Oprah Winfrey said, “Education is the key to unlocking the world, a passport to freedom.”
This is how it should be. However, for Black women who are incarcerated, opportunities to engage in educational pursuits are severely limited. Incarceration separates individuals from their families and everyday life. Education programs provided to incarcerated individuals can vary across age and gender. For Black women, there are huge hurdles, just like out in the real world.
Historically, women have comprised a small percentage of the total incarcerated population, which means prison programming investments tend to focus on men. One thing is clear — Black women continue to experience a lack of educational equity. With the United States seeing a dramatic rise in the number of women sent to prison, the disparities in access to equitable education persist.
Many women struggle to turn their lives around while behind bars and can find hope in furthering their education. However, in many states, these courses are offered sporadically and unpredictably.
In 2018, according to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, women could pursue an associate’s degree and certifications in office administration or hospitality/culinary arts. For men, there were associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees, and certifications in 21 occupations, including high-demand fields like welding, computer technology, and truck driving. When prison-reform legislation was passed in 2019, lawmakers expanded the choices for women, but those choices still fall extremely short of those offered to men.
In Mississippi, the five vocational programs offered to women, which include cosmetology and upholstery, play into gender stereotypes. The 13 options provided to men include welding, plumbing, industrial electricity, and diesel mechanics. Women are still more likely to be restricted to classes on parenting, cooking, or cosmetology.
At the end of 2020, Congress finally restored access to Pell Grants for incarcerated students. That new provision will go into effect by July 2023. Some states are also taking steps to support access to college in prison.
We can’t overstate the benefits of postsecondary education to incarcerated Black women. Supporting better education is crucial to bridging opportunity gaps and helping Black women live productively.
In 2013, Netflix gave us the prison series we didn’t know we needed in Orange Is the New Black. We were entertained by this diverse showing of women as their stories were told in a way we had never seen before. Many argued that it really mirrored prison life, yet that didn’t stop us from being completely invested in these women’s lives.
I recall one of the constant pain points is that the prison did not offer an adequate GED program. The situation was even worse because inmates who lacked a high-school education were not eligible for wage increases unless they completed the GED program for prisoners. Without a high-school education, most women couldn’t secure legal and gainful employment once they left. This, of course, led them right back to a life of crime — which, in turn, landed them right back in prison. Although fictional, the show didn’t miss how this vicious cycle plays out.
There is a logical argument for prison education: It is cost-effective and leads to long-term benefits. Black women returning home from prison with college credentials can play an important role in encouraging family members and friends to pursue additional education. Prisons with college programs have less violence among incarcerated individuals, which creates a safer environment for incarcerated individuals and prison staff. The significant personal benefits of prison education include increased personal income, lower unemployment, greater political engagement and volunteerism, and improved health outcomes.
As a woman, I can’t imagine attempting to survive prison’s everyday humiliations. The vulnerabilities that we experience as Black women can mount high. The truth is that education can make the difference in the ability for Black women to sustain their existence and break the cycle of incarceration for generations to come. As a society, we know that without skills to succeed, rejection from employers or even housing can make anyone slide into an emotionally bad place. Education has the power to build self-confidence to be competitive.
As an educator, I know that education is not about just giving someone academics they can use when they are out in the world. It’s about enabling them to develop a different mindset about how they view themselves and interact in the world. Studies have shown that those who participate in higher-education programs in prison are significantly less likely to re-offend. So, this issue extends beyond prison. If you have Black women engaged in the pursuit of an education, it is self-affirming. There is no limit to what they can do.
Providing Black women with more opportunities while they’re serving their sentence gives them more to believe in. If we truly believe in making a change — if we want to invest in human lives and strengthen communities and families — then we want to invest in education for Black women in prison. Women can never be free in a country that is not free. This country can make a full investment in incarcerated Black women to liberate instead of control them.
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Archuleta is an author, poet, blogger, and host of the FearlessINK podcast. Archuleta's work centers Black women, mental health and wellness, and inspiring people to live their fullest potential.