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Valley State Prison Warden Matthew McVay with founder and Executive director of Freedom Reads Reginald Dwayne Betts in front of a bookcase filled with books
Valley State Prison Warden Matthew McVay with founder and Executive director of Freedom Reads Reginald Dwayne Betts (Photo by Lt. Humberto Gastelum, courtesy of CDCR)

The upcoming school year is a big one for prison education.

As of July 1, more than 760,000 incarcerated people are eligible for free college paid for by the federal Pell Grant program. This change comes after Congress voted in 2020 to lift the ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated people.

Education behind bars has long been promoted as a way to increase employment opportunities post-release and provide social mobility for families. Students enrolled in postsecondary education programs are also 43% less likely to be reincarcerated.

As students around the country prepare for another school year, Global Forum Online has curated a list of stories by incarcerated writers about their experiences with education, both inside and outside the prison system.


Stacks of books with different colored covers at different heights form steps.

Education Behind Bars Unlocked New Meaning for Meby Jesse Rinke: “It convinces me that an education is the sharpest weapon with which we prisoners can arm ourselves.”

Bussed to a Black Junior High Schoolby Lawrence May: “I don’t recall being nervous or scared. I’d moved around a lot already. I figured I’d just adapt and adjust as I had when I changed schools in the past.”

What We Learned in Schoolby Students at Miami Youth Academy: “I learned to never be scared to ask for help. Before, I was scared to ask, because I worried about what my peers would say. But now I do not have a problem with that.”

Valley State Prison Warden Matthew McVay with founder and Executive director of Freedom Reads Reginald Dwayne Betts in front of a bookcase filled with books

‘Freedom Begins with a Book’by Daniel Henson: “What do you think of when you think of prison? Most people say violence, but for me it’s books.”

The word Welsh is highlighted in a dictionary

How Speaking Welsh Gave Me New Life in Prisonby Thomas Steres: “Learning Welsh in prison is challenging. There’s significantly less learning materials and resources for it compared to most languages. You’re also never going to find another Welsh speaker.”

A small chalkboard with "Back to School" written in cursive with white chalk.

In California, Going to Class Can Mean a Shorter Prison Sentenceby Fabian Garcia: “A certain energy is generated from the start of a new semester for us incarcerated students. There’s the excitement and anticipation of knowing we’ll be intellectually challenged and get a shorter sentence as our reward.”

Brown brick building of Minnesota Correctional Facility - Stillwater

There’s No Equality for Incarcerated Students With Disabilitiesby Donovan Diego: “As a GED tutor, I don’t know how many of the men I work with would be eligible for an accommodation, but I expect the number is much higher than the number who actually get the support they need.”


Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Elena Townsend-Lerdo is a volunteer editor at Global Forum Online and a student in California. She has been writing about prison journalism since 2017.

India Claudy is a volunteer editor at Global Forum Online and a student in California. She is passionate about inclusive, accessible journalism.