The little-known history of college-in-prison in the United States illustrates that the viability of such programming need not be at the mercy of prevailing political winds. The origins and growth of HEP underscore the power that determined individuals and institutions can harness when they collaborate.

Since the 1970s, the availability of federal financial assistance to incarcerated learners has, in large part, dictated the prevalence of higher education in prison (HEP) programming. Recently, the political climate has shifted in HEP’s favor: 2020 saw the restoration of need-based federal Pell Grants to incarcerated learners after a 26-year ban. This momentous policy change promises a boom in the number of HEP students and programs. However, the little-known history of college-in-prison in the United States illustrates that the viability of such programming need not be at the mercy of prevailing political winds. The origins and growth of HEP underscore the power that determined individuals and institutions can harness when they collaborate.

The origins of modern HEP lie in the religious and reform-minded climate of the 1830s and 1840s United States. Beginning in the 1830s, instructors from the Harvard Divinity School began tutoring incarcerated individuals at the Massachusetts State Prison. The Boston Prison Discipline Society, a prison reform group, deemed this “frequent and almost hourly intercourse” a “far greater” opportunity for “reformation” than “weekly sermons and daily chapel services.” Reformers’ belief that education and dialogue benefited incarcerated people and society at large set an important precedent for future higher education behind bars.

The first bonafide college-in-prison programs arose in the early 20th century. A 1913 Washington Post article announced that more than 50 incarcerated individuals at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas “were enrolled at the State Agricultural College” and taking correspondence courses in agriculture, civil engineering, mechanics, and dairying. “They are, so far as is known, the only convict college students in the United States,” the author of the article hypothesized.

Soon, other incarcerated learners joined their ranks. Just a year later, a group of professors from the University of California began offering weekly courses at the state’s Folsom and San Quentin prisons. By 1916, 250 incarcerated individuals at San Quentin were enrolled in University of California correspondence courses. Spanish language instruction proved popular, and students also had the opportunity to enroll in classes “as wide as the world—salesmanship, banking, gardening, dietetics, mathematics, bookkeeping, zoology, engineering.” The University of California offered these diverse courses free of charge.

During the interwar period, interest in broadening incarcerated individuals’ access to educational opportunities expanded, in part thanks to Austin H. MacCormick, assistant director of the US Bureau of Prisons. In the late 1920s, he conducted a sweeping investigation of all but three correctional facilities in the nation. He subsequently established the American Prison Association’s Standing Committee on Education (which later became the Correctional Education Association), founded the academic Journal of Correctional Education, and authored a book on education for incarcerated adults.

New York also emerged as a leader in the prison education movement. In 1932, then-governor Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Walter Wallack, a teacher and doctor of education, as educational advisor to the New York Commission on Prison Administration and Construction. Under his guidance, the Commission promptly released a special report outlining ways to expand educational opportunities in state facilities. Among other suggestions, the report recommended that faculty from nearby private and public colleges, such as Vassar and Skidmore, begin offering lectures inside. Shortly thereafter, institutions of higher learning across the country, from the state university system in Wisconsin to Harvard Law School in Massachusetts, began to partner with prisons to offer onsite college coursework to incarcerated students.

Southern Illinois University and the Illinois State Penitentiary in Menard comprised one pioneering partnership of this era. In 1953, they collaborated to offer vocational courses at the prison. By 1956, they had established a credit-bearing journalism program inside that quickly drove demand for additional for-credit courses in other subjects. Southern Illinois University provided all textbooks and “encourag[ed] the student-prisoners by reducing tuition costs to a token.” Ten years after offering its first credit-bearing course, the program had facilitated and largely financed 64 courses involving over 500 incarcerated students.

National calls to expand access to education for all Americans, including incarcerated individuals, mounted in the 1960s. Legislation stemming from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society program signaled a turning point in the federal government’s involvement in education. This trend transferred to the carceral context. In 1967, President Johnson’s new Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) decided directly to fund a number of college-in-prison programs across the nation, including in Oregon, Minnesota, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Colorado. These efforts laid the groundwork for the field’s reliance on federal funding.

By the time that Pell grants (then known as Basic Educational Opportunity Grants or BEOGs) became an option for incarcerated students in 1972, college-in-prison was a long-established phenomenon. Thus, while federal financial aid did not create higher education in prison, it certainly helped college courses behind bars to proliferate in the 1970s and 1980s. At the dawn of the 1990s, there were 712 state and seven federal carceral institutions that offered some form of higher education coursework.

The extent to which these college-in-prison programs had grown reliant on federal assistance became clear when it was rescinded. The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (commonly known as the 1994 Crime Bill) infamously disqualified incarcerated individuals from Pell Grant eligibility. HEP offerings plummeted in the Crime Bill’s aftermath. Just three years after its passage, two-thirds of correctional institutions participating in a national survey “indicated that the elimination of Pell grants eliminated most if not all of their college course opportunities.”

Exacerbating the decline in college-in-prison programs, certain states mirrored the national precedent set by the Crime Bill and also withdrew their funding for incarcerated students. Without public funding, higher education had to rely on private philanthropy, volunteer efforts, increased university support, and higher tuition costs for incarcerated students. Additionally, a less frequently discussed, and harder to measure, consequence of government retrenchment was its impact on public favor for HEP. The media circus surrounding the 1994 Crime Bill resulted from and perpetuated decades of tough-on-crime rhetoric that drew bipartisan support across the country. In this hostile public climate, the programs that survived did so out of sheer force of will on the part of directors, educators, students, and prison personnel.

The restoration of Pell opportunities for college students behind bars is encouraging, but the history of college-in-prison is a reminder that the field cannot grow to rely on federal support alone. The development of a higher education in research infrastructure (HEP RI) can help to fortify the relationships, agreements, and other incentives that allow HEP research and programming to thrive. A community of practice would allow for the free flow of data on student outcomes, funding, best practices, and opportunities for growth. That foundation, fortified with support and information from a diverse group of stakeholders, has the potential to withstand future federal funding downturns. College-in-prison has come a long way from nineteenth century reform-oriented religious tutoring, but it still has a long way to go. An HEP RI can ensure that college opportunities for incarcerated students continue to expand and strengthen into the future.