Today we’re publishing Between Two Systems: Navigating Censorship and Self-Censorship in Higher Education in Prisons. Based on interviews with students and educators, this is the third report in a series made possible by Ascendium Education Group focusing on the intersection of technology, surveillance, and censorship in higher education in prisons. Previous reports examined departments of corrections media review directives and censorship policies and the results of a national survey of technology availability in higher education in prison programs.

Despite optimism that the return of Federal Pell Grant funding to students who are incarcerated will increase college access, concerns about the role of censorship and self-censorship in education in prison still abound. Charlotte West recently emphasized the point when reporting in Open Campus that an incarcerated educator was fired for refusing to recant his assertion that poll taxes and literacy tests were historically used to suppress Black votes. Educators and students who teach and take classes on the inside are put in a particularly difficult position as they must navigate the competing values, concerns, and cultures of two overlapping systems at the same time.

One major issue cut across our research for this project: most interviewees remarked on the need for college in prison programs to preserve a positive working relationship with their correctional partners. The complex institutional arrangements that make higher education in prison programming possible also place correctional staff and administrators in a position to control student access, classroom conditions, course materials and instructional tools, and technology use. Interviewees suggested that the continued existence of higher education in prison programs rests on how faculty and administrators interact with corrections.

This complements and adds nuance to findings from past research. Previously, we found that conflicts between the culture and mission of the two systems that higher education in prison programs bridge–the university and the prison–are a major point of tension for programs. Here we explore how instructors’ efforts to navigate these conflicting cultures and values impact the learning experience of students who are incarcerated. Through these interviews, we gained some preliminary insights:

  • The need to preserve the relationship between the higher education in prison program and the department of corrections in which it operates contributes to a variety of self-censoring behaviors.
  • Faculty need better training on how to best serve students, mitigate bias, and maintain the program’s relationship with corrections.
  • Censorship policies and practices have material impacts on what can be taught.
  • Censorship, self-censorship, and surveillance practices, alongside limited technology access, make the student experience of college in prison materially different from education on college campuses outside of prison.
  • The presence of correctional staff and digital surveillance impact free expression in the physical and the virtual classroom and have a chilling effect on speech.
  • Students are often expected to serve as cultural arbiters, helping programmatic and correctional staff navigate interpersonal power dynamics and personalities.

As the landscape of education in prison continues to change, our work will continue to prioritize considerations of accessibility, affordability, and educational equity in the space, ensuring that students are at the center of the dialogue. As part of a collaboration with Ennead Architects, later this year we will publish findings from our study of educational spaces in education in prison programs. We will also publish a preliminary landscape review examining how college in prison programs and community based organizations partner to offer reentry and reintegration services, as the first piece of a larger study.