Higher ed expands in prisons as students prepare for life on the outside

Elizabeth Trovall Mar 6, 2024
Heard on:
Brandon Warren, who runs the reentry program at Lee College Huntsville Center, created educational resources for people in prison. Elizabeth Trovall/Marketplace

Higher ed expands in prisons as students prepare for life on the outside

Elizabeth Trovall Mar 6, 2024
Heard on:
Brandon Warren, who runs the reentry program at Lee College Huntsville Center, created educational resources for people in prison. Elizabeth Trovall/Marketplace

Access to higher education is expanding in prisons across the country as colleges and universities seek approval from government agencies to start degree programs after financial aid for incarcerated students was fully reinstated under Federal Pell Grants.

Most of the roughly 600,000 people released from U.S. prisons each year are leaving without having taken any college classes, despite evidence that higher education keeps people from reoffending, helps them find jobs post-release and makes prisons safer. New programs are expected in most U.S. states.

For Amber Galvan, her college courses in a Texas prison helped her navigate her job search post-release by preparing her for a career in logistics.

Looking for a job “takes practice and a lot of rejection for somebody like me, who has a background,” Galvan said. She recently started a logistics role working with airplane parts in the Houston area.

Amber smiles in front of a wall of foliage
Amber Galvan recently started a job in logistics and plans to continue her education post-release. (Elizabeth Trovall/Marketplace)

Since she got out of prison in May, she had a temp job cleaning houses and another at a transportation company where she was let go. She’s grateful that her new boss kept her on staff when she revealed that she was on parole.

It’s a tight spot to be in as Galvan restarts her life after a year and a half in prison for a domestic violence-related charge. In the process, she lost her marriage, contact with her kids and most of her personal belongings.

Her mom has helped her with about $10,000, which covered expenses during her incarceration and after, like rent, insurance, a phone and car. 

But Galvan is managing her bills on her own now — and she has new tools in her arsenal: a high school equivalency diploma and college classes in business management and logistics. She did this while incarcerated, studying through a program with Lee College, which teaches roughly 1,200 incarcerated students each semester. 

“One of the things in the reentry course that I emphasize are certain character attributes, to teach them how to fish rather than give them the fish,” said Brandon Warren, who leads a growing reentry team at Lee College’s Huntsville Center. The program has served incarcerated students continuously over the past six decades.

“Rather than giving them a list of felony-friendly employers, which is what everybody wants, we talk about pitfalls of these felony-friendly employers, and then how to go about doing the job search, regardless of whether you’re a felon or not,” Warren added.

Warren — who was incarcerated three times between the ages of 16 and 24 — also attended Lee College in prison. He earned 128 credit hours, a humanities degree and certifications in air conditioning, construction, carpentry and horticulture.

While studying in prison, he decided he wanted to help people like him navigate higher education.

“My grandmother used to send me stuff,” he said, referring to information she would print from the internet about resources in prison and how to reenter society. “Other people didn’t have a grandma like mine.” 

Warren works on preparing students for challenges they’ll face when they leave prison. Beyond college courses and certifications, that can mean providing information about degree plans, help with paperwork or finding a list of halfway houses.

Brandon holds the open guide in front of a bookcase.
Brandon Warren created a guide that corrects common misconceptions about reentry. Part of his job at Lee College is making sure that incarcerated students have reliable information about their post-release prospects. (Elizabeth Trovall/Marketplace)

Warren studied when Lee College and a handful of other programs were quietly operating on limited budgets during a 20-year gap in federal funding. In 1994, Congress banned prisoners from receiving federal student aid. Hundreds of programs shut down as a result. 

Lee College’s survived, thanks to funding from the Texas legislature, until public opinion began to shift again when the Pell Grant was reopened to incarcerated students under a pilot program.

Under that pilot, Lee College and other colleges and universities provided postsecondary education to at least 40,000 incarcerated students from 2016 to 2022, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.

“The Pell has absolutely made a world of difference in terms of access for people,” said Donna Zuniga, who runs Lee College Huntsville Center. She said access to Pell “just about doubled” its incarcerated student population.

Now that Pell has been fully reinstated beyond the pilot program — making some 760,000 individuals newly eligible for the Pell, according to U.S. Department of Education estimates — many new institutions are following in the footsteps of Lee College and others.

“We anticipate that there will be new programs or expansions in at least 43 states, just based on speaking with the stakeholders there,” said Ruth Delaney, an initiative director at the Vera Institute of Justice. They will join the more than 160 existing educational programs that were part of the federal pilot program.

Donna sits at a crowded desk.
Donna Zuniga runs the Lee College Huntsville Center, which serves around 1,200 students a semester. (Elizabeth Trovall/Marketplace)

So far, the Department of Education has approved a communications degree program at California State Polytechnic University to serve students at Pelican Bay State Prison, according to a department spokesperson.

In Texas, four new colleges have received initial approval from the state Department of Criminal Justice to offer classes. Five other institutions are waiting on approval. If all programs successfully complete the federal approval process, that would be nine additional Pell-funded higher education programs in Texas alone, according to the state agency.

New programs in U.S. prisons will provide more educational opportunities for students like Amber Galvan, who plans to continue her education at Lee College while holding her new logistics job.

She said the education she received in prison has shifted her view of her career potential.

“I’ve come from a lot of hardship in my life, not just my circumstance with being incarcerated, but even before that. I didn’t have any education under my belt and I had to work really hard to get to an admin position in the past,” she said.

“Now that I have certificates, working towards an associate’s [degree], people recognize that a little bit more, especially in such a growing field of logistics. I really, really love it.” 

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