Nov 15 2023

How Colleges Bring Learning to Incarcerated Individuals

Technology helps higher education institutions inside and opens doors for interested learners.

“There’s a shift among the students. You hear them asking each other things like, ‘What are you learning? What did you think of the test?’”

Daniel McGloin, director of the Prison Education Partnership for the University of Maine at Augusta, is describing the mindset change that incarcerated students experience when they begin taking courses through UMA.

“They form their own learning communities inside,” he says.

Although the pandemic reduced the number of incarcerated people participating in higher education courses, it also drove the adoption of new technology, such as tablets, laptops and learning management systems, according to a 2022 survey of state correctional education directors by Rand.

The pandemic “made it obvious that it was important to make available instructional technology such as tablets and laptops for educational programs and to allow student access to online educational content,” says Lois Davis, study author and senior policy researcher at Rand. “The pandemic helped to break down those previous barriers, and that represents a fundamental change.”

More receptive attitudes toward technology and the reinstated Pell Grants that allow funds to be used by incarcerated people have led to an increase in prison higher education programs. The programs are proven to reduce the odds of going back to prison by 28 percent, according to the Journal of Experimental Criminology. Other studies show rates closer to 50 percent, according to Davis, who has spent more than 30 years studying public safety and public health, particularly for people involved with the criminal justice system.

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Making the Case for Prison Education in Maine

UMA began providing educational services to incarcerated people in 2006. In 2021, the university received a nearly $1 million grant from a private foundation to expand its Prison Education Partnership program, a statewide collaboration between higher education institutions, the Maine Department of Corrections (MDOC) and other partners.

“It started small, and some additional grants and funding have landed us where we are right now, with a much larger and stronger program with a dedicated staff,” says Pamela MacRae, assistant provost and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at UMA.

Currently, the program serves 128 incarcerated undergraduate students who are completing both associate and bachelor’s degrees in a variety of majors. The recidivism rate for those who earn degrees through the program is just 5 percent. Using and understanding technology plays a large role in their success.

“It makes a huge difference that they become comfortable with this technology before they leave prison,” McGloin says.

Balancing digital security and access are important aspects of a prison education program that relies on technology.

“We started the conversation with the MDOC in the early days to develop trust around the security protocols,” says Robert “BJ” Kitchin Jr., executive director of academic services at UMA. “We were able to develop strategies to allow access to the URLs the students were going to need and to products such as G Suite, Brightspace and Zoom.”

Ongoing collaboration is key.

“If an institution is starting a new program, it’s very important to start talking with the relevant correctional offices as soon as possible,” McGloin says. “Once the institution is clear on its reasons and goals for starting a program, that’s really the next step. And it’s important to ensure that incarcerated students are going to be offered as much equity as possible in terms of the quality of education and supplementary services.”

Three University of Maine at Augusta staff members photographed on campus
Robert “BJ” Kitchin Jr., Executive Director of Academic Services at the University of Maine at Augusta (left); Pamela MacRae, Assistant Provost and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; and Daniel McGloin, Director of the Prison Education Partnership, work to bring education opportunities to incarcerated students. Photography by Chris Bennett


Barton Community College Uses Layers of Cybersecurity

Like UMA, Barton Community College in Kansas began as a small program that expanded with a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 2015.

Nicole Barr, coordinator of correctional education services, is a staffer who was hired with the grant money.

“It allowed the team to perfect our processes for recruiting students and advising them to make sure they were on the right path,” she says. “Students who are enrolled can take college-level classes and vocational classes, like welding.”

Initially, students used tablets as a learning tool, but now Barton and the prison facilities maintain two computer labs with Dell All-in-One PCs designated for Barton students.

“The facilities allow us to brand our rooms, school supplies, notebooks, folders and clear backpacks,” Barr says. “We want participants to feel like they are real students, that they are just as good as our traditional students on campus.”

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Jon Dannebohm, senior technology architect and media specialist at Barton, emphasizes the importance of security around technology.

Everything has two layers of security, so if one fails, the second will kick in, he says.

The first layer is security software that was recommended by the Kansas Department of Corrections. At the machine level, Windows is customized for more security.

The prison facility allows Barton to use Cradlepoint devices and routers to deliver cellular internet, and Dannebohm customized firewall rules to deny access to all websites by default, then specified which websites to allow.

With all of this security, the program has never experienced any serious attempts at hacking.

“At first, students tested the boundaries, but once they realized that we had cameras all over the room, no one has even tried,” Dannebohm says.

Instructors Give Belmont University Students Access to Classes

Over the years, professors from Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., have been interested in how higher education can impact students who are incarcerated. Some even taught within the system without a formal program to back their efforts.

“They expressed interest in developing a carceral program,” says Laura Ferguson Mimms, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education in Prison Initiative (THEI). “The first 17 students began in August 2021. Currently, there are 23 students in two cohorts enrolled.”

The team at Belmont had to ensure that the students at Turney Center Industrial Complex could retrieve content within the security parameters of the Tennessee Department of Correction.

Daniel McGloin headshot
It makes a huge difference that they become comfortable with this technology before they leave prison.”

Daniel McGloin Director, Prison Education Partnership, University of Maine at Augusta

This spring, Belmont’s instructional technology department worked closely with the TDOC and THEI to test and ensure that students at Turney could use Canvas, says Sam Longanecker, an instructional designer at the university.

However, gaining access to content remains a challenge, especially for courses that require library materials or feature online discussion threads. Turney’s firewalls take some imaginative solutions from Belmont staff.

“We have worked creatively to meet student research needs, including embedding a library in some online course sites to facilitate research support and access through a discussion thread,” says Claire Walker Wiley, scholarly communications librarian and associate professor.

As for the effect on students, Ferguson Mimms says that higher education can touch more than just the learners.

“Our students repeatedly share that the impact of pursuing a degree while incarcerated is not only for them but for everyone connected to them — their partners, their children, and the community of other currently and formerly incarcerated individuals,” she says. “We’ve learned that hope is indeed transferable, and we see this hope being transferred throughout the facility.

Illustration by David Vogin

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