Alexa Garza has been out of jail for three years, however she nonetheless remembers how confining it felt.
“I was surrounded by walls,” stated Garza, who was incarcerated for 20 years beginning when she was 19. “I found that reading was an escape for me. I was able to read and learn and grow, and I knew that education was the key for me.”
Already a highschool graduate when she entered jail in Texas, Garza got down to get hold of a higher education behind bars. That objective took the higher a part of her sentence to attain. After a decade, she had earned two affiliate’s levels. It took her 5 more years to earn a bachelor’s diploma. Now a justice fellow for the nationwide nonprofit Education Trust, which works towards education fairness, Garza is elevating consciousness in regards to the challenges of accessing post-secondary applications in jail, particularly for women.
A current Ed Trust report that she coauthored identifies boundaries, together with gender disparities, that forestall incarcerated Texans from acquiring a higher education. Men in Texas prisons have entry to more than triple the variety of higher education applications that women do, in accordance with the Ed Trust report. While incarcerated men can earn grasp’s levels, women simply have the choice of acquiring bachelor’s levels. Only one incarcerated lady earned her bachelor’s diploma in 2019, and no others have acquired one since, in accordance with a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). He informed The nineteenth that the division is in talks with Texas Woman’s University to develop a twin undergraduate program and on-line grasp’s diploma for women, however didn’t present a timeframe for when these applications may start.
In addition to gender disparities, the Ed Trust report singles out lack of monetary assist as a barrier to presently and previously incarcerated Texans. The state received’t grant monetary assist to folks with felony or managed substance convictions whereas they’re incarcerated and for two years after their launch. If these people need to get hold of higher education in jail and can’t afford to pay for classes, they have to reimburse Texas for their instructional bills as a situation of their parole. Texas additionally doesn’t forestall faculties and universities from asking about an applicant’s prison historical past, permitting colleges to reject potential college students who have served time.
To make education more equitable for the incarcerated inhabitants, advocacy teams suggest that Texas take away monetary assist boundaries, ban higher education establishments from asking candidates about their prison information and enhance choices for women. Enabling these people to grow to be extremely educated advantages each incarcerated folks and society typically, supporters of jail education argue.
“Ninety-five percent of people in prison are getting out again, and they’re coming back to our communities,” stated Michele Deitch, director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab on the LBJ School of Public Affairs on the University of Texas at Austin. “Education is one of the best predictors of someone staying out of the criminal justice system. If you want to have safer communities, you need to invest in education because it’s going to prevent recidivism in a very large percentage of cases.”
Prison education has been linked to a 43 p.c discount in recidivism. The more education incarcerated folks obtain, the decrease their probability of returning to jail. Those who earn an affiliate’s diploma have only a 14 p.c recidivism charge. That quantity drops to five.6 p.c for people who get hold of a bachelor’s diploma, and 0 p.c for those that get hold of a grasp’s diploma in jail. In Texas, about two-thirds of women lack a highschool diploma once they enter jail, in accordance with a 2018 report by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. Eleven p.c have not accomplished more than the eighth grade.
Being a highschool graduate made Garza an anomaly in jail, and he or she confronted fixed challenges whereas pursuing a higher education, she stated. Initially, she was in a position to take a full load of faculty classes, however the variety of classes accessible dwindled because the years handed. Limited course choices in jail dragged out the time it took for her to earn an affiliate’s diploma in enterprise and one other typically research from Central Texas College, however she pressed on to earn a bachelor’s diploma in enterprise from Tarleton State University. She additionally grew to become a licensed braille transcriber whereas serving time.
Incarcerated at TDCJ’s Mountain View Unit in Gatesville, Garza finally needed to be transported to a different unit to finish coursework as a result of the classes she wanted weren’t provided at her facility. “So a group of us, anywhere from eight to 12 of us, would be handcuffed, shackled, driven across the street,” she stated. Before and after they had been transported to the subsequent facility, the women had been stripped, Garza stated, including that it was tough to entry loos and eat dinner on the times she had classes. “So, if I wanted to go to school, it was an ordeal.”
Garza’s household made sacrifices for her to finish her coursework. Although her classes grew more and more costly because the years handed and the extent of educational work superior, they paid for all of them so she wouldn’t owe cash upon her launch. Garza stated that the majority incarcerated folks don’t have households ready or keen to foot the invoice for their education, so even these curious about incomes levels don’t as a result of they fear about leaving jail in debt.
