By Christopher Zoukis
In prisons across the country, a GED is typically the highest level of academic achievement facilitated by the prison administration. The administration's focus - in terms of education - is almost exclusively upon how fast they can funnel their prison's population through their GED programs. It's a never-ending cycle that ends with each prisoner earning a GED and starts over with the next prisoner who has yet to earn one. While a good first step, it dooms many to failure. It does so by starting the prisoner on an academic track, but the track comes to a screeching halt upon attainment of the GED.
This single-minded focus on the GED creates a void for prison systems nationwide. This void is education above-and-beyond the GED level. Some prisons offer Adult Basic Education or Adult Continuing Education courses (of which I am an instructor), but rarely do any offer educational programs at the career or university level. This level of study - the credentialing level - is desperately needed by each and every prisoner because studies at this level translate directly into lower recidivism rates and jobs upon release.
FINDING A SCHOOL
For the prisoner who desires to advance their education above the level of studies offered by their prison's Education Department there is only one option: correspondence courses. By definition, a correspondence course is completed entirely through the mail. The prisoner starts out by writing to a particular school that they wish to attend and asks them to send a catalog and any enrollment documents required for correspondence study.
Upon receipt of the requested documents from each school, the prisoner will read through everything very carefully to see if the school offers a program of study that they can enroll in (materials-wise and procedures-wise) and a program of study that they want to enroll in. It is highly advised that the prisoner obtain catalogs from several schools. This way they can obtain a broad view of what is out there and what they want to study. Plus, by comparing and contrasting offerings and options, they can pick the school that is right for them.
ASSURING A SCHOOL'S QUALITY
Regardless of which level of study the prisoner-student is interested in (college or career), they will want to pay special attention to which agencies the school is accredited by. Accreditation is essentially a statement or certification from an independent professional body that a particular school is of a high quality. All schools at the university and career level may be accredited, but the accreditation agency often differs from college to career level. So, with the understanding that career level schools may be different, you should make sure the school you select is accredited by one of the six regional accreditation agencies.
To be as practical and useful as possible, here is a list of the six regional accreditation agencies:
Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools
New England Association of Schools and Colleges
North Central Association of Colleges and Schools
Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities
Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
Western Association of Schools and Colleges
A NOTE ABOUT THE DETC
The DETC is the Distance Education and Training Council. They are an accreditation agency that accredits schools which offer courses via distance. They are a good agency for the prisoner-student to know about because any school accredited by them is available to the prisoner-student. However, this is a double-edged sword. Just because a school is accredited by the DETC doesn't necessarily mean they are of a high quality. It just means that courses are offered through distance education.
The problem that prisoner-students fall into is thinking that DETC accreditation is regional accreditation. It's not. Accreditation by the DETC just defines the modality of the courses, not the quality. Only the six regional accreditation agencies - and several specialized ones which we don't have space to cover here - are a true testament of quality. Though, this is truer at the college level as opposed to the career level, because many career schools are only accredited by the DETC.
For example, if you come across a college that is only accredited by the DETC, not a regional accreditation agency, move along. The credits most likely won't transfer to any other school and it will not look nearly as good to an employer as a regionally accredited college's credits. Plus, the courses very well might be of a lower quality than courses offered through regionally accredited schools.
On the other hand, if it is a career school that you're planning on attending, then regional accreditation is nice, but not mandatory. This is because DETC accreditation is the norm. For example, many of the paralegal programs are only accredited by the DETC, not a regional accreditation agency. This is true of other areas of study, too. Though, just because they are at the career level doesn't preclude them from regional accreditation.
After the prisoner-student has settled upon a school and program of study they will need to go to their Education Department. Once there they will need to speak with the College Coordinator or Post-Secondary Education Coordinator. This individual is probably both a teacher and the person in charge of correspondence courses. This person will most likely sit down with the prisoner and ask them a number of questions. The prisoner's answers will be used to create a file for the prisoner.
After the basic information collection and introductions are out of the way, what is really important will occur – a discussion on policies and procedures. Now, this is not a fun part of the meeting, because the discussion will probably be disappointing and dissuading. The prisoner will find out what kinds of books are allowed in (e.g. hardcover and/or paperback), what kind of materials are allowed (e.g. pads of paper, pens, pencils, books, study guides, etc.), and which materials aren't allowed (e.g. metal spiral-bound pads of paper, binders with metallic clasps, CDs, DVDs, other forms of multi-media, etc.). The prisoner will also be alerted as to the class signup procedures and the examination by proctor procedures.
