schools had great reputations. Each received funding from the state’s SASCI budget to provide an in-person program.

I chose Martin University because of its long-standing history of supporting the Black community. It is Indiana’s only predominantly Black institution of higher education. And according to Martin University: “It is steeped in a history of service and open to a diverse population of students. Rev. Father Boniface Hardin, O.S.B. and Sister Jane Schilling founded Martin University in 1977 in honor of two Martins — The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and St. Martin de Porres, who served the poor in Peru in the 16th and 17th centuries and became the first bi-racial Catholic saint.”

Growing up in Indiana and knowing Martin’s history, it was the automatic choice for me; however, this university offered only bachelor’s degrees. I was okay with that choice.

With two universities on-site, the culture of the facility revolved around education. Courses were in the evenings, and so like thousands of students outside of prison, I worked all day and went to school at night. The Education Building was always abuzz with activity day and night with GED programming, vocational classes, library traffic, and computer lab study hall.

By law, incarcerated students in Indiana were given eight semesters to complete a four-year degree. A major shift occurred by the time I made it to the end of my junior year at Martin. The Indiana Department of Correction (IDOC) terminated its contract with Martin, leaving Ball State as the sole provider. I do not recall exactly the circumstances, but I recall Martin University was told by IDOC that they must also offer an associate degree like Ball State or leave. At the time, Martin offered only a bachelor’s degree, but Ball State offered associate and bachelor’s degrees.

It was a stressful time for me. I had funding for only two more semesters. Martin’s departure from the program, plus the question of transferable credits to Ball State left me wondering if I would ever graduate. Ball State ultimately took less than half of Martin’s credits. I became a first-semester sophomore again when I should have been a senior. It floored me. I was so worried that after all my work and effort, I would not graduate.

When the state offered exactly eight semesters of support to incarcerated students to attend college, why wouldn’t universities across the state, but especially inside the same facility, have an agreement about credit transfers?

When universities and colleges don’t offer incarcerated students a reasonably seamless transfer from one educational institution to another, they become an extension of the carceral state weaving themselves in the punishment that incarcerated students experience. College programs, especially those existing inside prisons, must be student-centered.

Because the movement of students from facility to facility can occur at a moment’s notice in prison, let alone from school-to-school in the same facility, any responsible college program that claims to center the incarcerated student must have a plan. Before faculty teach the first class and administrators arrive to enroll students, plans should be in place for credit transfers, degree continuity, and credential completion upon release. Universities and colleges in the same state should create coalitions. In an effective coalition, college-in-prison programs and students would have an agreement written out.

The purpose is to provide students with a synchronistic experience of college programming that best serves the student versus posturing over the excellence of one university’s program over the other. Such elitism among other travesties of college in prison programming ultimately doesn’t center the student’s experience or their outcomes and literally infuses precarity and instability into the incarcerated student’s experience. And, it is myopic and disruptive.

When you add the disruption of in-person and synchronous distance learning in a pandemic, it becomes critical that program administrators, universities, and departments of correction center the student’s experience when creating and operating higher education in prison programming. Failure to do so can cripple a student’s ability to stay invested in the process and to achieve a credential while incarcerated.

In my case, I was forced to attend Ball State University and as I said, ran out of the allotted eight semesters to complete my degree. Fortunately, one Ball State faculty member created a scholarship fund and with the help of some Franciscan monks in Muncie, Indiana, they provided the rest of my tuition so I could graduate with my bachelor’s degree after 11 semesters.

For their kindness and generosity, I will always be grateful and forever cherish their willingness to help me.

But I will never forget the worry and fear of not being able to complete my degree with the allotted funding, and the subsequent precarity crafted by university administrators, program coordinators, prison officials, and the department of correction, and how all of them played a role that temporarily threw me into a turbulent period that superseded the experience of my incarceration itself.

All of the above is written here for reflection and consideration for those who are thinking about providing higher education in prison to incarcerated students now that we’ve achieved the restoration of Pell Grants. It is also intended for those who are currently running programs and thinking about how to improve them as they also prepare to take advantage of available Pell Grants. My point here is to advocate for the implementation of Pell Grants through a student-centered orientation within every facet of higher education in prison programming. To consider doing programming through any other lens is to create barriers, mental and emotional stress, and precarity for your students. Do the necessary prep work; your students are worth it.

Michelle Daniel Jones is a fourth-year doctoral student in the American Studies program at New York University.

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