Accessibility and Disability Services in Postsecondary Education in Prison Programming
An Interview with Jenifer Montag
This is the second post in our series spotlighting the complex and challenging situation regarding disabilities, accessibility, and accommodations in postsecondary education in prison programs. Read the first entry and announcement of the series.
We recently spoke with Dr. Jenifer K. Montag, director of disability services at Marion Technical College, about her work as a researcher-practitioner, the challenges of providing disability services to postsecondary students in prison, and what needs to change for equitable access to education inside. To learn more about Dr. Montag and her research, please visit her website (college in prison administrators and faculty may be particularly interested in the “Research and Resources” page).
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your position and the work that you do.
My name is Jenifer K. Montag and I am currently the director of disability services at Marion Technical College in Marion, Ohio, a small-to-medium-sized, public two-year community college. I started five years ago as the inaugural full-time director of disability services. Shortly after my hiring, I attended a deans and directors meeting in which the dean responsible for the correctional education program announced that we had 350 students enrolled at the two prisons for that fall semester. Needless to say, I was unaware we had classes at any prisons, much less the large number of enrolled students. After meeting with the director of the prison education program and the dean, we identified a process for me to gain entry and meet with students when they request accommodations. Simultaneously, I was researching any published information about providing the legally required disability accommodations for college classes held within the prison setting. To say there is a dearth of research is an understatement. Most of the available research directly relates to the K-12 special education services and does not discuss college disability service provision.
At that time, I was completing my doctorate in higher education administration and decided to change my dissertation topic to research service provision for disabled students who are incarcerated. I also began to more robustly meet the needs of students with disabilities enrolled in our correctional education programs; I completed the background process to be allowed inside as a contractor, which permitted me to meet with students without the need for escort from our college (the program coordinator). Additionally I worked closely with the director and the program coordinator to develop several processes informing students of their rights to request and use accommodations for their college classes. I continue to work with our enrolled student population to ensure they have access to the classes and course materials if they have a disability, and in fall of 2022, I also began teaching the first-year experience class inside the two correctional facilities.
You are a researcher-practitioner positioned at the intersection of disability services and studies, and higher education in prison programming. Can you provide some context on that intersection for our readers? What is the state of disability services and studies in postsecondary education in prison?
In my research, I explore the current state of disability services in prison education contexts and the main barriers facing programs as they work to meet the needs of students. My recent study was limited to only public community colleges (two year degrees/programs); I identified 158 potential respondents providing education programs within correctional settings. Of the 158 potential respondents, 33 responded to the survey and 12 volunteered for subsequent interviews. Fifty-eight percent of the survey respondents (n=33) indicated that they were providing any sort of accommodation to disabled students enrolled in the correctional education programs at their college. Among respondents providing at least one accommodation, 89 percent identified at least one barrier in providing that accommodation. Sixteen of the 19 respondents that provided accommodations indicated that they were serving 10 or fewer disabled students. Nearly half (47 percent) of the 19 respondents providing accommodations inside only provided one accommodation. Common services provided were extra time on tests and quizzes (37 percent), providing braille or large print (37 percent), and providing interpreters and/or real-time captioning (32 percent).
Both the survey respondents and the interviewees identified that the actions or attributes of the prison administration, including the security protocols, were the greatest barrier to facilitating access and accommodations. The next most common barrier was the lack of technology access, especially as most accommodations in the 21st century rely heavily on technology and software, including digital recording of lectures, accessible textbooks (with the computer software reading the textbook aloud), and audio format of tests and quizzes for those with print disabilities. Limited access to the documentation of disabilities and limited staffing of the disability services office followed third and fourth, respectively. This particularly resonated with me, as I am a one-person disability services office serving two prisons and about 50 students with disabilities every semester at those sites, along with continuing to provide disability accommodations to the general disabled college student population (about 150 students in a given semester). I estimate it takes about three times as long to facilitate an accommodation inside as it does to a general student either online or on the college campus.
The final barrier identified through this research was administrators’ lack of understanding of the legal requirements and responsibilities of providing disability services in prison, either by the college administration, the correctional education program administration, or even by the college disability service personnel. Several of the respondents assumed that the prison would handle all accommodations. It is important to note that there have been several decisions within the legal environment that indicate colleges cannot transfer the responsibility for accessibility to a third party. Despite this, several respondents indicated that they would not be providing accommodations for disabled students inside the prison because “they are incarcerated, and the law doesn’t apply to them.” Several others indicated that as the disability service provider, they were unaware their colleges even held classes in prisons. The legal responsibility for accessibility is not allocable, as evidenced in the Rolf Jensen case. In fact, the state of correctional education and disability services are inherently linked, as a survey report published in 2021 noted, 38 percent of those who are incarcerated have a disability. That is double the rate of disability for the general college population, of 19 percent, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
What are some of the major considerations and challenges for adapting access accommodations for postsecondary education students in prison? How does it differ from providing accommodations on main campuses on the outside?
