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Inmate advocates want Kansas to tap into money for more college prison courses

Only 6% of Kansas inmates are taking college classes or going through a technical degree.
Nomin Ujiyediin
Kansas News Service
Only 6% of Kansas inmates are taking college classes or going through a technical degree.

New grant funding will help more inmates go to college. Additional money flowing to higher education could create more class options.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Inmate Edgar Cuevas came into prison without a high school diploma and worries about how he might make a way for himself after his time behind bars ended.

In his three years there, he’s earned a GED and now he wants a welding certification offered through the prison. He’s been waiting to get that training but it hasn’t been available to him.

Now an expansion of the Second Chance Pell program — scholarships to inmates — could be his path toward a trade.

“This type of help is the little push we all need to be able to create a better life for ourselves,” Cuevas said. “Having a better education when you walk out the doors will help you find a job easier and that right there makes the difference on an ex-inmate's life.”

Oswego, the satellite facility to the El Dorado Correctional Facility, lacks additional programs to further his education, he said. Only 6% of Kansas inmates are taking college classes or going through a technical degree.

That number could increase starting next summer, but advocates for inmates say that hinges on the Kansas Department of Corrections taking more aggressive action to land federal tax dollars now.

Prison officials concede they don’t offer college opportunities to all inmates. Federal rules tied to the education grants, for instance, prioritize prisoners closest to their release dates. And the state has gotten high marks in some quarters for working with community colleges.

But how many inmates get trained for post-prison jobs could turn on how quickly state officials make new partnerships with colleges across Kansas.

Some Kansas universities were chosen for the pilot program of Second Chance Pell, which has already expanded class offerings in KDOC. Inmates hope course offerings will expand again.

Inmates lost access to Pell grant funding in a 1994 crime bill, but it comes back in July 2023 with the Second Chance Pell Grant.

Kansas prisons offer some jobs that pay around minimum wage. But not all inmates can get jobs. Many are lucky to make a few dozen dollars a month.

Kansas prisons offer two bachelor’s level college degrees, 14 associate-level programs and six career and technical education options through 10 colleges. Not every college offers classes at every facility, but each major facility does have courses from one of the colleges.

Washburn University and the Washburn Institute of Technology offer some of those programs. The college started offering classes in prison when it was approved for the Second Chance Pell pilot program in 2020. Without that funding, the college might not have classes in prison at all, said Jennifer Ball, associate vice president for academic affairs at Washburn.

Ball said inmates take the courses seriously, but that it takes time to prepare a prison education program.

“If somebody is thinking they want to offer next fall,” she said, “they’re probably behind.,”

None of Kansas’ largest institutions offer classes in prison. Kansas State University, the University of Kansas and Wichita State University all said they either aren’t planning to start classes or haven’t been approached by KDOC to start lessons.

Corrections officials said they are looking for more partners to expand. But space for classes is tight because prisons weren’t designed for them. Federal requirements for Second Chance Pell also say courses should be similar to those offered in the university setting, so offering online-only classes might not fly.

Multiple inmates told the Kansas News Service that the classes or job training programs aren’t always accessible. Inmates closer to release are more likely to get enrolled in programs. That means an inmate with years, or even decades, left on a sentence can wait years for a spot. Inmates who struggle to speak English or those in maximum security might also not get access to these programs.

There are some federal requirements that say the classes must be offered to people closer to release, and KDOC said people closer to release are prioritized for public safety reasons.

Inmate Jennifer Bennett, who is in segregated housing, knows that struggle. She was recently turned away from college classes.

“They say things like, ‘Some people need help more than others,’ and that I've got too much time to be put into any programs,” said Bennett, whose earliest possible release is 2025. “There are next to no opportunities for people to gain meaningful skills here.”

Margaret diZerega is with the VERA Institute of Justice, a group that partners with government leaders to rethink incarceration. Her organization wants Kansas to add more programs, like courses offered to people at satellite facilities. But she credited Kansas for offering an array of college and certification classes.

“We’ve encouraged other states to look to Kansas to see how they are offering programs,” she said. “They’ve been very deliberate and how they built that consortium where they’re really focused on the quality of the education.”

Nationally, diZerega said, colleges are interested in teaching courses in prison but aren’t doing it. The new federal funding could motivate those universities to begin offering courses.

“We’re kind of on the cusp of a huge change in federal law,” diZerega said. “As there is more college available, we’ll see people with a range of sentence lengths, gaining access to those programs.”

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Blaise Mesa is based in Topeka, where he covers the Legislature and state government for the Kansas City Beacon. He previously covered social services and criminal justice for the Kansas News Service.