“We’re already starting out with the odds stacked against us and then having an additional [burden], that’s just not cool,” she stated.
Other states have discovered methods to ease the burden on incarcerated individuals who need to obtain levels. Lois M. Davis, a senior coverage researcher for the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit coverage assume tank, stated California has a number of methods to cowl school prices for incarcerated folks. They embrace Senate Bill 1391, which permits California neighborhood faculties to be absolutely reimbursed for providing in-person programs in jails and prisons. Across the nation in Minnesota, Davis stated, jail trade funds cowl these prices. But the true recreation changer, she predicts, would be the federal FAFSA Simplification Act. Starting within the 2022-23 educational 12 months, the laws will enable incarcerated college students to obtain Pell Grants price as much as $6,495 yearly to pay for their education. The laws reverses a 26-year ban applied by a 1994 crime invoice stopping incarcerated folks from receiving Pell Grants.
“For every dollar invested in prison education programs, you’re saving taxpayers between $4 to $5 in re-incarceration costs, and that’s a conservative estimate,” Davis stated. “The fact that these programs are so effective and and don’t cost that much makes it clear long term where you want to be investing at the community level and at the state level.”
Garza, nevertheless, believes Texas has not invested sufficient in women’s jail education. She stated that men in Texas prisons have more alternatives to pursue certifications in profession and technical education. A 2018 report by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition discovered that men incarcerated within the state had entry to more than double the variety of technical education programs that incarcerated women did. TDCJ officers didn’t specify to The nineteenth which of its post-secondary certifications and diploma applications can be found in men’s or women’s prisons.
Although Garza managed to get a bachelor’s diploma after years of battle, her lack of ability to get a grasp’s diploma in jail nonetheless stings. Garza was full of resentment when she would learn the jail newspaper and see footage of smiling men receiving their grasp’s levels. When she requested a jail education facilitator about offering a grasp’s diploma program for women, “I was told that a woman did not need a master’s program because our place was in the home,” Garza stated.
Rabia Qutab, additionally an Ed Trust justice fellow, needs women to have as many higher education alternatives in Texas prisons as men do.
“In women’s facilities, it’s like you have to hit a lottery to get into [higher education] programs,” Qutab stated. “They should be accessible to everyone that wants to pursue higher education.”
Qutab was already a university graduate when she entered jail in 2013 at age 24. With a grasp’s diploma possibility unavailable to her, she acquired no instructional programming whereas incarcerated. Upon her launch in 2020, she stated her prison historical past disqualified her from receiving monetary assist for a graduate education in Texas, so Qutab relocated to California. There, laws prohibits faculties and universities from inquiring a few potential scholar’s prison background except they’re pursuing sure skilled levels and coaching in regulation enforcement.
Garza stays in Texas, the place a public college prohibited her from enrolling in a brief course due to her prison historical past, she stated. Hurt by the rejection, she has not utilized to take some other higher education programs.
School officers ought to rethink dismissing candidates who have prison information, stated Lindsay Bing, co-director of the Texas Prison Education Initiative, which supplies incarcerated college students within the state entry to post-secondary studying.
“I think it would definitely be beneficial if we remove those barriers, and if we give people who are leaving prison more resources to connect directly to the colleges that are in the areas they’ll be returning to when they leave,” stated Bing, a doctoral candidate in sociology on the University of Texas at Austin. “That part of reentry is something that we could do a lot to develop, because, often, people who are leaving prison, it’s assumed that they’re never going to go to school. They’re only given information on employment and how to get a minimum wage job. This is not really doing much for our workforce when people who are incarcerated have skills and potential that we as a society should absolutely be supporting.”
Garza stated that she knew incomes a jail education wouldn’t take away all of the obstacles previously incarcerated folks expertise, nevertheless it has been a great tool for her. In some ways, she stated, her education allowed her to emotionally transcend the partitions that confined her whereas incarcerated.
“I needed all the help that I could get because I’m a convicted felon,” she stated. “So that’s how I looked at education, as more like me being able to free myself and learn and grow. For the people that really tried to learn a skill set while inside, it was a different culture. We were there, but we weren’t there. We had hopes and dreams.”