For Incarcerated Women and Their Families, Equal Access to Education Transforms Lives

How providers and corrections departments are working to address the unique challenges system-impacted women face to get an education.
Elizabeth Allen Editorial Assistant
Oct 03, 2023

“I'm using my education every day,” is a recurring testimony from alumnae of the Goucher Prison Education Partnership (GPEP), says Executive Director Eliza Cornejo. Whether interacting with customers or helping their children with homework, the impact of college in prison (CIP) programs on system-involved women’s lives post-release is clear. Education is also vital for women during their time in prison, serving as both an escape and a refuge amid isolation and sentences that can feel interminable. A Northwestern University CIP program student shared that, if not for her studies, she “. . . probably would be sitting in [her] room doing nothing.”

These women were able to pursue postsecondary education in prison, enabling them to both transcend their insular surroundings and improve their post-release opportunities. Although they are the fastest-growing correctional population in the United States, women remain marginalized in discourse and action around criminal legal issues. Despite men largely being the face of legal system injustice, women—whose incarceration numbers rose an astonishing 525 percent between 1980 and 2021—have, too, been swept up into the scourge of mass incarceration.

For nearly three decades, after the 1994 Crime Bill halted their Pell Grant eligibility, few people in prison had college access. But, as of July, incarcerated people are again eligible for Pell Grants, and access to education funding stands to make a tangible difference in the lives of people in prison, both during their incarceration and after release. (For one, those who participate in postsecondary education prison programs are 48 percent less likely to be reincarcerated.)

Every Pell-eligible student should be able to take full advantage of this breakthrough, yet incarcerated women face unique challenges in pursuing higher education. Encouragingly, though, many colleges and corrections departments are developing initiatives to address and help students overcome these barriers. As more colleges and universities weigh expansions into prisons, it’s critical they follow these innovators’ leads, acknowledging and accommodating women’s distinct circumstances and ensuring that high-quality education is truly accessible to all.

Sentence lengths can determine program possibilities

Incarcerated women typically have shorter sentences than men, often giving women less time to complete a program before reentry. A 2022 report by Vera found that women were overrepresented in CIP programs, but underrepresented among credential earners.

Whether to enroll students who are unlikely to finish their program before release, as well as reservations about the utility of education for those unlikely to use it on the outside because of their long sentences, are ongoing conundrums for administrators. Abby Zegers, the executive director of higher education in prison and adult education and literacy at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC), recently spoke to this dilemma, noting that it especially impedes program community-building if residents with certain sentence lengths are prioritized. Programs are forced to scrutinize whose admission is more ostensibly “worthwhile”: the women who could feasibly complete credentials before their release dates—and who will experience the post-release benefits of education more quickly—versus “long-termers” and “lifers,” who, as one administrator put it, “If you don’t enroll them, they’re just sitting there [indefinitely].” Indeed, CIP program graduate Alexa Garza told The 19th that, despite being “surrounded by walls,” coursework meant she could still “read and learn and grow . . . .”

Women face stereotypical and limited programming and career pathways

Both inside and outside prison, women continue to face discrimination that curbs their career opportunities and earnings. The U.S. gender wage gap persists, with women still mostly confined to jobs that pay them less or industries averaging lower wages. This is especially crushing for system-impacted women, who typically already come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and must also contend with the many collateral consequences of system involvement.

Because of comparatively smaller populations and sentence lengths, women’s prisons and CIP program providers often cannot offer programming that rivals men’s. (In 2021, Northwestern’s program at Logan Correctional Center became the first site in Illinois where incarcerated women could pursue a BA; at the time, five men’s prisons in the state already offered bachelor’s degree programs.) Some women’s facilities only offer vocational courses like secretarial training or culinary arts, which can further reinforce inequity and stereotypes. Still, with few resources, facilities presumably offer these courses in good faith—the majority of incarcerated women have children at home at home, so preparing residents to immediately and pragmatically make a living is emphasized.

Most incarcerated women are mothers

Fifty-eight percent of women in prison and nearly 80 percent of women in jails are mothers. Caregiving remains a responsibility that disproportionately falls on women, and ones returning from incarceration are no exception. “When [women] come home, we are expected to step immediately back into our roles as wives, daughters, mothers, or caretakers,” wrote advocate Kimberly Haven, “all while juggling the immense and unrealistic demands of parole and probation supervision and establishing safe housing and employment.” Having to instantly resume running a household, while also reconnecting with the children they’ve been separated from, means it’s easy for education to be put on the back burner. Sixty-four percent of U.S. mothers are the primary or co-breadwinner, and women of color—who are also disproportionately incarcerated—are even likelier to bear this burden. Administrators lament the challenging, consequent pressure to ensure students finish their credentials before their release.

Still, many CIPs are endeavoring to prepare working mothers for success. Texas’s Windham School District, for example, serves incarcerated students statewide and offers certifications in entrepreneurial industries with flexible working schedules at women’s correctional facilities.

Even while incarcerated, women balancing studies and motherhood face tough choices, Cornejo explained to Vera. “[I have class tonight, but it’s also] the one night that I call home to my kids, and what am I going to choose—being in class or talking to my kids?”

Administrators are building opportunities for education access

To address the inequities incarcerated women face, innovative administrations are devising solutions that offer educational choice—vocational and academic—and eschew consigning students into stereotypical, frequently low-paid work. And by facilitating entry into lucrative industries often barred to women, they are also helping advance gender equity.

Soliciting feedback from students themselves is key for programming decisions. After students expressed interest in the health care industry, DMACC partnered with Iowa medical centers that support second-chance hiring practices to offer a certified nursing assistant pathway. (Just as well, DMACC also offers an associate’s degree in the liberal arts.)

Moreover, many correctional departments now provide vocational programming for historically male-dominated fields; the Washington State Department of Corrections and the state’s Board for Community and Technical Colleges offer pre-apprenticeship construction programs at two women’s facilities. Should students want to pursue trades traditionally occupied by women, some departments of corrections are supporting those aspirations, too. When the Delaware Department of Correction established cosmetology training programs, it also successfully advocated to reduce barriers preventing system-involved people from securing state licenses.

Some institutions are also working toward uniting prison and main-campus students in the classroom—widening course options for incarcerated students and creating a rewarding learning experience for all. In 2020, prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, an experiment by the Educational Justice Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) simultaneously ushered in co-ed CIP courses—a program first and an overall prison education rarity—and organized online cohorts composed of undergraduates from MIT, Harvard University, and Wellesley College and students at men’s and women’s correctional facilities across the Northeast.

Cornejo affirmed the “huge value in enrolling people across the spectrum of sentence lengths.” Formerly a women’s college, gender equity guides Goucher’s approach; since its founding, GPEP has operated in both men’s and women’s prisons, and deliberately works to disrupt funneling women into “pink-collar” labor.

Beyond quantifiable benefits, like employability and financial opportunity, education also has essential, abstract value. It allows women a more dignified quality of life while behind bars—which shouldn’t be exclusive to those with select sentences. Even if a student can only complete half a credit while incarcerated, CIP builds self-efficacy and a joy for learning, enabling wide-ranging success after release. For “long-termers” and “lifers,” too, education provides self-enrichment and purpose.