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  • Writer's pictureKaren Barnes Kaplan

The Liberating Power of Higher Ed: A conversation with Lauren Reed

Lauren Reed is the Communications Coordinator for the Alliance for Higher Education in Prisons, a national organization that supports higher education in prison programs. So she has a national perspective on what’s happening in the field. Her own experience taking college courses while incarcerated has given her even deeper insight into the liberating power of education. Here, she shares her experiences from both periods in her life.

I went to college right out of high school, and I did not do well. I was working to pay tuition, I was commuting to my program in New York from the suburbs, and I was failing. So, I left school and joined the Marine Corps. Later, when I was in prison, I didn’t think I was a good student. I didn’t think I could ever learn to do math. In fact, I tested into remedial math, and that’s when things started changing. I had a teacher there – his name was Dr. Hemlow – who actually took the time to teach me what I had never learned in high school. He taught me how to do a percentage – which I still know!

So, even though I’d had educational opportunities in the past, outside, they were not what I needed. And I didn’t have confidence in myself as a student: I thought I wasn’t smart. Learning that math there, inside, was how I got hope again. I started to build confidence in myself, and I saw what education can do. I started using my voice, because one of my professors taught me the power of speaking and being heard. I took a political science class where I saw how politics works, how bills are made. That got me thinking, I could do this kind of work when I get home. I could make change for people suffering inside prisons.

When I was released in 2013, I didn’t know how to turn on an iPhone. I didn’t know what Twitter was, and Instagram was created while I was in prison. But I was curious about social media, and about how to make a website. I got a summer job working for a swim club in New Jersey, and they asked, “Can you handle our social media?” I said yes–although I really couldn’t. But i had learned by then you could Google anything. I went and Googled and learned how to create Facebook accounts. That started me on the path of learning more about communications. While I was at Rutgers, I got a part-time job working for the New Jersey State Bar Association, where I was responsible for their social media. Then I had my own business for a while. I’m self-taught, when it comes to the work I do. It led me to the Alliance, which I joined in 2019.

The Alliance is the only national organization for higher education in prison programs, and we support the programs and program providers, rather than delivering direct services. We help people newer to the field learn how to start a program; we share best practices; we provide support for reporting, and resources like toolkits and learning seminars for people to start prison education programs, or expand or improve what they have. We maintain a Document Library so people in the field can draw on others’ work, which can lessen the time and cost of starting.

One trend that emerged in our annual National Conference last fall was that the attendees–who include students– were seeing people who look like themselves not only attending but also presenting and leading. That’s partly because the group of formerly incarcerated people in the field is growing. When I was released, I didn’t have the kind of support I have now, with people like Tia Ryans and others working in this space. I was first out of the women I am closest to, the women I was taking classes with on the inside. I had to go to school and figure my life out. But now there are so many more people who have come home in the past 8 years and are working in the field, and that’s making a big change. We’re out and we’re pulling our people along with us. Even just making sure people, especially women, are aware of what’s available to them: I didn’t know about the National Conference on Higher Education in Prison until 2017 – and it started 2010.

The other emerging conversation is about abolition. On a national level, some stakeholders aren’t ready for movements, and many aren’t ready to talk about abolition. Of course, one of our stakeholders is the DOC. But at the conference, that was one of the most prevalent things I heard and saw from people like me: “Let’s shut down prisons through education.” That’s partly a reflection of the previous point I mentioned, that people who have experienced incarceration are finally a strong voice. And we are listening to them now more than the DOC. That’s a push for us, too. We want to create a country where our organization doesn’t even exist, where we’ve shut down prisons so we’re no longer needed. Formerly incarcerated leaders must be at the forefront.

Of course we must learn from those who have started so many education in prison programs — those players are still here, still involved, which is great. And, we’re now supporting students to come and providing needed financial aid for them to do so. We want to create more positive change, faster, and more of us are working toward this and not taking a back seat. We’re showing up, coming together, and talking about what we talked about inside – but now we’re seeing it happen outside. That’s amazing!

