The Challenges of Pursuing Higher Education in Prison

Guest Contributor: Conor Broderick 

Most college students would agree that there is nothing easy about getting a degree. Yet despite the hardships there are some individuals who are driven to enrich themselves while serving a prison sentence. Understandably, the educational playing field in prison is not the same from institution to institution. Pursuing a degree is far more challenging and overwhelming for the incarcerated student. There are various obstacles these students have to work around: zero access to editing software, no means for gaining access to the internet or library for research tools, and delayed contact to student support services. 

Most 21st century students enrolled in higher education have only ever known the efficiency of software that edits, makes suggestions, and autocorrects their assignments. Restrict that student to a pad of paper and a pencil, take away their computer, and then ask that student to write a complete analytical paper. Unfortunately, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons policy statement 1237.16 §14.6, “inmates are prohibited from using computers for personal use”. This includes activities such as legal or educational correspondence. Put simply, the general prison population is not allowed to access editing software. 

Digital document editing gives a student the powerful ability to copy, cut, and paste segments of a draft. These tools allow the writer a conduit that lets the creative process flow uninhibited. But, because of prison’s security programs, most incarcerated students don’t have these editing tools, limiting the productivity of assignments. Consider this, after completing two working drafts of an analytical argument paper it becomes apparent to the writer that paragraph five would be more effective if it were switched with paragraph two. This simple switch of paragraphs could completely alter the potential of the argument being made. Normally this edit would only take five seconds using a program such as Microsoft Word, but for a handwritten essay this edit would warrant a complete rewrite that will take a whole day. This added corrective process extinguishes the motivation needed to sustain productivity. Given this added physical labor that a digital era writer might not be used to, the student might feel quickly overwhelmed. This could lead to simply getting on with the assignment, getting it over with, and finishing it out of frustration, rather than producing a top-level document. Eventually, upon grading this paper a teacher may find many problems that appear to be fundamental such as typos or basic grammar errors. That teacher might be inclined to blame the student’s apparent lack of attention or lack of invested pride in the submitted paper. But these errors simply happen when the luxuries of digital editing are suddenly removed. 

Another difficult factor involved in pursuing a degree is the complete lack of access to common research tools. These tools are found in places that tend to be available to everyone not in prison: the local library and the world wide web. In order to strengthen a paper’s argument, committing to deep research is a principle. Searching for online results, combing through digital publications, and being able to communicate directly with academic authorities are the researchers staple capabilities when authoring a paper. According to a 2001 study “seventy-two percent of college students are Internet users, and 87% of college students have Internet access” (Anderson, p. 22). Strip the internet from our 21st century students and suddenly the research process slows to a crawl. However, one may argue that not all research is done using only the internet. The time tested predecessor of the “net” that predates the computer, the library can always be a choice. Within prison the library offers a great pool of information but unfortunately, the old brick and mortar stand-by might as well be a world away in this new age of enforced Covid-19 prison lockdown. In fact, this author’s prison library has one of the more extensively appointed selections of material. The library is divided into four departments: legal, resource, vocational training, and leisure libraries. Under normal prison conditions the research and writing processes can be greatly empowered by these departments, however, they do not have any benefit being locked away in a building that is inaccessible to the incarcerated student thanks to the Covid-19 lockdown. 

Asking questions and receiving feedback from professors is also a standard in the process of refining a written project. Limited access to student support services for an incarcerated student becomes the largest obstacle in place when pursuing a higher education. Inmates don’t have the ability to raise their hand in the middle of a course discussion. They cannot request a FaceTime appointment with their professors to express a thought or to ask a question. Having to rely on the prison managed electronic messaging and physical mail systems does not afford the student the opportunity to hold constructive dialogues with course instructors either. All of these limitations compel a student to try their best at solving course related challenges alone, in an academic vacuum. And a student’s best guess, however courageous, might not be correct. Such a commitment to a possibly incorrect solution, or false understanding, can have a negative impact on the student’s confidence. In a normal classroom environment a student could turn to their peer and ask for advice or an opinion. Furthermore, that student might also be able to join a study group or participate in evaluating another peer’s work. The likelihood of incarcerated students being lucky enough to find another college-going student in their own prison is very slim.

Despite all the difficulties of pursuing a higher education, students in colleges all over the world are reaching their goals. The incarcerated student is held to this same standard and is not expected to perform any less than their freeworld peers. This standard is very challenging yet also an excellent way for one to push themselves to overcome obstacles. The hardships faced by these locked away students are unlike any that a traditional student might encounter. Their persistence in attacking course work in prisons without internet, access to libraries, word-processing, and rapid communications could possibly even warrant a few extra “life experience” credit-hours. To that end, the grit required of a student who passes a correspondence course is not reflected by the course’s end letter grade… But maybe that’s not a bad thing. The lessons learned while navigating the difficulties of an education bound by prison might be just as useful as the required core curriculum. 

Works cited:

Keith J. Anderson PhD (2001) Internet Use Among College Students: An Exploratory Study, Journal of American College Health, 50:1, 21-26, DOI: 10.1080/07448480109595707

United States, Federal Bureau of Prisons. Program Statement 1237.16. §14.6, Personal Use of Computer Equipment. Jul 18, 2017

Conor Broderick is an artist in JAC’s network. Check out his portfolio to see more of his art, read more about him, and hear him talk in a past interview with MoMA PS1.  

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