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Education that uses advocacy and social justice offers more possibilities for incarcerated students

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11.07.2021

This story was originally published at Prism.

Accessing education can be endlessly challenging for those who are currently or formerly incarcerated. For those inside, coursework is often provided through partnerships with surrounding colleges and universities, but issues ranging from constant facility transfers to ineligibility for tuition loans can make completing one’s studies unfeasible. For those who have returned home, they can still be barred from applying for on-campus housing or entry to certain colleges. The result is that students who could stand the most to gain from higher education are often barred from it.

Lower recidivism rates and the ability to find jobs upon release are often touted as the only advantages of providing education for incarcerated students. However, new programs created for currently and formerly incarcerated students are leaning on both liberal arts and political education to help students dive deeper into history and cultivate a fuller understanding of both themselves and the various systems of oppression that often led to their incarceration. In doing so, these programs both nurture students’ self-discovery and provide them with the tools they need to become change-makers.

Program participants often cite this coursework as being enlightening, underscoring the significance of prison education beyond just its ability to prepare students for the workforce post-release. While college is utilized as a vehicle for career advancement, it’s also widely understood as a place of self-discovery and an opportunity to better see ourselves through interacting with new ideas and perspectives. That time for self-discovery is just as valuable for incarcerated students.

For Aminah Elster, access to prison education set her on the path to further her own academic journey, and last year she graduated from the school of her dreams: UC Berkeley. While incarcerated, Elster learned that she could apply to take classes at Feather River Community College, which enabled her to earn her associate’s degree. Feather River offered courses in the humanities as well as business administration, but Elster’s most memorable classes were in history.

“I grew up in East Oakland and I was never really exposed to anything really outside of that community,” Elster told Prism. “Prior to prison, I had believed that Oakland or California basically was the whole world; I could not see outside of that. So taking the classes and learning about cultures and histories outside of where I grew up enlightened me to a bigger purpose, not only for myself but for all Black people.”

While Elster’s program was more hands-on and structured than other programs available at her facility, they didn’t come without their challenges. After applying, Elster was placed on a........

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