I spend a lot of time thinking about the profound significance of quality education for people who are incarcerated. Education has far-reaching implications for these individuals as well as their families and communities. My role as a policy analyst at EdTrust-Texas has afforded me the opportunity to advocate tirelessly for expanded educational pathways for underserved students across our state. My journey is deeply personal, having once walked the path of incarceration myself. Sentenced at 19, I faced an uncertain future, acutely aware of the daunting odds stacked against me — education became my beacon of hope; a lifeline through which I navigated the challenges of confinement driven by the belief that it held the key to a brighter tomorrow.

Sadly, my story echoes countless others. Many incarcerated people share the aspiration of a better future, viewing higher education not merely as a privilege but as a vital conduit to redemption and breaking the cycle of incarceration. The statistics from the VERA Institute of Justice underscore the urgency of our mission: there are over 64,000 individuals in Texas prisons eligible to access Pell dollars, yet only 1,800 students are currently enrolled.

Advocating for policies that facilitate access to higher education within correctional facilities is imperative. Advocates, researchers, and policymakers must confront systemic barriers hindering program expansion, from funding constraints to bureaucratic hurdles. Achieving transparency in approval processes and providing ongoing technical support are essential steps in this endeavor. Venturing into prison education demands more than just administrative approval; it necessitates a nuanced understanding of the unique dynamics within correctional facilities. Colleges and universities must be willing to immerse themselves in the language, customs, and realities of prison life to foster meaningful student engagement, support, and success.

However, education alone cannot ensure successful reentry into society. Employment opportunities remain scarce for individuals with criminal records, highlighting the need for systemic changes in hiring practices and societal attitudes. Transitioning from prison to the workforce presents its own set of challenges, underscoring the importance of bridging the gap between academic knowledge and practical skills. With approximately 40,000 Texans released from state prisons annually, it is imperative to equip them with postsecondary credentials for meaningful participation in the workforce — embracing a paradigm shift that prioritizes individuals’ potential over their past actions is fundamental to fostering rehabilitation and reintegration.

Our dialogue at the recent Texas Higher Education in Prison convening has underscored the pivotal role of timely and accurate data in shaping effective policies and practices within correctional education. By harnessing data-driven insights, we can tailor educational programs to meet the diverse needs of incarcerated Texans and drive positive outcomes. Moreover, collaboration among stakeholders is paramount to the success of prison education initiatives. Educators, policymakers, correctional officials, and community organizations must unite in a shared commitment to expanding access to educational opportunities and dismantling barriers to reentry. Our new brief on Higher Education in Texas Prisons has more background and analysis.

In a famous quote often attributed to W.E.B. Du Bois, “as the South goes, so goes the nation.” Let us carry forward our shared vision of expanding access to education for incarcerated Texans and beyond, advocating for policies that foster collaboration and inclusivity. Together, we can forge a brighter, more equitable future for all.

Thank you to the Trellis Foundation and the hospitality of The Alliance for Higher Education in Prison for making the Texas Higher Education in Prison convening possible.