Like many women struggling to turn their lives around behind bars, Garza found refuge and hope in the college courses that were offered sporadically and unpredictably in her maximum-security prison in Texas. Released in 2018 and hired in 2020 as a justice fellow with the Education Trust, she’s working to educate others about the challenges of earning degrees in prison, especially for women.
A report Garza helped to write for the nonprofit found that incarcerated men in Texas had access to more than three times as many college programs as did women. In 2018, according to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, women could pursue an associate degree and certifications in office administration and culinary arts/hospitality. For men, there were associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees, as well as certifications in 21 occupations, including high-demand fields like welding, computer technology, and truck driving. Prison-reform legislation passed by Texas lawmakers in 2019 expanded the choices for women, but they still fall far short of those offered to men.
Despite being the fastest-growing segment of the state’s prison population, women, Garza contends, “are a correctional afterthought.”
No agency keeps national data comparing education programs in men’s and women’s prisons, most of which are run by their respective states. But more than a dozen experts told The Chronicle that it’s common for incarcerated women to have fewer course options, and encounter more roadblocks in earning college credentials, than men.
For instance in Mississippi, the five vocational programs offered to women, which include cosmetology and upholstery, play into gender stereotypes. The 13 options listed for men include air conditioning, diesel mechanics, plumbing, welding, and industrial electricity. Although it’s starting to change, women are still more likely to be limited to classes on topics like parenting, cooking, or cosmetology, says Erin L. Castro, an associate dean and co-founder of the University of Utah’s Prison Education Project. In Illinois, five men’s prisons offer bachelor’s degree programs, but until 2021, when Northwestern University opened its B.A. program to women, there were none in its women’s prisons.
The number of incarcerated women has grown rapidly over the past few decades, but women still make up just 7 percent of the prison population, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Many states have a single women’s prison, often located in a remote area far from college campuses. Perhaps not surprisingly, the vast majority of the more than 400 prison-education programs across the country serve men, according to the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison.
Still, when classes are available, women sign up in greater percentages than their male counterparts, according to a report released last year by the Vera Institute of Justice. Women make up about 15 percent of incarcerated students, double their percentage of the U.S. prison population. But when it comes to earning credentials, women only represent about 7 percent of completers. (Women’s sentences tend to be shorter than men’s, researchers note; women who start college in prison might be more likely to finish when they get out, contributing to lower behind-bars completion numbers.)
Studies have shown that those who participated in higher-education programs in prison are significantly less likely to reoffend — a benefit available to a small proportion of women. Reform activists point out that the advantages extend to everyone who lives and works in prison.
“Education is not just about giving someone academics they can use when they leave,” says Sultana A. Shabazz, dean of corrections education at Tacoma Community College, which offers programs in Washington State’s two women’s prisons. “It’s also about developing a different mind-set about how you interact with the world.” Prisons are safer and more humane, she says, “if you have a population that is thoughtfully engaged in some pursuit that is self-affirming.”
Reading was her escape. As she pieced together enough credits to earn two associate degrees from Central Texas College and a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Tarleton State University, her progress was slow because the classes she needed to graduate weren’t offered — either because an instructor wasn’t available or there weren’t enough students to fill a class.
When the classes she needed were only offered at another facility, getting there involved having to strip four times: when she left her prison, entered the other unit, left that unit, and returned to her prison. It was a degrading experience that deterred other inmates who weren’t as determined as she was to take classes.
The prison library had few of the books she needed; Garza recalls researching a paper using a 15-year-old Encyclopedia Britannica. She studied while sitting on the cement floor of her cell, her back against the wall and feet stretched under her bed. “Education saved my life,” she says. The way she saw it, “Even though I’m physically behind these walls, mentally, I can be elsewhere.”
She learned, in a prison workshop, to transcribe books into Braille and is now a certified Braille transcriber. This week, she began an online M.B.A. program at Texas Woman’s University.
