NSights Blog

Advocating for higher education in prison

University English 499C senior experience class and Assistant Professor Chris Earle break down why higher education in prison is a good idea

“Mass Incarceration is inextricably linked to mass undereducation,” Harvard Professor Elizabeth Hinton writes. Recognizing that educational disparities exceed even racial disparities in U.S. prisons, Hinton challenges readers to re-imagine prisons as universities, with incarcerated people learning in classrooms just like and even alongside college students.

Students in English499c: “Senior Experience--Writing in Communities” (taught by Chris Earle, Assistant Professor of English) read Hinton’s provocations on the first day of the semester as we prepared to work with the Nevada Prison Education Project (NPEP). NPEP, a consortium of prison education experts, higher education professionals, and formerly incarcerated individuals, is working to make Hinton’s vision a reality in our state. The group seeks to expand access to college education for incarcerated individuals, proposing both AA and BA pathways in the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE).

Such a project requires combating the invisibility of incarcerated populations, raising awareness about the importance of educational justice, and persuading audiences including correctional administrators, law makers, and the general public. This is where ENG499c comes in.

In collaboration with NPEP, the class devised and is now implementing a two-prong strategy: first, interviewing and writing the stories of incarcerated students, believing that their voices could move readers in ways traditional argument never could; and, second, aiming to get these stories into the hands of NV lawmakers.

Formerly incarcerated students shared powerful insights:

  • Kesha Westbrooks chronicles how the Prison Education Program at the College of Southern Nevada (CSN) empowered her to be a role model to her two daughters. “If you change the life of a mother,” Kesha explains, “you change the lives of their children.” Kesha is now pursuing her BA in Social Work at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas where she is a member of the Honors Society, is an inspiring advocate for prison education and restorative justice, and will be 2022 CSN graduation speaker. (story by Maddie Baker, Kimberly Claussen, and Benny Nagy)
  • Brett Williams, now a student at Truckee Meadows Community College, credits the Educational Partnership Program through TMCC with giving him the tools to craft a different future. “Without this education,” Williams shared, “I would be homeless in the street, probably relapsed in addiction, because I didn’t have any road worth travelling.” (story by Anderson Hansen and Grace Nichols)
  • Jacquin Webb, a mentor and advocate for incarcerated populations and for re-entry reform, has testified to the Nevada State legislature and provides direct services to recently released individuals. When Jacquin was incarcerated, he felt robbed: “I felt like I hadn’t had the opportunity to discover who I was.” It was courses he took at Northern Nevada Correctional Center that helped Jacquin discover his passion for advocacy and helping others. “If you really want to see a change in prison,” Jacquin argues, “we need to give a little.” (story by Maddy Marino and Lexi Randolph)
  • Kimberly Sampson found through education the opportunity to gain the confidence lost due to an abusive relationship, to counter the sense that her life was over upon being incarcerated, and that she was too old to re-write her future. It was getting an “A” in her first class through the SNC program that, Kimberly reports, “my self-esteem began to grow, and my outlook on my future began to grow brighter.” Kimberly wants readers to understand, however, that she was one of the few incarcerated women to have this opportunity—just one of twenty-five women in the program, out of the 900 women incarcerated at Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center. “There are so many other women there that need help, you know? They need a hand to help them succeed.” (story by Celest Castellanos and Zoie Harmer).
  • Ray Salano earned his GED through the TMCC Educational Partnership Program. “I was amazed,” Ray reflected, “I didn’t know I was that smart.” Now released, Ray is pursuing a degree in construction engineering at TMCC, works overtime in construction, and has reunited his wife. While education offered Ray “an outlet,” he reminds us that “A lot of people in prison didn’t have the opportunity I had.” Ray now shares his story with audiences at the county jail, and continues to call for increased educational opportunities in prison: “If you give them an education—rather than just warehousing them and giving them a number—maybe they will stay out of prison” (story by Zachary Lee).

ENG499c students reflected upon what it has meant to be advocates alongside formerly incarcerated individuals:

Some students drew connections between previous advocacy work and our class:

Kimmy Clausen has been a proponent of educational access, and this class has given her “insight into a whole new group of people who do not have access to education that should, and it has given me a new passion to fight to ensure that happens.” Zoie Harmer works with homeless youth who often face criminalization, “and learning more about prisons from [Kimberly Samson] has been very eye-opening and helpful in understanding what my clients have been through.” Kaitlyn Case uncovered powerful connections between her work with families and children and how imprisonment necessarily separates families.

Other students report grappling with the complexities of advocacy-work: how to effectively persuade and speak ethically for and with others?

Grace Nichols explains, “I’m someone who has always been compelled by storytelling because I believe the stories we tell carry weight and have an impact. Stories like the ones from this project can create real social change and can speak for those who often go unheard.” Consuelo Santana details the “emotional difficulty” associated with fulfilling the ethical obligation to our partners. As Consuelo notes, Jeffrey’s story could mean something not only to him, but to others as well. Soon after the interview, Consuelo details, “we were coming up with drafts, looking back at recordings, making sure we were able to present the story he wanted us to tell.” Anderson Hansen called the process “enlightening,” offering that “there is no better example of why we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.”

Students also report learning about how social forces including race, class, and geography shape life chances, as well as how reforms can make a meaningful difference. While this learning sometimes focused on facts, figures, and concepts, the learning often ran deeper. Zachary Lee explains, “my learning experience did not begin nor end with understanding the link between higher education and lower recidivism rates. My understanding moved beyond that. I learned about people and meaning.”

English class 499C students posing with professor Chris Earle
Chris Earle
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