In Utah, Major Educational Gaps Exist For Incarcerated People. Here’s What’s Being Done

In Utah, Major Educational Gaps Exist For Incarcerated People. Here's What's Being Done

Estimated reading time: 8-9 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY – Of the 2.3 million people currently incarcerated in the United States, only 5% have access to quality higher education.

Beehive State is certainly no exception to this widespread problem, which is why Erin Castro, associate professor of higher education at the University of Utah and co-founder of the University of Utah, applied and was selected to compete in the $750,000 Ascendium. a grant from the education group to support planning for the opening of an academic research center dedicated to post-secondary education in prisons.

“Of the major research-intensive public institutions, I can count on my fingers how many offer graduate programs for inmates,” Castro said.

Castro, whose research over the past 10 years has focused on higher education in prison and inmates' pathways to higher education after incarceration, said he believes time and place make USA the right home for downtown.

"The right time and the right place"

Part of Castro's optimism about why the United States should embrace the center comes from members of the university's top team.

During his inauguration last March, US President Taylor Randall said he wanted the university to be among the top ten public universities with "unprecedented social impact."

"I did this work for a while at the University of Utah. The leadership that we have, that we have now, supports this work (and) understands that to meet the demands and desires of an impact unprecedented social, we have to serve our community,” Castro said.

Castro said a national center dedicated to providing inmates with access to higher education would certainly fit that description.

“For too long, we have failed to see incarcerated children and adults as worthy members of the community,” Castro said. "I think now is the right time and the right place for this. We have the support to provide the necessary infrastructure for such a center to emerge."

The management team of the U. That's not the only thing that makes Utah a good city-state. Castro said it's also necessary for a state that doesn't provide after-school opportunities "close enough" to its prison population.

He added that the state has an opportunity to serve prisoners better and more fairly, it simply needs to be done.

"Generally, if you're incarcerated as an adult in Utah, you don't have access to higher education if you're in one of our county jails," Castro said.

Inmates at Utah Central Correctional Institution and Utah State Correctional Institution can only access classes at Salt Lake Community College and Snow College, he added. And while these programs are beneficial, they currently fall short of demand and need.

“None of this is guaranteed. It's very possible that you have, say, a high school diploma or a GED, and you're incarcerated and incarcerated in a county jail, you can be incarcerated for years without access to higher education,” Castro said, adding the same applies. to persons incarcerated in a state prison, depending on where they are being held, their level of security, demotion due to felony conviction, sentence, or other factors. .

Castro also said it was "standard practice" in Utah to deny non-US citizens access to educational programs while incarcerated.

"The state has no legal obligation to provide college admissions, and we believe that's just not happening," Castro said.

Focus on the inside and the outside

The center, Castro said, will focus on studying the relationship between higher education and inmates.

Data that exists for other demographics (sexual orientation, race, age, etc.) simply does not exist for inmates.

"We can answer all kinds of questions about other populations. I can tell you what majors people get when they graduate, how long it takes, how much debt they take on – right now we we just can't answer some of these basic questions about incarcerated students and that's ultimately. As a result, it's bad for them because it means we don't have a basic," Castro said.

In fact, the main objective of the center is to attract inmates to the field of extracurricular education.

However, this does not mean that research is the main concern. Another important function is the field work inside the prison walls.

Utah Prison Education Project volunteers work inside and outside of Utah prisons with six juvenile detention centers across the state. Among other things, they dedicate their time to teaching, mentoring, fundraising, taking quizzes, speaking out, and advocating.

“This work is research-based, and this work also strengthens our research. It helps us ask better questions, it helps us understand the subtle obstacles we face working with the (Department of) Justice,” Castro said.

She also hopes the center will become a resource and information center not just for the rest of Utah and the region, but for the entire country.

"There are many opportunities here … to expand services to current inmates, former inmates, children of inmates and families of inmates in our state and region," Castro said. "Now we know they don't get into higher education at all, and if they do, they don't graduate."

Additionally, Castro said the Utah Prison Education Project, led by Director Andy Eisen, is working on a higher education program for female inmates at the Utah Correctional Facility for Women in the hope that the program will increase next year. .

It will be the first of its kind in Utah.

"I hope the center will serve as a national hub and model for leveraging the resources of a research-intensive government agency to address the inequities caused by mass incarceration," Eisen said in a statement. .

Why train prisoners?

There is plenty of evidence to show that academic performance after high school is closely tied to financial outcomes.

Unemployment rates tend to be lower and salaries tend to be higher for people with college degrees.

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly income for high school graduates is $809, $1,334 for college graduates, and $1,334.1,924 per week for wage earners.

However, the level of education can affect other areas of life.

"When someone graduates from college, all of the variables that we associate with quality of life go up," Castro said. "Your life expectancy increases, you increase your chances of accessing health care, you increase your chances of participating in community activities, you increase your proximity to clean water."

The return on investment from a societal perspective when considering higher education and earning a degree is “undeniable,” Castro said.

Unfortunately, this link does not necessarily exist for people who are incarcerated or have a criminal record.

Castro said this could manifest itself in biases in college admissions, rent and housing applications, among others.

"Even though I mean, 'Yeah, we're going to see all these improvements,' people with criminal records, and in particular incarceration, face an almost impossible fight here," Castro said. "You have to work against these different biases that are built into the system."

An example of this, Castro said, is that universities require criminal record disclosures on their college applications.

"That's why people are turned away every year," Castro said, adding that former inmates looking for housing face similar challenges.

reasons for optimism

Despite serious challenges surrounding access to higher education for those incarcerated, Castro said there is a concerted effort by various groups across the state to create a "comprehensive plan" and other efforts to give him a sense of optimism. .

"The Corrections (Education) Council was created in the last Parliament, and so they – a diverse group of stakeholders – came together and thought about what should be a priority," Castro said.

The Board of Correctional Education was created after the passage of HB226 and advises the Board of Higher Education on how education should be provided to inmates. The bill "emphasizes and downplays" higher education programs in Utah prisons, which have traditionally been run by volunteer educators (such as those involved in the Utah Prison Education Project). Utah), said Lowry Snow sponsor, R-Santa Clara. Legislative 2022.

Utah Governor Spencer Cox said the bill's passage "demonstrates the heart and compassion of the State of Utah."

During the 2021 legislative session, Snow co-sponsored another bill to pass, HB279, which would have created a Utah Tech college program for incarcerated minors.

The program allows inmates to virtually study a variety of subjects through Utah Tech while incarcerated.

Despite recent efforts by the state, there is still work to be done to ensure the transition of inmates to higher education.

"I think there are new things happening in the state that are worth waiting for, but we haven't gotten to the point where we have deliberately and intentionally brought inmates and adults into our system. higher education, and I'm sure we're doing this work at the center that will help us achieve that,” Castro said.

"It's still a work in progress because we still have a lot to do."

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