With the momentum of Pell restoration tempered by the continued challenges of distance-learning during the pandemic, this week marks the start of 2021’s annual National Conference on Higher Education in Prison (NCHEP). NCHEP’s guiding theme of educational equity spans five days and over 60 presentations, covering a wide range of topics, from abolitionist teaching to the power of collaborative partnerships. The concerns and strategies of this national cohort have changed considerably since I first attended the conference in 2017, when advocacy around increased funding for college programming was a central theme. Certainly, January’s extraordinary display of bipartisan and bicameral support for Pell restoration is a powerful indicator of just how far this consortium has come. Policy and advocacy have prevailed, and now implementation proves to be crucial. The issue of technology, made even more salient by the pandemic, and program quality look to be central themes of this year’s conference. Ithaka S+R is excited to be contributing to this discourse through two presentations: Kurtis Tanaka will speak on “Amplifying Educational Equity,” and Meagan Wilson, Michael Fried and Julia Karon are presenting “Towards a Research Infrastructure.” 

The pandemic has opened up the correctional space to technological change. Kiosks and tablets are now providing access to digital media, in the form of e-books, movies, and music. But with most in-person learning stalled due to the pandemic, colleges are trying to find ways to access and leverage these digital technologies to meet their instructional goals. Undeniably, the idea of prisons and digital technologies is a bit anachronistic. The American prison system was founded in the 1770s, with Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Prison. That was more than two centuries before the Digital Revolution. But it is precisely that distinction that informs the potentiality of this year’s conference: how can we leverage technology to revolutionize or abolish outdated conceptions of what prison education should look like? Can digital technologies enhance, and not replace, the in-person instruction that many consider indispensable to the intellectual and social development of the incarcerated student?  

Of course, prisons have not been known as discursive spaces, and de jure censorship has been the law of the land at least since 1989, when the US Supreme Court accorded broad discretion to prison officials to restrict incoming publications. Accordingly, the extent to which technology, in the form of digital libraries and computers, can amplify educational equity may depend on the idiosyncrasies of prison wardens.  

I expect that we will get answers to some of these questions this week. Like past conferences, attendees will no doubt leave this year’s NCHEP reenergized, guided by new ideas and encouraged by new partnerships. It is the amity and goodwill of these annual conferences that makes NCHEP such an enjoyable part of our work.