Black-and-white image of a chain-link fence

Harassment and Intimidation in Prison Higher Education Programs

By Caisa Elizabeth Royer, Erin L. Castro, and Estefanie Aguilar Padilla

What are college-in-prison programs like for those who participate? With the expansion of Pell Grants for eligible incarcerated college students, this question should be on the minds of all people studying and working in higher education. As practitioners and researchers in the field of prison higher education (PHE), we are especially invested in this question.

There are now more than 400 known PHE programs in the United States and yet we continue to know little about the experiences of incarcerated students and non-incarcerated stakeholders who together attempt to make the work possible. The elephant in the room, so to speak, is the concealed nature of prison power–and a pervasive culture of punishment that routinely contradicts the aims of higher education.

In 2020, we set out to better understand a persistent problem in the field: prison-initiated removal of students from postsecondary education. We knew both anecdotally and empirically that physical removal of students from PHE programs was a significant problem. Yet, with impending expansion of federal student aid and virtually no recourse for incarcerated students, this common practice could potentially bring greater negative consequences for students using Pell Grants to support their education.

We began interviews with alumni of PHE programs, including instructors, staff, and family members. What we found was harrowing. Our interviews quickly turned to the patterns of harassment and intimidation that correctional officers and prison staff regularly leverage against incarcerated students.

Our article in Harvard Educational Review, “Harassment, Discouragement, and Intimidation of College Students in Prison: A Qualitative Study on the Prevalence of Disciplinary Power in Prison Higher Education,” documents these incidents facing incarcerated students and the role of prison-initiated discipline. Based on the stories and experiences described by our participants, the article highlights flagrant and unconscionable attempts by officers to sabotage incarcerated students’ access to and success in higher education, such as officers throwing books on the floor or destroying class notes by pouring water over them. These instances seem to be intended to discourage and intimidate incarcerated students in their attempts to access higher education and routinely occur outside of the classroom.

The ordinary ways that prison officers disrupt and deliberately obstruct student engagement with PHE demands greater attention against the backdrop of rapid program growth and federal student aid changes for eligible incarcerated people. Our findings create a call to action for PHE practitioners, researchers, and college and university administrators. Together, we must determine: How can colleges and universities protect their incarcerated students from prison-initiated discipline and harassment? And what other research is needed to shed light on the complications inherent to successful PHE implementation?

About the Authors

Caisa Elizabeth Royer is the director of the Pro Bono Initiative at S. J. Quinney College of Law and the former associate director of the Utah Prison Education Program.

Erin L. Castro is an associate professor of higher education and the associate dean for community engagement and access for undergraduate education at the University of Utah. She directs the Research Collaborative on Higher Education in Prison and serves as an executive editor for the Journal of Higher Education in Prison.

Estefanie Aguilar Padilla is a PhD student in the Department of Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. She has a forthcoming article on the use of criminal history questions in college admissions with the Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice.

They are the authors of “Harassment, Discouragement, and Intimidation of College Students in Prison” in the Summer 2023 issue of Harvard Educational Review.