Demystify Teaching Inside Prisons

Nina Knight, Jackson College
2 January 2023

The FAFSA Simplification Act will bring about many exciting changes to higher education for incarcerated people. According to the U.S. Department of Education, this act will eliminate the ban on incarcerated students receiving Federal Pell Grants: “Beginning July 1, 2023, all incarcerated students who are enrolled in eligible prison education programs will once again be eligible for Pell Grants. These changes have the potential to increase access to postsecondary education in prisons and give many of our nation’s incarcerated persons a second chance” (Prison Education Programs Questions Answered). Those who work in Correction Education (CEP) or Prison Education Programs (PEP) are excited to serve our incarcerated students who have struggled with self-pay models and other barriers for years. However, we have found ourselves in a unique position: we need faculty willing to teach inside. This begs the question, have you considered a teaching career inside prison walls?


The rewards of teaching incarcerated students are long-lasting. The impact of a degree on an incarcerated person causes a ripple effect in the lives of the students, the lives of their families, and the communities these students will return to. The Vera Institute of Justice reports:

Ninety-five percent of people in prison eventually return home. With a college degree, they’re better positioned to secure well-paying jobs, find stable housing, and provide for their families. People who participate in college-in-prison programs are also 48 percent less likely to return to prison, which could cut state prison spending across the country by as much as $365.8 million annually. And every dollar invested in prison-based education saves taxpayers four to five dollars from reduced incarceration costs (Brown).

Instructors often do not have the opportunity to see how we affect change in the lives of our students, but teaching inside offers the immediate, real-time rewards of seeing families and communities move toward positive and lasting change. Teaching inside truly makes a difference.


There are many challenges to teaching inside a carceral system, but the two I am asked the most are “Is it safe?” and “Are you scared?” These answers are complicated and complex, as each facility has its unique climate, and state facilities are entirely different from federal facilities. The short answers are yes, it is safe, and no, I am not scared.

When you teach inside, the Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) consider you a community volunteer or a contractor. There are various reasons for this, but the DOC and the BOP go to great lengths to ensure the safety of their community volunteers and contractors. The safety measures vary from each state and increase depending on the facility’s security level. If you are interested in teaching inside, have conversations with those who do this work in your state and ask about the various safety measures in place. In addition, most colleges and universities will begin new instructors at a minimum level, or level 1, facility with an experienced instructor until they feel comfortable moving up.

As a female teaching inside state and federal male facilities, I am often asked if I am scared. At first, the experience of being inside was overwhelming; I saw firsthand what mass incarceration looks like in the United States, and that has only fueled my desire to do this work. It took time and talking with a therapist to process the injustices I saw and to find a balance between my childhood trauma and the type of students I would be dealing with. In time, I found a rhythm in my classes and became relaxed and comfortable. However, I am always aware of my surroundings, I do not go anywhere without an officer, I do not get overconfident, and I do not do favors for anyone. All of this will be covered during your training at your DOC or BOP facility. The benefits of what I do far outweigh any inconvenience or trepidation I might have.

How To Begin

Colleges and universities across the United States need instructors willing to teach inside. To begin this process, know what programs are available in your area. To do this, you can visit the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison and look under the National Directory of Higher Education in Prison Programs. Second, you need to know the language. Terms like felon, prisoner, inmate, offender, and convict are dehumanizing and discriminatory and are words that professionals in our field do not use. As an instructor in a CEP program, you must be committed to person-centered language and be able to see your students as students. Terms like “currently incarcerated person” or a “person with justice involvement” are more widely accepted. See the resources below for a complete list of terms you should know before teaching inside. Third, be adaptable. Many DOC facilities will not allow instructors to have any technology, and students will not have access to technology either. Papers may have to be submitted using a typewriter or pen and pencil. Be ready to adapt your lesson plans to the requirements of the facility. Fourth, familiarize yourself with what Second Chance Pell means for incarcerated students and the changes that will begin in July. Finally, be prepared to have an amazing experience. Your life will be changed as much as your students.


Works Cited