Educating the Incarcerated Learner: How HBCUs Can Help


Erin S. Corbett

Minority Serving Institutions, for the most part, were founded for the purpose of providing a postsecondary education to historically excluded populations. In particular, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have a long history of service to their respective communities with missions focusing on individual and collective uplift and traditions steeped in social justice activism. These schools served as the primary institutions of higher learning for their African-American students relegated to living and learning within the context of segregation. Today, HBCUs enroll approximately 3% of the nation’s postsecondary population and, despite representing such a small portion of the overall college-going population, graduate 20% of the nation’s African-American college students. As such, the histories, missions, and trajectories of these institutions have consistently demonstrated a commitment to underserved citizens as part of the larger quest for equal educational access.

The success of HBCUs has occurred against the backdrop of our nation’s crisis of mass incarceration. Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimate that 2.2 million persons were in the physical custody of either a state or federal correctional facility. The incarceration rate of the United States, according to Marie Gottschalk’s Caught, is approximately 730 people per 100,000. This rate dwarfs the incarceration rates of all other nations; the next highest incarceration rate is in Russia, at 568 per 100,000, followed by Georgia, at 547 people per 100,000.

The mass incarceration conversation is incomplete without addressing the ways in which race figures prominently in the composition of incarcerated persons. Indeed, as Gottschalk notes, African-Americans are overrepresented in national incarceration rates, being jailed at a rate of 2,285 per 100,000 people; in comparison, Whites are jailed at 400 per 100,000 people. To contextualize an egregiously high overall incarceration rate, she argues that even if African-Americans and Whites were jailed at the rates of Whites, the United States would still have an incarceration problem; this is an accurate assessment. However, the reality is that African-Americans continue to be incarcerated at rates that exceed not only their percentage of the total population but the rates of every other ethnic group. Even further, some research, done by Todd Clear and Devah Pager, suggests that post-release outcomes, like employment and recidivism, vary by race/ethnicity, influenced by the ways in which institutionalized racism manifests itself within communities.

Education is one solution that has been found to decrease recidivism rates and increase employment rates of ex-offenders. Data suggest, much in line with similar data for non-incarcerated citizens and learners, that the more education an incarcerated learner can amass pre-release, the better the likelihood of securing employment and ultimately making the decision to not reoffend. Unfortunately, due to amendments to the Higher Education Act of 1965 made as a result of the Violent Crimes Act of 1994, federal funding for prison postsecondary education programs was eliminated and the number of programs, as well as enrollment in the remaining programs, decreased. As a result, incarcerated persons were then, and remain now, largely unable to pursue postsecondary study; consequently, the educational attainment gap between incarcerated and non-incarcerated citizens continues to grow.

Given the histories and missions of HBCUs, it stands to reason that they could prove instrumental when thinking about the creation of “inside” programming. Prisons, at both the state and federal level, contain the population to which HBCUs remain committed; correctional facilities are filled, primarily, with under-resourced and disenfranchised African-Americans. But HBCUs do not serve solely African-American students; many have increased their enrollment of non African-American students, illustrating that while the empowerment of the African-American community is perhaps the most visible objective, educational opportunity for all is the driving factor. HBCUs could serve the educational needs of the non African-American individuals as well, providing a comprehensive educational experience that is fully mission aligned and transformative.

In many ways, the potential for HBCU programming for incarcerated learners represents a convergence of two populations often overlooked in traditional higher education discussions. HBCUs often find themselves having to justify their relevance and existence, at times amid accusations that they are racist and/or discriminatory in their admission practices. Incarcerated learners are simply invisible in all education conversations. Incarcerated learners enrolled in GED programming are never counted in secondary program enrollment numbers; they are routinely excluded from the higher education enrollment data upon which researchers rely to thoughtfully discuss policy. If HBCUs decided to extend their commitment to educate the community to one of the most vulnerable populations in our country, the possibilities of prison education reform could be endless and HBCUs could, once again, be at the forefront of educational activism, empowering those most in need of justice.

Erin S. Corbett is Chief Executive Officer at Second Chance Educational Alliance, Inc., a leading nonprofit that provides academic refresher workshops to incarcerated learners in the state of Connecticut; she writes about her experiences teaching inside here. Corbett earned a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Education from Swarthmore, an MBA from Post University, and a doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania.

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