Higher education hasn't been taught in Colorado prisons for more than 20 years. That changes this month.
—Illustration by Matthew Hollister
Since 2004, more than 800 Colorado inmates have received their GEDs. Very few, however, have earned college credit. That number may soon begin to rise, thanks to a liberal arts course for offenders that kicks off this month.
In partnership with Pueblo Community College, Colorado College (CC) professor Carol Neel will start teaching a basic humanities course in Pueblo’s Youthful Offender System, which houses inmates who committed crimes when they were between the ages of 14 and 19 and were sentenced before they turned 21. All public colleges and universities in the state will accept the core course as transfer credit. The class is an offshoot of CC’s Social Issues in Historical Context (SIHC) initiative, a project started in 2014 that examines the history of mass incarceration in relation to the prison system’s current problems. Although the topic has attracted recent attention across the country, it’s particularly relevant in Colorado, where the area around Cañon City and Florence is known as “Prison Valley” as a result of the 11 state and federal prisons located nearby.
Higher education for offenders has been sparse nationwide since 1994, when federal legislation banned inmates from receiving Pell Grants. “Those were the only educational opportunities available to prisoners, unless they were in unusual situations,” Neel says. “Unusual situation” is code for wealthy—or at least well-off enough to pay for online correspondence courses. Large-scale efforts have been underway to remedy the problem: President Barack Obama launched a pilot program this past July to experiment with Pell Grant–funded education in prisons, but no Colorado institutions are participating.
That’s part of what got Neel thinking. Initially, she’d hoped students involved with the SIHC project could help advance prison education by teaching the offenders themselves. But the Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) had understandable concerns about safety; a year before the SIHC initiative launched, Colorado DOC executive director Tom Clements was murdered by a former inmate. So for now, only Neel can teach. If all goes well, she hopes to bring in fellow professors, increase course offerings, and expand to other locations across the state. Plus, there are plans to create an endowment for expenses such as books and other supplies.
Meanwhile, the SIHC students haven’t given up on their own abilities to have an impact: Some of them have started an independent venture called the Colorado College Prison Project, through which they bring books to short-term offenders at the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center (a less restrictive facility) and help them with their GED studies.
43: Percent by which the recidivism rate drops for offenders who take classes in prison