A new report from the Council of State Governments Justice Center says Wyoming has some improvements to make in fostering access to post-secondary education for people who are currently and formerly incarcerated. The national criminal justice non-profit has previously worked with the state on ways to lower Wyoming's prison population.
"Laying the Groundwork: How States Can Improve Access to Continued Education for People in the Criminal Justice System" looks at funding, barriers and incentives for continuing education.
Justice Center Policy Analyst Leah Bacon said Wyoming ranked "about average" when compared to other states. She said the state does take advantage of one federal funding source for people who are incarcerated-the Carl D. Perkins Act Career and Technical Education Act.
"But it is still leaving money on the table by not tapping into the other two federal funding streams," she said.
The remaining two federal funding sources are the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and the Second Chance Act Pell pilot program.
Additional funding barriers include a restriction on eligibility for a Hathaway Scholarship.
"The Hathaway Scholarship program does prevent, in the statute, people who are incarcerated from accessing any of that money and also applicants convicted of a felony. So then we're looking at people who are formerly incarcerated not being able to access scholarships upon release," she said.
Those barriers to accessing financial support can make it difficult for people to continue their education, she added
Le'Ann Duran, director of economic mobility for the Justice Center, said other college applications often present another barrier. About half of public universities in the US require applicants to disclose their criminal or conviction history at the time of admission.
"That's something we've found in our research, just asking that question during the application process can discourage folks from completing their applications...whether or not they would have gotten in and had a chance to thrive in the university setting or not," Duran said.
The University of Wyoming, the only four-year university in the state, does require such a disclosure.
The state does provide incentives for people who are currently and formerly incarcerated and are participating in continuing education. For example, the parole board factors in participation in a post-secondary program when considering granting or denying parole.
But the system would benefit from more programming, Bacon said.
"[It] really could benefit from bolstering what is offered in the correctional facilities by creating associate and bachelor level programs that lead to degrees that are based on local labor market trend in the state," she said.
Right now, the Wyoming Department of Corrections (DOC) provides some career and technical education options with programs such as carpentry, plumbing and computers.
The Wyoming Pathways from Prison program provides higher education classes for people who are incarcerated, with the goal of preparing them for life after prison.
Alec Muthig, co-coordinator for the program, said Wyoming Pathways from Prison is completely grant funded and has no paid staff, making it difficult to provide consistent programming.
"We know that those who are incarcerated, for the most part, can't afford to pay for the normal credit hours and they also currently aren't eligible for a lot of financial aid," he said. "So our model is that we do it for free."
Muthig said faculty teach for low stipends or for free. Pathways has also partnered with community colleges so that the students can earn credit hours at no cost.
"Doing that at scale is difficult. So we don't have the funding...to provide anything beyond periodic classes. And we think what would make a big difference in the lives of the incarcerated, communities and correctional system is to have an academic presence inside of the correctional facilities," he said.
In fact, Duran with the Justice Center said that providing access to education has positive impacts on people and communities. Research shows that participating in education can result in a a more than 40 percent reduction in recidivism.
"So providing access to continuing education while someone is incarcerated is good for local businesses because it helps to prepare people for the economy," she said, adding that only 6 percent of those who are incarcerated have a post-secondary degree.
Duran said understanding how the system is structured is important to making clear how it's working.
"We're excited for Wyoming policymakers and corrections and education leaders to take a look and see if this matches their own experience of how they understand the system in Wyoming to work," she said.
In studying each state's profile, Duran said she spoke with state officials who didn't know the extent or the limits of their own systems. But now she wants those officials to start talking.
"Our hope is we can lift up a snapshot and policymakers in Wyoming can start asking questions about how the system deliberately reflects their policy intentions and what are some areas they want to make improvements in," she said.
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