It took Garza 15 years to earn enough credits for a bachelor’s degree. A number of obstacles have caused similar delays for thousands of female inmates around the country, according to prison-education experts.
Incarcerated women are likely to have suffered from trauma and abuse that, if untreated, makes college especially daunting, says Mary Gould, a former director at the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison. Women are also more likely to be single parents worried about financially supporting their families. “Wanting to work as much as possible on the inside could prevent them from entering an education program,” she says. Some 58 percent of women in prison have minor children, compared to 47 percent of incarcerated men, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Cost is a huge barrier if you don’t have someone to help you,” Garza says. A first-generation college student whose parents were both restaurant servers, she was fortunate that her parents found a way to cover the costs of up to $730 per class.
Advocates for incarcerated students hope that expanded access to Pell Grants will help level the playing field. Prison-education programs had plummeted after Pell Grants for prisoners were cut off in 1994 during a get-tough-on-crime phase. The Second Chance Pell program, rolled out in 2015, offered the federal need-based grants to students housed in selected prisons. In 2020, Congress lifted the ban on those grants, a move that’s expected to make more than 700,000 incarcerated people eligible starting in July.
Raritan, a Second Chance Pell participant, offers an associate degree in liberal arts at seven New Jersey correctional facilities, including the state’s only women’s prison. It currently offers 10 unique courses per semester, on average, in each of the men’s prisons, but only five at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women. That’s because the prison’s population, which used to be around 800, has shrunk to about 400, and that limits the pool of students to recruit from, Meiman says.
Education is not just about giving someone academics they can use when they leave. It’s also about developing a different mind-set about how you interact with the world.
“When I look at the population today, instead of running classes that have 20 the way I would in a men’s facility, I will offer a class with under 10 — sometimes under five,” she says. Small classes are expensive to operate and don’t allow for the rich discussions liberal-arts classes require. The college is experimenting with offering recorded lectures on tablets so women can participate, asynchronously, in classes offered in men’s prisons. Advisers at the prison would help with the hybrid delivery. The RISE program is also considering offering videos with mock discussions about a topic to create a more realistic classroom experience.
Under pressure from prison-reform activists, some corrections agencies have committed to increasing options for women. In Washington, for instance, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Corrections said it will soon roll out internet access to four prisons, including the main facility for women. That could expand course offerings in women’s, and other sparsely populated, prisons.
After decades of growth, including exponential increases in the number of women incarcerated, the nation’s prison population decreased between 2015 and 2021, from 1.5 million to 1.2 million, the U.S. Department of Justice reports. Bipartisan justice-reform efforts and prisoner releases to reduce the spread of Covid-19 combined to shrink the populations of many women’s prisons even more, from 111,491 in 2015 to 83,000 in 2021.
Colleges offering vocational programs “are going to want to get the most bang out of their buck,” says Ved Price, executive director of the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison. A welding or construction class, for instance, might be expected to attract 25 men but only five women. “If money’s your driver, you’re going to set up in the men’s prison. But what about those five women who might want to learn welding?”
And what about the possibility that a college might be sued under Title IX, the federal statute that bans gender discrimination in educational programs? Two Title IX experts told The Chronicle that colleges would need a valid, nondiscriminatory reason for setting up shop in a men’s prison and not a similarly situated women’s prison. If a college limited itself to prisons within 50 miles of the campus, for instance, and the nearest women’s prison was hours away, bypassing it might be legally defensible, said Saundra K. Schuster, a partner with TNG, a risk-management firm. But if it simply didn’t think it could enroll enough female students to make it financially worthwhile, one could argue the college was creating “a disparate treatment on the basis of sex” under Title IX, she said.
Jody Shipper, co-founder and managing director of Grand River Solutions, an equity-focused consulting and law firm, wrote in an email to The Chronicle that “if a college said ‘we’ll make more money only at men’s prisons,’ that could be problematic, but if the issue is prison size over all (for example, there is a base cost to offering a course, and only a prison of a certain size can meet that base cost), that might be a sufficient nondiscriminatory reason.”
