With the restoration of Pell grants for incarcerated students on July 1, the 13th annual National Conference on Higher Education in Prisons (NCHEP), held November 9-11 in Atlanta, marked a turning point in the evolution and growth of the field. This NCHEP was the largest ever, selling out registration weeks in advance and with a record number of first-time attendees, including librarians and representatives from departments of corrections. Most notably, in keeping with the conference theme of “Closing the Gap,” the first full day of the conference was dedicated to presentations from currently incarcerated students, an option made possible by the growing availability of technology and video conferencing platforms in prisons. Another significant development was the launch of the Resource Center for Higher Education in Prisons (RCHEP), a resource and community hub designed to facilitate the sharing of information and resources.

Below we offer some reflections on notable themes and takeaways from NCHEP.

Participatory Research, Gender Equity, and Trauma-Informed Practices

There was a consistent focus throughout the conference on research led by students who are incarcerated, gender equity, and the need for trauma-informed practices in research involving individuals impacted by the justice system. Students, both currently and formerly incarcerated, presented on research they had been involved in, describing how participation enhanced their learning experiences. The need for paid internships for students inside and out was also highlighted. In a session titled “MTSS (Multi-tiered Support Systems) and Justice Impacted Scholars,” Princeton students Paul Boyd, Christopher Etienne, Ali Muslim, and Dameon Stackhouse spoke on how paid internships enabled them to maintain their households while incarcerated and increased opportunities once they were released.

The gender gap for higher education in prison and reentry programs was another theme of the conference. Too often, women and members of the LGBT community lack access to basic educational resources both inside and outside of prison walls. Lack of funding, program capabilities, and additional obstacles exacerbate barriers for communities that already encounter struggles post release. Reentry resources are not typically designed to support women, specifically as they attempt to support households and pursue educational opportunities. Members of the LGBT community face additional stigmas as they navigate reentry, and many organizations are not equipped to handle these additional obstacles. In a panel led by the Tennessee Higher Education in Prison Initiative (THEI) titled “TRANSforming Reentry in HEP,” panelists Chanel Pulliam, Terry Naylor, Laramie Riggs, Damaryious Dorsey, and Barbi Brown spoke of their struggles as they attempted to find safe housing, employment, and access to physical and mental health care upon release. Participants were eager to learn about available opportunities and research being conducted in order to close these gaps.

The conference also featured conversations about trauma-informed research practices for engaging with communities who experienced incarceration. Special care should be taken when interviewing or conducting research with participants and researchers who have been impacted by the justice system. Many individuals who have experienced incarceration face backlash from society and have not had the opportunity to process and heal from the trauma of being in prison.  In addition, participants or researchers may not have the tools necessary to navigate topics that can come up during the research process. Researchers should be sensitive to questions that are asked while conducting interviews, and organizations should allow space and resources for researchers impacted by the justice system as they navigate these experiences.

Digital Literacy, Digital Skills, and Reentry

One cohesive thread running throughout the conference was a focus on digital literacy and the building of digital skills. Last year, we noted that the conference’s long standing focus on reentry had shifted to focus on the importance of digital literacy, and this year the focus on digital literacy and digital skills became a focal point in its own right. Beginning with the opening plenary, there were calls to increase the quality of digital access, training, and skill building for students who are incarcerated. The opening plenary, moderated by Ved Price, paired live remarks from Rebecca Villarreal of Jobs for the Future, Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty and Correctional Education Programs Coordinator Erika Grover, and Victoria Scott and Leo Hylton, who are employed remotely while incarcerated inside the Maine prison system. The session also highlighted remarks from additional remotely employed individuals incarcerated in Maine. That format, balancing the voices and perspectives of nonprofit partners, department of corrections leadership, and workers who are incarcerated, emphasized the importance of creating learning and work opportunities on the inside to prepare people who are incarcerated with the digital skills, job experience, and fair wages to facilitate their financial agency, find employment, and transition to life on the outside. The plenary also set the tone for the conference by emphasizing the importance of digital technology in improving educational transition, employment opportunities, personal agency, reentry, and community and family support.

While last year’s focus on the importance of digital literacy in reentry continued in numerous sessions, there was an increased emphasis on the role of higher education in prison programs and their parent institutions in facilitating students’ transition to college post-release. Sessions such as “Wraparound Reentry Services and Creative Learning as Student Support” and “Facilitating a Conversation about ‘Prison Education’ for the Reentry Population” exemplified the complexity of providing reentry and transition services. In “The End from the Beginning: Reentry as a Pillar of Higher Education in Prison,” Ashley Appleby presented on data-based approaches to service continuity, and Elyshia Aseltine and Anne Bocchini Kirsch discussed the collaboration needed to overcome institutional challenges when serving students transitioning to college on the outside. The session also featured a particularly robust audience discussion about individual and systemic concerns in coordinating reentry and transition services. We expect that building digital skills and coordinating reentry and transition services will continue to be a focal point in the field as higher education in prison programs grapple with the requirement to provide reentry services as laid out in the new Pell regulations.

Sessions this year seemed to be equally divided in focusing on structural and systemic considerations around assessment and service provisions on the one hand and the practice and importance of trauma informed restorative approaches to providing reentry services on the other.

Looking Forward

While many expected the field to explode following the restoration of Pell grants, it now seems that a slow build is more likely as colleges and universities navigate the new regulatory process instituted by the Department of Education. A slower pace of growth will likely be beneficial, allowing the field to cohere and further develop standards and best practices to ensure quality and equity in higher education in prison programming. The focus on participatory research design at this year’s NCHEP was welcome, but there is much more to do in terms of building data collection and evaluation structures, and we hope this theme on research design continues. Conversely, only a single session was dedicated to the issue of disability and accessibility in higher education in prison, and we hope to see much more attention paid to this in the future.

This NCHEP was the largest ever, and, as space for the community to convene in solidarity and share the wealth of knowledge spread throughout the country, we hope that each subsequent NCHEP will continue to beat that record.