Captive women face unique barriers to obtaining degrees

A recent report from the Vera Institute of Justice found that women were over-represented among students enrolled in college prison programs in the 2020-21 academic year, but under-represented among those earning a degree or other certificate.

The results were astonishing to scholars focusing on women prisoners and heads of college programs in women’s prisons.

Brenda V., professor of law at American University and director of community economics and equity at the law school. “There’s a really big hurdle here, in the context of prison or in the context of correction,” says Smith. Smith. Development Law Clinic.

The report, published this month, explores the “reach” of the Second Chance Pail Experimental Site Initiative, a pilot program launched in 2016 by the US Department of Education to provide financial aid to enrolled students enrolled in academic programs at selected colleges and universities. . Second Chance Pell offers college-in-prison programs with 67 colleges and universities in 28 states and has since included 203 higher education institutions in 48 states. The report draws on survey data from 64 participating organizations in the fifth year of the program.

Even as the country’s prison population declined during the epidemic, enrollment in second-chance programs continued to rise. Meanwhile, according to the report, more than 1,900 people have obtained graduation certificates in 2020-21. But the data also shows gender and racial differences between those who enrolled and those who completed the programs at the time.

About 15 percent of detainee students are women, more than double the population of U.S. prisons. However, in the 2020-21 academic year, only 7% of the students who got the certificate are women. Eighty-five percent of those enrolled in these programs are men and 93 percent of those who have obtained a certificate.

The report also found that 43 percent of the students in the Second Chance Pell program were white, although they were only 30 percent of the prison population. Meanwhile, 29 percent of students were black and 8 percent Latino, although 33 percent and 23 percent of people were in prison.

The Vera Institute’s report shows enrollment and completion rates in a “snapshot of time” that stirs up higher education inside and outside prisons during an epidemic, making it difficult to explain, said Margaret Dzirega, enterprise director at Unlocking Potential. Works with colleges and correctional facilities to help them continue their education.

However, the data could offer “great jumping-off points” for individuals still running prison education activities to consider the existing barriers for various incarcerated students at a time when these programs are expected to expand, he said. Starting in the 2023-24 academic year, all incarcerated individuals – not only in selected Second Chance Pay programs – will be able to apply for federal financial assistance. Congress passed legislation in December 2020 ending a 26-year ban on paid grants for imprisoned students.

Smith, head of the Prison Rape Project at American University, said women have long faced unique barriers to accessing education in prisons, including limited prison programs and gender-based discrimination and harassment from prison staff.

She sued the District of Columbia on behalf of women prisoners in Washington, D.C., in the 1990s because, unlike their male counterparts, they did not have access to college degree programs.

Historically, “the idea was that women did not need the same kind of services and access to class as men,” he said. “There was a tendency to drive women and girls into gender-based programs – cooking, childcare, gardening, secretariat – and not in industries where you get high pay from outside.”

Representative Smith asked her correctional facility staff to engage in sexual activity to gain access to the prison’s GED program, citing Smith as an example of the widespread sexual abuse problems in women’s prisons that could create another barrier to their educational advancement and rehabilitation. .

Sheila Meiman, who runs the Returning and Incarcerated Student Education (RISE) program, an associate degree program at the prison run by Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey, said women’s graduation rates lag far behind men’s in their programs because colleges favor them. Can’t afford to offer the course.

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, although the number of women in prisons has increased rapidly in the last 40 years, they still account for about 7 percent of the inmates. Meiman said women tend to have fewer people in prison, so bringing a variety of course options for them could be “very expensive.”

Like many community colleges, Raritan Valley typically cuts classes on campus with low enrollment to reduce costs, but in women’s prisons, smaller class sizes are normal. The more classes the institution offers, the more money it spends on course materials and instruction for a relatively small number of students, which can make the size of the class too small for a “rich discussion”. Rareton Valley offers an average of about 10 courses per semester for the benefit of men but only this past spring at Clinton, NJ Edna offered five classes at the great correctional facility for women.

“It’s challenging to offer a full range of courses every semester, with fewer people at any facility,” he said. “So, even aggressive students who may be able to handle higher credit loads will not be able to take as many courses as they would like because they are simply not offered. And it significantly reduces the degree of progress for some women who would otherwise be moving at speeds that would be more consistent with the average completion window. “

She would like to dedicate funds to philanthropic foundations to expand offers of courses in women’s prisons, especially as colleges and universities prepare for the full restoration of grants received for imprisoned students.

With new access to the Pell dollar, Meiman hopes that more colleges and universities will introduce prison programs, in which colleges “find it difficult to pay for smaller classes.”

“And I think it can disproportionately impact women’s higher goals. So, to me, it’s something where a broad-based philanthropic effort can make a huge difference.”

At the same time, Meeman says, the college graduation rate of incarcerated women is probably darker than they think. According to a 2018 report by the United States Sentencing Commission, women’s sentences tend to be about two-and-a-half years shorter than men’s on average – four years. Thus, Meiman hopes that there will be a significant number of women who have completed their degrees since their release.

“It’s just the completion of a strong degree,” he said. “But it will not appear in the number of people who have graduated from prison, even if 80 percent of their curriculum is completed in prison.”

Sultana Shabaz, dean of correctional education at Tacoma Community College in Washington State, says her organization is trying to create ways to track students as they move to another campus outside of prison, but they don’t want to “tag” students like before. Her organization offers college credits for classes, vocational programs, an associate’s degree program, and a bachelor’s degree program in business at two women’s facilities in the state.

“There’s a lot of reluctance to carry serious tracking methods, because we don’t want to expel students to the main campus,” he said. “Our wonderful scholars are here to help complete their degree because they know the impact will be felt not only in their lives but in the lives of their children as well.” I really believe that when women leave, we will see a lot of success from those who are completing what they started on the inside. ”

He noted that another obstacle was that women prisoners often stopped their education at the end of their sentences due to concerns that they would not be able to provide for their children after their release. According to a 2016 U.S. Department of Justice survey, 58 percent of women prisoners in state or federal prisons are under the age of 18, compared to 47 percent of male inmates.

“They’re waiting for them outside the kids,” Shabaz said. “I’ve talked to some of them who said at some point, especially when they started coming closer to the gate – closer to release – even though they know what education can do for them, the priority is to make some money.”

College programs need to be designed for women prisoners so that these students can continue their studies easily after their release, said Smith of American University.

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

He noted that obtaining a college certificate could have a “huge domino effect” on the lives of women prisoners. For example, it may help payroll boards to close their sentences or to persuade social workers in the foster care system that they should be allowed to communicate with their children.

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

Shabaz noted that women in these programs often exploit sexist messages about their ability to succeed in school. Some students have told him about how “special” it feels to call their children to share their educational achievements and how it has led them to consider their children’s high school and college.

“I think there’s a profound transformation for women to think of themselves as scholars, someone who can learn,” she said. “There is a strong generational bond here when our women imagine themselves as people who can think, who can lead, who can navigate space. They do it not only for themselves but also for their children. I think it is very important to develop your feelings through education. And once women get it, it’s amazing. “

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