Earlier this month, the FAFSA Simplification Act restored federal Pell grant funding for students who are incarcerated in US prisons. This has driven excitement about higher education in prisons, with pieces celebrating the revised policy in Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education. While this is unequivocally good news, it is important to understand that full Pell reinstatement is propelling, and arriving amidst, rapid change in higher education in prisons, as increased federal and philanthropic funding drive the expansion of new tools, programs, and supporting services, and programs begin to adopt new technologies.

At the same time, our own research on technology access in prison education programs and recent events, especially the Minnesota Department of Corrections’ settlement with the Department of Justice over ADA noncompliance and the ensuing consent decree about how to execute the settlement, raise questions about whether higher education in prison can be expanded equitably. And, more pointedly, how can the field ensure that students with disabilities have access to equitable postsecondary education?

The urgency of this question cannot be overstated, especially considering that a 2016 study found that nearly two in every five people who are incarcerated had at least one disability. Incarceration itself can have negative mental health impacts, and the environment and rules of prison can be challenging for people with certain kinds of intellectual or developmental disabilities. Put another way, the rate at which people in prisons identified as having disabilities is nearly double the rate at which college students identified as having disabilities in the 2015-2016 school year. While there are professional organizations and academic journals dedicated to studying how to best support, serve, and include students with disabilities in postsecondary education, there is very little research on how to best serve students with disabilities inside prisons.

The February settlement between the Minnesota Department of Corrections and the DOJ emphasized the urgency of understanding how quality, equitable education can be provided to students with disabilities in prisons, as the initial complaint and ensuing lawsuit chronicled Minnesota’s failure to meet minimum compliance requirements in relation to the Americans with Disabilities Act. While that settlement focused on GED and high school offerings, it has demonstrated the lack of quality information available about including, serving, and supporting students with disabilities in higher education in prison programs. Below, we emphasize the need for a holistic, student-centered, equity-minded body of research on disability and accessibility best practices, before suggesting areas where direct intervention and coordination are warranted.

Current landscape

There is a dearth of research on disabilities in prison, broadly, and in prison education in particular. Our initial scan of the field yielded 18 studies published between 2014 and 2022, of which 10 were US studies.  This means that researchers must know and search for individual disabilities by name. Physical disabilities are particularly understudied. Current research is more likely to focus on mental disabilities, especially intellectual disabilities. Intellectual disabilities, however, are the least common mental disability among people who are incarcerated in the US, suggesting that there is need for more research into more common mental disabilities.

These discoveries highlight a need for a holistic body of research that draws connections between the best practices for working with students with specific disabilities who are incarcerated, especially where recommendations overlap. For example, research suggests that people with a variety of disabilities may benefit from similar educational interventions, but to best serve these individuals, there must also be targeted interventions that take effect when broader measures are not enough (resources available at bottom of linked page). Understanding where strategies overlap and where they diverge would go a long way towards connecting the existing research on disabilities in higher education in prison programs.

Proposing initial interventions

In addition to uniting existing literature, our scan shows the need for further research on practical, actionable best practices in the classroom, including how educational professionals can modify existing practices from disability studies for a prison environment. A great deal of current research is doing the important work of identifying the need for intervention. Such research shows important information about why, how, and to what extent people with disabilities are overrepresented in corrections. This body of research suggests the need for instructor training in working with students with disabilities, for building a care network to support students with disabilities both during their incarceration and upon reentry, and for acknowledging how students’ experiences with incarceration affect them when they enter educational spaces. But there is still opportunity to build on this research to include the voices of students with disabilities and educational professionals working in higher education in prisons so that others can learn from and build on their experiences to improve the curriculum.

In non-correctional higher education and professional settings, individuals with disabilities have technological tools, spatio-temporal adjustments, and dedicated services and supports available to increase accessibility and enable more equitable participation. Currently, such interventions are largely unavailable in prisons. Our ongoing research with Ennead Lab on space needs in higher education in prisons has made us aware of a number of issues with correctional architecture and design that create additional barriers to access and success for students with disabilities. There are increased challenges to moving through the prison-space, which pose a barrier to students with disabilities getting to class—issues related to spatial arrangements, security requirements and checkpoints, and restrictions on the timing and movement of students, for example. At the same time, spatial and design issues—such as limited classroom space, shared or crowded learning environments, and issues with noise, temperature control, and lighting likely impact student success and disproportionately impact students with disabilities.

Ithaka S+R is taking a student-centered approach to studying technological implementation frameworks in postsecondary education in prison programs in order to provide decision makers with better data about existing technology ecosystems and student experiences in them. This is a first step toward a data-informed approach to studying best practices in the field. At the same time, we are engaging in conversations with students with disabilities and professionals and experts that support them.

In the future, we hope to bring technology providers, architects, and designers with expertise in equity and accessibility into dialogue with stakeholders in correctional education to workshop novel, sustainable solutions to systemic problems. While major professional organizations and communities of practice exist to support students with disabilities and to increase educational accessibility and increase access to and student support and success in higher education in prisons, there is, however, no dedicated community of practice that bridges these fields. While disability service providers, higher education administrators and instructors, and legal and community advocates are hard at work on these issues, the professional opportunities for them to network, communicate, and collaborate are siloed. There is an urgent need for a professional community focused specifically on researching and supporting students with disabilities in the prison education landscape. With higher education in prison likely to expand, it is imperative to both student success and programmatic sustainability that the field addresses equity and accessibility during this time of growth.