5 Steps to Enrolling in College from Prison

By Christopher Zoukis  Image courtesy prisoneducation.com

Enrolling in college from prison is no easy task.  There is the bureaucratic red tape to overcome, an endemic culture of failure, and prison staff members who are more interested in punching a clock than engaging in any form of actual work.  But fear not, with persistence, dedication, and a bit of planning, a college education obtained while in prison is possible.

This article presents the five essential steps to enrolling in college from prison.  By following these steps, any incarcerated students can learn their prison's regulations concerning correspondence education, locate quality correspondence programs, obtain authorization to enroll in the courses, and order their first set of college courses.

Step One: Review Prison's Applicable Policies and Regulations

The first step when engaging in any type of major project is to learn the rules, policies, and procedures surrounding it.  This is doubly so in prison, where regulations strictly dictate what is permitted within the confines of the correctional facility, and when breaking these rules and regulations can have very serious, life-altering consequences.

Unfortunately for inmates, there is no clear-cut way of learning what the policies and procedures are for enrolling in college from prison.  Generally speaking, a lack of information is the rule.  With this in mind, the inmate should go to their law library (if their correctional facility has one) and search for any regulations or program statements (sometimes called "policy statements") on correspondence programs and college correspondence courses (sometimes called "post-secondary correctional education courses").  In prison systems like the Federal Bureau of Prisons, every facility has an electronic law library where this information can be easily obtained.  In prison systems that lack law libraries, the inmate should approach education staff and inquire about any policies and procedures concerning correspondence programs.

Once any applicable program statements have been reviewed, the inmate will have an idea of how the process should work, and if they are even eligible to engage in such an educational endeavor.

Step Two: Purchase Correspondence Course Guides

A lack of information is the incarcerated student's greatest barrier to enrolling in college from prison.  For the most part, the prison staffer in charge of correspondence education (called the "College Coordinator" in the Federal Bureau of Prisons) will not act like a regular guidance counselor or college admission specialist.  Very often, they will not have information on what correspondence programs are available, they will not be willing to search online for this information, and they will not want to engage in much additional work.  The incarcerated student is virtually on their own.

Luckily for the inmate student, others have gone before them who have paved the way.  There are three books on the market (all by current inmates) which provide very detailed information not only on correspondence programs accessible to prisoners, but also provide detailed instructions and boots-on-the-ground advice to successfully completing a correspondence course of learning:

  •      Education Behind Bars by Christopher Zoukis (Sunbury Press, 2012)
  •      Prisoners' Guerrilla Handbook to Correspondence Programs by Jon Marc Taylor, Ph.D. (Prison Legal News, 2009)
  •      College in Prison by Bruce Michaels (Trafford Publishing, 2007)

Incarcerated students are recommended to read at least one of these books, if not all three.  While the Prisoners' Guerrilla Handbook and Education Behind Bars are the two major players in this field, all three of these prison education texts offer invaluable insights and advise.

Step Three: Write to Top Correspondence Program Selections

After the student has delved into at least one of the above-mentioned prison education books, they should make a list of their top three to five correspondence program selections.  With these in hand, they should send letters to each.  These letters should explain that they are incarcerated, are interested in enrolling in college via correspondence (or career studies, high school studies, etc.), and request that the school's correspondence course catalog and any applicable enrollment documents and information be sent.

In three to six weeks all of the information should arrive.  The inmate should then dig into all of the materials.  They need to read everything, understand what courses and degrees are offered, and all of the applicable policies and procedures concerning the correspondence programs.  This is their education after all; their ticket to a future beyond prison walls.

When making their final correspondence program selection, they should pay special attention to the following:

  •      Is the school regionally accredited?
  •      Does the school offer courses in a paper-based format that can be completed entirely through the mail?
  •      Is any internet access or access to a media player required?
  •      Can the student afford the tuition?
  •      Does the school offer all of the courses required to fulfill degree requirements?

The three mentioned books cover all of these aspects and more.  As such, it is highly recommended to read at least one of them prior to making a correspondence program selection.

Step Four: Speak with Prison's College Coordinator

After the student has selected the correspondence college program that they want to enroll in, they need to approach the staffer at their prison who handles correspondence courses.  This person could be called the "College Coordinator," "Correspondence Course Coordinator," or another title, and will most likely be located in the prison's education department.

Once the student has located this staff member, they should present the person with the course catalog for the school they desire to enroll in, ask if the program will be approved by the institution (it most likely will be), and inquire what needs to be done in order for them to be authorized to receive such courses.  Most likely, the inmate will have to sign an agreement to abide by program expectations and will then be added to the approved student list, a list of inmates who are allowed to receive college course materials through the mail.

Step Five: Enroll in College Program and Order First Set of Courses

With a college correspondence program selected and authorization to enroll granted, it's now time for the inmate to enroll in the program.  Generally speaking, the inmate will have to submit an application form to the school in question, and will probably have to send along a check for the application fee.  Many schools charge between $25 and $50 for the application fee.  After application has been made, the inmate student should be accepted within several weeks.  Correspondence program admission is significantly more lenient than traditional college admission.  Along with the acceptance letter will be course enrollment and other applicable information.

The final step in this process is for the inmate to order their first set of courses.  By and large, this is done by utilizing an order form contained within the correspondence course catalog.  On this form the inmate will need to input all of their personal identifying information, the course codes and names, and all applicable costs.  The student can either furnish a check, issued by the prison after the requisite amount has been deducted from their trust fund or commissary account, or write their beneficiary's name and contact information (the person who will be paying for the courses).  Once payment is received by the school, the college correspondence courses will be sent to the inmate for them to complete.