When college programs are limited, departments of corrections “have to make tough decisions about who gets to enroll and where programs operate,” says Margaret diZerega, director of the Vera Institute’s Unlocking Potential program. Once Pell Grants are reinstated, she said in an email to The Chronicle, “we hope that with greater interest from colleges and a focus on equity and student support, more facilities, particularly women’s facilities, will gain high-quality college programming, and more women will earn credentials.”
Those options should encourage courses for all students, not just those who will be released soon, Vera leaders argue. Prison programs have tended to prioritize people with shorter sentences, assuming they would benefit from them sooner. That put people like Sandra Brown at the end of the line.
Eventually, she was accepted into Ohio University’s bachelor’s degree program in specialized studies, where she did coursework using paper and pencil. Over seven months, she saved up enough from her $30-per-month job as a teaching assistant to buy a typewriter. The private scholarships she earned were limited, and Pell Grants were not an option at the time, so Brown had to be creative in piecing together funds. One year, she says, she asked to be assigned to clean showers in the evening. She collected soap chips to wash herself and “used the money I would have spent on soap for school.”
It took her nearly seven years to earn a four-year degree, a solitary exercise since she was the only student enrolled in her prison. If she’d had classmates, Brown says, “we could have studied together and compared notes. I wouldn’t have had to wait for weeks on end to have questions answered.” In 2016, Brown completed a master’s degree in arts and humanities from California State University-Dominguez Hills.
Brown, who was released from prison a year ago, is currently enrolled in a doctoral program in organizational leadership at California Coast University. She’s also a writer and an adviser to the Women’s Justice Institute, a Chicago-based criminal-justice-advocacy group. Last year, the group issued a sweeping report that found that men’s prisons in Illinois offered nine credit-bearing college programs, with four in one facility alone. When the study began, there were no two- or four-year-degree options in any women’s prisons, and only a limited number of vocational opportunities.
A report released this year about female incarceration in Washington State described similar inequities. “From a national perspective, because women are a smaller population, their needs are chronically unmet by corrections systems,” the report notes.
Washington State’s main prison for women, just outside Tacoma, has seen its population cut nearly in half, from close to 1,000 in 2018 to around 540 in November.
The state is looking at ways to use technology to expand options for coursework. “As our population is dwindling and students are getting out much faster, it’s important that we be given meaningful options to get them on their pathways and not have to wait until they’re released,” Shabazz, the Tacoma Community College dean, says.
From a national perspective, because women are a smaller population, their needs are chronically unmet by corrections systems.
Alyssa Knight was released from the Washington Corrections Center for Women last year after serving a 22-year sentence in the murder of a suspected drug dealer. She’s now studying gender, women, and sexuality at the University of Washington.
She was among a group of incarcerated women who started a reading group in 2008 when their efforts to take college courses were thwarted. Classes were only available, early on, to people with less than two years remaining on their sentences. The group, which called itself The Village, “fumbled through texts we would have never read on our own — Marx, Marcuse — bringing in our lived experiences.” They tutored women struggling to earn their GEDs and invited local professors to come in and see their work.
Those efforts paved the groundwork for the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a nonprofit college program at the Washington Corrections Center for Women. Students work toward an associate degree in the arts accredited by Tacoma Community College and a B.A. accredited by the University of Puget Sound. The program has struggled in recent years to stay afloat, with sharp declines in the prison population as well as shortages of prison guards available to stand outside classrooms.
Knight, who serves on the nonprofit’s Board of Directors, worries that with Pell reinstated, “women’s prisons may be the last to benefit.” They may get more online courses but fewer of the in-person classes that kept her spirits up during the decades behind bars. “Whenever there’s money involved, there’s going to be someone to exploit it,” says Knight. If more women in prison end up with “cookie-cutter education on tablets fully loaded with educational materials, does equality go by the wayside?”