UW to offer inmate degrees

CASPER — In 1994, former President Bill Clinton passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, often considered the most far-reaching crime law in U.S. history. 

The act ended Pell Grants – federal grants usually given to students with high financial need – for people in prison. Most inprison college programs heavily depended on money from Pell Grants and other federal aid because people in prison are overwhelmingly poor. In the year before the 1994 crime law, about 23,000 federal and state prisoners used these grants, a paper from the American Enterprise Institute estimates. 

Data from the U.S. Department of Justice shows a drop in college course participation among inmates following the 1994 crime law; in 1991, the participation rate was around 19 percent for federal prisoners and 14 percent for state prisoners. That fell to around 10 and 7 percent in 2004, respectively. The number of college-in-prison programs also fell, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. In the early 90s, there were about 772 programs. By 1997, only about eight programs remained. 

But there’s some turnaround on this trend. The administration of former President Barrack Obama established the Second Chance Pell Experiment in 2015. The initiative partly put back in place prison inmates’ former eligibility for the grants. Last week, the U.S. Department of Education chose Wyoming Pathways from Prison – the University of Wyoming’s prison education initiative – to be one among about 200 institutions across almost all 50 states participating in the program. 

“After 30 years, the consensus is that it was a mistake to withhold this money from inmates,” said Dan Fetsco, an attorney and UW faculty member in the Criminal Justice & Sociology Department. 

Fetsco is part of the team that operates Wyoming Pathways from Prison, which offers free UW college courses to people in Wyoming prisons. The program started in 2016 and has been volunteer-driven, with one-off classes that typically count for one college credit.

Before joining UW, Fetsco worked as the deputy director and executive director of the Wyoming Board of Parole. Through that experience, he became familiar with educational offerings within prisons. Being part of Wyoming Pathways from Prison, he said, was a “natural fit.” He taught his first class through the program on correctional legal history and inmate rights this past year. 

“It was a popular class,” he said. Before COVID, UW professors traveled around the state to all of Wyoming’s prisons, teaching inmates about topics ranging from financial literacy to Greek history.

UW Assistant Professor of Philosophy Rob Colter said he would stay at an Airbnb near a prison for a week and teach two- to threehour classes in the morning and afternoon for inmates everyday. The first course he taught was about Stoic philosophy.

“What I aim for is some kind of transformation in the way we think about ourselves and our lives,” he said. 

That transformation isn’t just theoretical. 

“Data shows a strong correlation between education and reduced recidivism,” Fetsco said.

A 2018 study by the RAND Corporation, a public policy research organization, found that inmates who took part in a correctional education program had about a 43% decrease in their odds of returning to prison compared to their counterparts who didn’t. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Correctional Education came to a similar conclusion. 

But the courses that Wyoming Pathways from Prison was offering were intermittent and didn’t result in an actual degree – there simply wasn’t enough funding and volunteers to offer inmates a degree-bearing program. 

Participation in the Second Chance initiative, however, will change that. The extra funding will help Wyoming Pathways offer a four-year UW college degree in general studies for inmates, making it the first four-year degree offered in Wyoming prisons since the 1994 crime law. 

“It’s going to allow us to take a huge jump,” Colter said. “This development is really big for the university’s ability to serve some of the most vulnerable and marginalized people in the state.” 

The team at Wyoming Pathways from Prison plans to work on creating the admissions process for the degree program this summer and aims to have the first cohort of students start in the fall.