We are seeing change. For example, I was taking classes in 2010, in prison, but those classes were not counting toward my degree. The New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prison (NJ-STEP) program wasn’t formed until 2012, and then students started getting credit for classes toward an associate degree, which then rolled into a Bachelor degree at Rutgers. So the first nine classes I took in prison weren’t eligible toward my degree. I had 72 credits when I was released; only 42 translated toward my degree. Fortunately, that has changed for those still in prison today

The educational component is better now; there are more and better partners too. Both Tia and I are on the Advisory Board of the Princeton Teaching Initiative, and they are doing really good work inside. The question then is, How do we help students translate it to the outside – how to stay motivated, how to mentor each other, how to find mentors beyond formerly incarcerated people. I found my first job through people who had been incarcerated, for which I’m grateful. But people need a broader network. I understand that the NJ program is using the network of Princeton and Rutgers to bring mentorship to these NJ-STEP students. Someday, I’m hoping we’ll create a national mentorship network in collaboration with organizations like PTI, NJSTEP, Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network (FICGN) and so many other organizations throughout the country..

I never thought I could get a degree. And now, to have a degree from Rutgers? As someone formerly incarcerated? There are people in Denver who don’t know my background, and when I mention my degree from Rutgers they’re like, “Oh damn! You're smart”. I didn’t tell them, I only had that opportunity because I went to prison. That’s what made me appreciate education, and made it possible for me to be accepted to Rutgers – I would never have gotten in straight from high school. I’m really grateful for the experience; I put the effort in, and I began to understand what education can do for a person, how it can liberate you. People talk about transformative education? Yes: It truly liberated me to be able to do anything I wanted to do. Well: almost anything. There are still some laws that prohibit formerly incarcerated people from doing some things. In Colorado, you can’t even get a real estate license. Licensing is a major problem throughout the country for all people who have experienced incarceration. This limits our ability to be a part of certain careers, but we will overcome this barrier too.

But there’s still resistance to college education in prisons. From what I’ve seen, it seems to stem from two related issues. One is money over humanity… Capitalism. People think they’re paying for it, through taxes, and they don’t want to pay for education for someone who’s incarcerated. The real concern: it’s about “othering” people – “those people in prison” are this “other” group, and they don’t deserve anything… because they think people in prison aren't worthy. The resistant folks tend to be more conservative politically, and they have never experienced anything to do with incarceration.

So when someone asks me, “Who pays for education in prison?” I love to say, In the end it would shut down a failing business — and that’s what prisons are. They cost billions of dollars nationwide and have zero return on investment if we are focused on punishment over rehabilitation. I love to throw in some numbers and say “When you incarcerate someone, it costs about $80,000 a year; when you educate someone in prison, it costs about $20,000 at the high end. So you would save money if we, as a nation, educate people so they can build a life, get a job, and pay taxes.. So for those concerned with money over humanity, this argument has changed some minds.

I think in this country, most people who are incarcerated never had a first chance at education. We’re not putting money into elementary schools, middle schools, high schools in a consistent, evenly-distributed way. I started school in New York City, and my school wasn’t good. We moved outside the city, and my brother and I were both held back because we weren’t up to the standards of the schools that were just an hour outside the city. And we were in first and second grade. When I was in the 10th grade my cousin, who still lived in NYC, was using a history book I used in 8th grade. How was that even possible when we lived only an hour from each other in the same state? That shows how education is not being funded, students are not being taught, in cities. That’s not unique to me or to New York– that’s every city in the country. How do we fix that? How do we put money into the system to make sure kids are getting educated, and these past two years with COVID, kids are at home, trying to learn on screens, missing out on the social education of a classroom – how will that affect the future?

And then, once you’re in college, having a stable, comfortable place so you can focus on an education is a necessity. When I was at Rutgers, if I didn’t have that safe place to go home to at night, I wouldn’t ever have finished my education. Housing and food security is so important – you can’t have an educational experience without it. FORTE House is helpful in that – but it has limited capacity. So how do we make campuses aware of this? I was the first person on parole to live on campus, when I first got to Rutgers. I was in a stable place, but it cost so much money. How do we make it affordable for someone who’s been experiencing incarceration? Or how can we have our own housing on campus – that’s something I’ve always wanted. And then, how do we translate that model nationally, because it’s not just New Jersey that has this problem: the entire country is facing the same thing.

Rutgers is unique in offering a pathway, and a lot more support than really anywhere in the nation. I would say California, New Jersey, and maybe New York are doing this well. So how do we take what’s working and start supporting people across the country, so they can go to college, and they never have to go back to prison?

But I don’t have the answers. I can see where we need improvement in this nation; I know we need politicians and all people on our side. But for now, I just have questions.


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