The prisoner is advised to remain as calm and polite as possible, as the process can be tedious. But the truth of the matter is that there is no other way to sign up for career or college courses. The prisoner-student should endeavor to make an ally of the College Coordinator. If they are, issues can be smoothed over. If not, they can be a barrier to all of the prisoner-student's educational efforts for years to come.
SIGNING UP FOR YOUR FIRST CLASS
After the prisoner settles upon the school that they want to attend and the courses that they want to enroll in, they will need to go back and speak with the College Coordinator in their Education Department. This time around all of the basic information will be out of the way. All that will be required is the prisoner will have to fill out a Package Authorization Form (or whatever they call the form at their prison), so the package from their school will be accepted by the prison's mail room.
In the Federal Bureau of Prisons, this form contains locations for the sender's address, the prisoner's address, and the contents of the package. This last part is where problems can arise. Before filling out this form, the prisoner is advised to contact the school, asking for a list of every item that will be included in the package. It really is this serious. If errors are made, contents could be rejected. Therefore, it is advised that caution be applied.
College courses can be very expensive. It's not unheard of for a regular undergraduate course to run between $350 and $800. At rates this expensive a prisoner couldn't hope to afford the cost of even one course unless they make several hundred dollars a month, which is very unlikely. So, the prisoner will probably need to ask family, friends, or maybe even a local organization - such as a church or business - to assist in paying for their studies. It should be noted that some schools offer payment plans, though most universities don't.
One point of contention that does need to be addressed is that of grants and other government-sponsored student financial aid. Prisoners are not eligible for any of this government-sponsored aid, not even Pell Grants. All costs will need to be fulfilled by the prisoner, their family, or possibly a private organization. Remember, while these courses are expensive, they do have the potential to change your loved one's life trajectory. With this in mind, perhaps the cost of a few college courses each year isn't that insurmountable?
Over the years I have come across one scholarship program specific to prisoners. This is the Dirk Van Velzen Scholarship which is awarded to select prisoners for undergraduate studies. It should be noted that an application is required and the prisoner-student can only request funding for a few courses (2 or 3) at a time. For more information, contact (make sure to enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope with your inquiry):
The Prison Scholar Fund
23517 Orville Road East
Orting, WA 98360
RECEIVING YOUR MATERIALS FROM YOUR SCHOOL
After the school receives the enrollment form, payment, and any form of authorization required, they will respond by mailing the prisoner-student a study guide, textbook, and any other required course materials. The prisoner will have to go back up to the Education Department to receive the sent books.
COMPLETING A CORRESPONDENCE COURSE
The study guide that the school sends will direct the prisoner-student to read certain portions of the textbook(s) and to complete certain assignments. Upon completion of each assignment, they will have to mail the completed assignment back to the school to be graded. It is important that the student keep copies of all correspondence with the school. This is because items do get lost in the mail. This process will be repeated until the student arrives at an examination or until the course is completed. If a particular course requires an examination, then the exam will be sent directly to the College Coordinator, who will proctor the examination.
PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS
Studying inside prison can be a very challenging experience. Problems can abound from all sides. Guards, prisoners, and even the very environment of the prison can prove to be a hindrance to studies. Nevertheless, it can be done and the results are worth it. To obtain an education is to obtain new life. An advanced education will facilitate both a new level of understanding and employment upon release. Simply stated, an education will vastly improve the prisoner-student's life in the here-and-now, and for years to come.
MY FAVORITE COLLEGE
College Program for the Incarcerated
Haning Hall 222
Athens, OH 45701-2979
Adams State College
208 Edgemont Boulevard
Alamosa, CO 81102
University of North Carolina
The Friday Center
Center for Continuing Education
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-1020
Upper Iowa University
External Degree Program
P.O. Box 1861
Fayette, IA 52142-1861
DECENT CAREER SCHOOLS
Blackstone Career Institute
P.O. Box 3717
Allentown, PA 18106
Berean School of the Bible
1211 South Glenstone Avenue
Springfield, MO 65804-0315
Moody Bible Institute
Moody Distance Learning
820 N. LaSalle Boulevard
Chicago, IL 60610
Penn Foster Career School
925 Oak Street
Scranton, PA 18515-0700
(Various Programs of Study)