Educators, advocates push for better access to education in Wyo. prisons

The push is part of an initiative from an organization to make higher education more available in state facilities

By Katie Kull
Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, Cheyenne

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Some Wyoming officials and educators are pushing for better access to post-secondary education for people in state prisons.

It’s part of an initiative from a national organization to make higher education more available in state facilities.

Research from the Vera Institute for Justice, a national organization that advocates for criminal justice reform, shows people are 43 percent more likely to stay out of prison if they receive some form of post-secondary education, whether it’s career training programs or college classes.

Wyoming already has a relatively low recidivism rate of about 25 percent, meaning only a quarter of people who come out of prison are likely to go back. But state officials say there’s always room for improvement.

And Betty Abbott, the Wyoming Department of Corrections education programs manager, said Wyoming is well on its way to finding cost-effective ways to give people in prison some higher education.

Wyoming Pathways from Prison, a program through the University of Wyoming, is a partnership that allows professors and staff to register as adjuncts with Wyoming community colleges. The classes are completely free because people volunteer to teach.

Teachers have offered classes either at the Wyoming Women’s Center in Lusk or Wyoming Medium Correctional Facility in Torrington, including financial literacy, philosophy, social work and practices, women in society, and instruction in tutoring other people.

“Prisoners get the exact same quality that the students at UW do, but it doesn’t cost the state anything, it doesn’t cost the university anything, and I think it’s a real credit to our state,” said Susan Dewey, a program coordinator.

Dewey said that while expansion of the offerings would be great, it’s ultimately up to Wyoming communities to decide whether they want to allocate more money to providing college classes to inmates.

“The thing is that we all have to want it together in Wyoming as a state,” she said.

Because Wyoming is so small, people often see the real-life impact of incarceration. Dewey said that when she brings some of her university students to see state correctional facilities, the students often run into people they knew in high school or growing up.

“Public safety is a community problem,” Dewey said. So although it would be nice to get federal grants to fund some program expansion, that money often dies out and isn’t sustainable to keep programs thriving.

“It’s very important to me that we (tap into) our community support and goodwill, rather than starting a project that has money for five years and then it dies,” she added.

Abbott said she’d love to have some money to expand programming, since under the current system, everything hinges on the goodwill of volunteers.

“If there were additional funds, we could offer a lot more,” she said.

Abbott floated ideas of expanding access to online classes for inmates through a secure server or getting more teachers into the facilities to teach different classes.

But it all hinges on whether they can get some sort of funding for the programs.

The Vera Institute is pushing for Congress to pass a proposal that would lift a ban to allow inmates to receive access to Pell Grants, the federal government’s most substantial form of financial aid for low-income individuals.

Whatever happens, Abbott said providing post-secondary education is a valuable way to keep people out of state facilities and out of trouble.

“It changes a person’s thinking about themselves when they realize that they’re not the dummies that they thought they were. It allows them to really see themselves and the opportunities that they have,” she said.

©2018 Wyoming Tribune-Eagle (Cheyenne, Wyo.)

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