There are several barriers that college disability service providers experience in trying to facilitate access within college correctional programs. Perhaps the most common barrier, and currently the hardest to overcome, is the prison administration’s security protocols. First the college disability service provider has to identify who at the prison can approve an accommodation, which can take several weeks. Once the administration has approved an accommodation, such as allowing Internet access for real-time captioning to be remotely brought in for a student who is deaf and does not know sign language, if that administration changes, the new administration will require all of the technology to be removed and the process for approval to be completed again.
The lack of access to technology is also extremely frustrating, as one interviewee stated, “it’s like I’m in the Twilight Zone, I have to figure out how to do this with no technology.” In my case, I simply looked at what I was doing 25 years ago when I started in the field; I call it going old school. For example, because recorders are not allowed in the prisons, we need live notetakers in class using carbonless paper to take notes for multiple students.
One of the biggest barriers we face is trying to facilitate audio access for textbooks and print materials for students with learning disabilities and those who are blind or have low vision. This is an area where my colleagues and I are still seeking out options. There is one scanning pen that was developed with the security protocols in mind to be used in correctional facilities, but many of the correctional facilities are not allowing the pens outside of the education area where they have to be checked in, checked out, and monitored for use by the students. Colleges are creating correctional education programs and add on the disability services often as an afterthought, and sometimes not at all. It is likely that there are a large number of individuals with disabilities who are seeking college education to improve their future that are not going to be able to participate fully or equally because colleges are limited in providing the accommodations needed.
What do you think people who work in postsecondary education and don’t have training in disability studies need to know?
I wish the college administration, the college correctional education administration, and the prison administration would all seek out and include the disability service personnel at the college from the beginning of developing the correctional education program. Absent that, I hope the college’s disability services personnel understand the various types of correctional education programming and the different barriers that one might experience in trying to facilitate accommodations in those settings. It’s essential for college administrators to realize that additional resources, including staff and funding, will be needed to provide equal and equitable access to this college’s program.
I wish the college administration, the college correctional education administration, and the prison administration would all seek out and include the disability service personnel at the college from the beginning of developing the correctional education program.
Administrators must also recognize that securing sign language interpreters to go into the prison setting is far more complex than it appears, and the process takes an additional two to eight weeks for a contractor. I think the biggest tip I can provide is the importance of collaboration; results from my study indicated just how critical collaboration with all the stakeholders, including the disabled student who is incarcerated, is in facilitating access.
What kinds of resources, organizations, or collaborators do you want people to know about?
One of the resources that I created is a website that features a research-developed toolkit, including tips for disability service providers on what it’s like to provide accommodations in the prison setting, a barrier assessment tool to look at different formats of education programming, and information about different security protocols that might create additional barriers for disabled students and the disability service personnel to provide the access. I’ve also curated some of the recent court cases related to disabilities within correctional facilities for judicial systems and have broken those out by state, type of facility, and impact (effective communication, physical access, etc.). These are all available at www.jkmresearch.weebly.com and I hope to continue adding to this resource.
Another good resource for college disability service personnel is the Correctional Education Association (CEA) and the local state affiliates of this organization. While much of the programming focuses on the state level department of corrections (DOC), they are starting to recognize and include college correctional education as part of the association. The association provides college disability service personnel an opportunity to meet the ABE/GED staff at the state level to discuss further access issues.
What do you see as the most pressing areas of need on this topic? What do you think the next steps are to addressing these needs?
I think it’s essential to increase awareness regarding the legal and civil rights of those who are incarcerated and have disabilities. This includes general access at the correctional level and awareness building for college administrators, college correctional education program administrators, and the college disability service personnel. Additionally, we must get technology and assistive technology vendors to recognize the need to develop technology that can be used within a highly secure, constrained environment, such as the prison, to help provide disability services within college correctional education programs.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I believe that we need the United States Department of Education to explicitly state in their Pell grant prison education application information that each college’s disability service office must have a process for those who are incarcerated with disabilities to access accommodations and services as the college would provide to the general student population. I will say this again and again: college correctional education is a program of the college and by that nature it is the college’s responsibility to ensure equal and equitable access under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. To do otherwise is a double negative impact to this unique population.