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Assistant professor Erin L. Castro is the driving force behind a new project that seeks to bring equity and access to a college education to Utah’s prisons.

By Brooke Adams, communications specialist, University Communications

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Assistant professor Erin L. Castro is the driving force behind a new project that seeks to bring equity and access to a college education to a critical yet challenging space: Utah’s prisons.

The University of Utah Prison Education Project, which gained momentum last year in an Honors College Praxis lab, is now offering two non-credit classes at the Utah State Correctional Facility in Draper.

Six women are taking Intro to Gender and Culture, while 10 men are in Philosophical and Historical Perspectives on Education. The project also provides tutoring help and a lecture series. Professor Suresh Venkatasubramanian recently presented a lecture titled “How to do Math (and Computer Science!) while Cutting a Cake.”

It’s a modest start to what Castro hopes will grow into a program that offers incarcerated individuals the opportunity to earn credits toward or complete a bachelor’s degree in University Studies.

“Access to higher education can change lives,” said Castro, director and co-founder of the Utah Prison Education Project and a faculty member in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy. “If we care about issues of equity and access, we have to ask ourselves why we wouldn’t consider incarcerated people as college students.

“It aligns with our mission as a public institution, which is to serve our community, and incarcerated persons are part of our community,” she said. “It is important for me that this become an academic program and that students are enrolled as U students, earning college credit, so they have those transcripts.”

Education makes a difference 

In Utah, approximately 97 percent of the people currently incarcerated will be released back to the community and there is evidence that educational services may be key in helping them not return.

A 2014 Rand Corp. report shows inmates who participate in educational programming have a 43 percent lower chance of reoffending. Studies also indicate educational services increase odds of finding a job. There is an economic argument as well: The Rand study found that every dollar invested in correctional education saves nearly $5 in costs given reductions in recidivism.

A majority of the people incarcerated have less than a high school education. The Canyons and South Sanpete school districts provide secondary education programs at Utah’s state prisons in Draper and Gunnison. Inmates also have access to vocational training programs through Davis Applied Technology College, Snow College and the Uintah Basin Applied Technology College. And inmates can take college-level correspondence courses.

Now, providing in-prison access to higher education offerings is making a comeback in Utah after a nearly 10-year hiatus. In its 2017 session the Utah Legislature approved ongoing funds for Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) to provide for-credit, general education courses to inmates seeking an associate’s degree. Castro is working with SLCC to create a pathway to four-year degrees.

A first-time experience 

Castro came to the U five years ago with a rich understanding of how prison education programs can make a difference. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where Castro received her doctorate, operates the Education Justice Project — a first-rate, comprehensive prison education program. She worked as a tutor, instructor and volunteer for the project.

“I had a phenomenal opportunity to learn about university/prison partnerships,” she said.

Castro also is a strategic organizing member of the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison, a coalition of college-in-prison programs in the U.S. Her research focuses on equity and access to quality postsecondary education, particularly for incarcerated and felony disenfranchised individuals.

Last year, Castro taught an Honors College praxis lab on Education, Incarceration and Justice. During the first half of the year, the 10 students in the lab took a deep dive into correctional education programs through readings and guest lectures. Speakers included Victor Kersey, institutional programming division director at the Utah Department of Corrections, and Mary Gould, director of the St. Louis Prison Program and a U alumnus.

The students also attended the 6th Annual National Conference on Higher Education in Prison in Nashville. While in Tennessee, they toured the medium-security Turney Center Industrial Complex. During the semester, the class also visited Utah’s main prison facility in Draper and the Salt Lake County Metro Jail.

“The adventure to Tennessee and meeting the amazing people behind the prison reform projects was incredibly humbling,” Mekenzy Toner, a sophomore majoring in Entertainment Arts and Engineering, wrote in the class’s final report. “I realized that hyper-incarceration is not a clear-cut issue, but rather a series of layers and foundational blocks of patriarchy and racism that have been built for years, and have only recently begun to be broken down.”

None of the students had ever been inside a prison before, Castro said.

“When we had the opportunity to speak to some of the women taking a course in the Timpanogos facility, it was easy to hear the desire to learn in each woman’s voice,” Erin Feeley, a junior majoring in human development and family studies, wrote in the lab’s final report. “Their questions probed us for descriptions of the courses we might offer and who might be able to take them. While we couldn’t provide answers to these questions that day, the questions stuck with me, motivating me to continue to contribute to the significant work load that lay before us.”

During the second semester, the students worked on an infrastructure for the Utah Prison Education Project, soliciting advice from successful program across the country. They created an admissions application formed a budget, wrote faculty/student manuals and a mission statement, etc. The class also successfully applied for a grant from the Newcomers Club of Salt Lake City.

“I learned so much from this course,” said Ludovica Farese, who is majoring in international studies with a chemistry minor, wrote in the lab’s final report. “It really opened my eyes to all the injustices that people face daily in the court system and in the carceral system.”

Next? Finding funds

The University of Utah Prison Education Project has enthusiastic support from the administration, faculty, students and staff, Castro said. The biggest obstacle at this point is funding.

“The only thing standing between us doing a non-credit program and enrolling students in for-credit programs is money,” Castro said. “We are applying for grants to cover costs of tuition, supplies and textbooks. There is tremendous interest but in terms of sustainability, we will definitely need to find funds.”

The project’s needs are unique. Most inmates don’t have financial resources or the means to earn enough while incarcerated to pay tuition. They don’t currently have access to computers or a closed-circuit server, which means students can’t access the online Marriott Library database and their research is limited to materials provided through the program or available in the prison library. Students must write research papers by hand; mistakes are corrected using whiteout tape.

“We go through a lot of paper and a lot of pencils,” Castro said.

“We want to work with people who are committed to participating in meaningful higher education and that’s not contingent on their ability to pay for it,” she added. “We want to say ‘What is it you need to be successful?’ and then provide it.”