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Virginia educators working to expand college access for incarcerated students

Byers-Robinson sheds tears as he talks about his education
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Darryl Byers-Robinson gives remarks about getting his education while incarcerated on Monday, July 1, 2024 at Virginia Department of Corrections HQ in Richmond.

Thousands are eligible for federal tuition grants, but fewer can attend.

It’s been a year since incarcerated individuals were once again able to qualify for federal Pell Grants to help pay for a college education while behind bars.

That means that 30 years after President Bill Clinton banned Pell eligibility for inmates in his 1994 crime bill, thousands of Virginia inmates are newly eligible to receive the grants, which cover full tuition at public two-year schools and a portion of the cost at four-year schools.

However, despite the ban being lifted, only about 600 Virginia inmates are currently using the grants to pursue degrees, according to the Virginia Consensus for Higher Education in Prison.

One main reason is limited access to programs.

In a press conference Monday, the Rev. Keith Jones — a board member at the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, which runs the Virginia Consensus initiative — pointed to research indicating that over half of incarcerated people qualify for college classes.

“Which gives us an estimate of 15,000 men and women in Virginia prisons who could pursue their college degrees using Pell Grants,” he said.

But only four Virginia community colleges have existing programs within prisons for which students can use Pell Grants: Piedmont Virginia, Southside Virginia, Rappahannock and Danville.

Dore speaks at a podium
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
David Dore, Chancellor of Virginia Community College System, gives remarks on Monday, July 1, 2024 at Virginia Department of Corrections Headquarters in Richmond, Virginia.

These schools got a head start because they were part of a federal pilot program that extended Pell Grant access to those participating colleges.

Julie Olive, coordinator for the prison education program offered by Piedmont Virginia in Charlottesville, said the demand at three area prisons has been so great that she has a dedicated drawer in her office for letters from incarcerated individuals and their family members — asking how they can get access to the program.

Olive said some inmates will seek prison transfers just to access one of the existing programs, even if it means being farther away from their families.

“We just can't accommodate all of these folks,” Olive said. “And it really is heartbreaking, because I wish we could.”

More community colleges — and even some four-year colleges — are signing on to help educate those incarcerated in Virginia, which should expand access for inmates looking to get an education.

But even with more programs participating, stakeholders say infrastructure and technology issues need to be addressed to meet demand.

Not all prisons have internet access, let alone classroom space. All of the classes PVCC offers in prisons are provided in person, and most coursework is completed by hand “as if it was 1962,” Olive said.

Occasionally, she said, inmates are permitted to use a physical computer inside the classroom to type up an assignment. But that's the extent of their ability to use technology in an educational context; they don’t use prison-owned tablets because students would have to pay to email their professors.

“Everything else is analog, and they do not have access to library research materials, which is a real bummer,” Olive said. “Because that's obviously an equity issue.”

The Virginia Department of Corrections’ director says the agency is working on increasing broadband access to allow classes to be taught remotely and trying to find a tablet that’s ideal for delivering educational services. That’s “easier said than done,” according to Chadwick Dotson, “but we’re working on a plan to get there.”

Darryl Byers-Robinson, an organizer with the Virginia Interfaith Center’s initiative for higher education in prisons, said the logistics can always be worked out. But what he really thinks has limited access so far is society’s idea of what “ingredients” should be included in the rehabilitation process — despite evidence that education in prison leads to lower rates of recidivism.

“We have all the ingredients,” he said. “We’re just trying to make the soup.”

Byers-Robinson is intimately familiar with these issues: He obtained a college degree through the Bard (College) Prison Initiative while incarcerated in New York and was featured in the PBS documentary series College Behind Bars.

Now, he’s working to coordinate collaboration among stakeholders in Virginia to ensure increased access to college programming in the Commonwealth’s prisons. While he’s sad that so few incarcerated people have access now, he’s excited about the future.

“I understand that when you're devoid of something, and then it's injected into your life, that something powerful happens,” Byers-Robinson said.

Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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