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The Future of Higher Ed in Prisons

Last month, Tia Ryans participated in the 11th National Conference for HIgher Education in Prison, held in Denver, Colorado. Tia’s presentation focused on “Storytelling as Advocacy” and provided practical instruction in creating audio and video presentations to advocate for formerly and currently incarcerated students. In the blog below, she shares her observations from the conference and what may lie ahead for higher education in prisons.

I’ve been attending the NCHEP over the years, and it’s always an amazing and informative experience. You bring together hundreds of passionate, committed people who share a vision and are actively working toward it: of course it’s going to be amazing. There’s so much to learn, given all the thought-provoking content. And, one of the best things about the conference is reconnecting with friends and mentors who’ve been a part of my own journey.

One theme that emerged in a big way this year is that formerly-incarcerated people need to be not only in the room, not only “at the table,” but sitting in leadership chairs. And, as leaders, we need to be compensated at levels equal to leaders who don’t have that experience. This is something I’ve heard in the past, but this year it seemed to be a major point of focus. I also noticed that because there were more speakers with lived experience presenting this year, many questions and the need for urgent solutions about historical and institutional disadvantages in higher education in prison (HEP) spaces surfaced.

This highlights a really healthy evolution in the whole field of higher education in prisons. These conferences started out as groups of college and university professors--mostly white, because that’s the population that had the opportunity to become professors--coming together to share what they were doing and how they were meeting various challenges. Don’t get me wrong: These are great people. They were committed to what they were doing, and they helped to create an important and largely unprecedented opportunity for incarcerated people. I’m grateful to those educators.

But they lack the lived experience of attending college courses while incarcerated or working through “re-entry.” They don’t know those challenges, which have to be recognized and addressed if we want more people to succeed at earning a degree. That’s one reason we need to have more people who have been incarcerated leading the HEP movement across all of its dimensions, from technology to curricula, to funding, to career counseling.

I think it’s an important turning point when the people who’ve been primary beneficiaries in the past stand up to take ownership for the future. It means we’re succeeding, because we now have those leaders who’ve transformed their path through higher education. Their experience yields insights that go well beyond subject expertise, and that can only result in better, more complete programs and approaches.

When this kind of transition happens, the whole model of support changes. Instead of the “have’s” helping the “have-nots,” which is where we started, the new model is more one of “all of us, helping each other.” Now the educational model is not grounded in an old hierarchical social model, but in a genuine community based on shared experiences. The community takes a more holistic view of what each member needs and what each can provide. There’s give and take, as together we work to ensure the future health and vitality of everyone in the community. We all have so much at stake.

Of course, many of the workshops were focused on immediate, tactical challenges like addressing the technology gap, or using story-telling as part of the healing process, or incorporating more advanced STEM offerings. The workshops and lectures I attended were uniformly excellent, and I connected with many new people whose work I hope will push our efforts at FORTE House forward, too.

In short, I left the conference feeling challenged, inspired, and re-committed to our work. It’s wonderful to know that I’m part of a much larger movement to re-imagine our justice system with education as a foundational element. That alone confirms my belief that I’m on the right path.


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