Establishing Mentorships With Incarcerated Writers
During my time in the Florida Department of Corrections, I was working as a correspondent for the Prison Journalism Project and Empowerment Avenue after completing a 10-month journalism school cohort. I was passionate about using the written word to tell people’s stories, and it gave me a voice.
After reading an article I wrote about Second Chance Pell Grants, Charlotte West, national reporter for Open Campus and creator of the College Inside newsletter, reached out to me, asking to work together on a story about the difficulties of enrolling in college when an incarcerated student cannot prove their residency prior to incarceration.
West began mentoring me after the subsequent article was published, and our collaboration continued for the rest of my sentence. I still seek her mentorship now that I‘m free as of December 2022 and working as a freelance journalist in Philadelphia. Her wisdom about the industry and editorial chops continue to help me learn my craft better.
As West wrote in her blog for EWA, “People inside might not have access to the internet, but they do have access to sources.” While incarcerated, I co-reported this story about student loan default by incarcerated borrowers with West. I was able to get interviews that would have been near impossible for her to do. This collaboration between outside reporter and incarcerated writer is mutually beneficial, and it can provide insight into college-in-prison programs.
Congress banned Pell Grants for people in prison almost 30 years ago when legislators passed the 1994 crime bill, eliminating all college programs inside. The ban was reversed in December 2020, and Congress restored eligibility for Pell Grants starting in July 2023.
With the ban on federal financial aid lifted for incarcerated students, the number of colleges inside prison will increase exponentially, and the information desert that is the state or federal department of corrections will become even more of a problem. It is extremely difficult to report on colleges inside without the help of someone who is incarcerated, has access to prison education programs, and has the ability to relay the information to the outside world.
So how do journalists and educators find out what’s going on inside these classrooms, and how can they create a better line of communication with incarcerated students?
How to Find and Collaborate With Incarcerated Writers
Reporters can learn about higher education in prison firsthand by reaching out to nonprofits that work with incarcerated writers. This includes:
These organizations are directly tied to the people inside who write and report, and have the ability to connect the media with writers who can feed information through a pipeline from prison to publications.
Finding organizations that support higher education in prison and incarcerated writers is fairly easy, but it’s on education reporters to reach out and find a collaborator or source inside. There is no better way to report on this topic than through the eyes of a person who lives inside the system, and justice-involved people (Americans who have been affected by the criminal justice system), provide observations and a unique perspective that one will not find anywhere else. Who else would have first-hand knowledge about officer abuse, corruption, or classroom conduct in prison? Or be witness to the complications and obstacles facing prison education programs in their facility?
The Alliance for Higher Education in Prison has a directory of prison education programs around the country, and it’s a good place to find which colleges operate prison education programs in your state. Through this directory, an education reporter can track down students inside and contact them via email to gain a connection.
The Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit organization that provides technical assistance to prison education programs, has some of the most comprehensive research on college-in-prison programs. It can be a resource to meet incarcerated students who can provide invaluable information about programming.
But the best organization for meeting incarcerated sources is the Prison Journalism Project. Started in 2020, the nonprofit publishes work from incarcerated writers and even has contributing writers and correspondents who can be contacted for collaborations.
According to the Prison Journalism Project, “We’re bringing transparency to the world of mass incarceration from the inside and training incarcerated writers to be journalists, so they can participate in the dialogue about criminal legal reform.”
Partnering with incarcerated writers and acquiring internal sources is a way to bring information from inside classrooms to outside media publications, and this collaboration would support a marginalized community who needs their voices to be heard.
Too often other people tell our stories, keeping the truth from coming into the light and continuing a false narrative about prison education. By enlisting the help of people inside prison and listening to their stories, it provides your readers with a more accurate portrait of prison education programs, and it allows some burgeoning writers a chance to grow in their craft while doing something positive.
Understanding the Outside Media-Inside Reporter Relationship
There is an abundance of untapped talent behind bars. Sometimes, all it takes is reaching out to a beginning writer or incarcerated reporter and mentoring them on the process of observing, interviewing, and reporting to gain a different perspective of how programs in the carceral system work.
This synergy between the outside media and the inside reporter can lead to more in-depth articles that include information that a member of the press cannot get any other way. This mentorship and training of an incarcerated writer can lead to a relationship that will be beneficial to everyone involved – including editors who will get a more diverse and detailed assignment.
Additionally, by working with incarcerated writers, the media that covers higher education in prison and prison education programs will be able to pull the curtain aside and see what really goes on inside. The department of corrections will only tell you what they want you to know, not what really happens inside prison education buildings. And while it’s necessary to get certain data from the department of corrections, oftentimes, the administration requires you to file FOIA requests for the number of prison education programs applying to teach inside, or to receive information about contracts with online colleges, such as Ashland University.
By working with incarcerated writers, a reporter can receive information from a source that would otherwise be impossible to get. For example, for my article with West from Open Campus, I was able to ask around and find residents who owed student loans that prevented them from enrolling in higher education in prison. At the very least, the media can utilize their inside connections to find out how things really work and get interviews from incarcerated students and civilian teachers that no one else can.