NY & S

Two lifers on the role of college in prison: ‘I found a new habit. Education.’

By Charlotte West | October 20, 2022

David Luis “Suave” Gonzalez was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole when he was 17. In many states—including Pennsylvania, where Gonzalez was sentenced—there are few, if any, college opportunities for people with such lengthy sentences. 

Still, Gonzalez eventually fought his way into Villanova University’s privately funded college program at Graterford Prison, the maximum security facility where he was incarcerated. There he earned a bachelor’s degree in education and marketing.

While incarcerated, Gonzalez developed a decades-long friendship with journalist Maria Hinojosa. The two would later work together to document his time in prison and subsequent release, in 2017 after a Supreme Court decision that ruled automatic life sentences without parole for juveniles as unconstitutional, in an eponymous podcast, Suave, which won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize

Now, Gonzalez is a support coach with I Am More, a reentry program for formerly incarcerated students at Philadelphia Community College. He also co-hosts Death by Incarceration, which will be featuring episodes this fall focused on the various ways people in prison get an education. 

In August, journalist Rahsaan “New York” Thomas called Gonzalez from a phone booth on the ground tier of San Quentin’s North Block. Thomas, who was sentenced to 55-years-to-life in California, is the inside host of the Pulitzer-nominated podcast Ear Hustle

Like Gonzalez, Thomas was able to earn a degree behind bars. As he wrote for Open Campus, it was one of the factors cited in the commutation he received from California Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this year. At the end of September, Thomas got word that he is suitable for parole following Newsom’s clemency and he expects to go home sometime in early 2023.  

Thomas and Gonzalez talk about fighting the system and the role of education in prison when you think you’re never getting out.

Read New York’s interview with Suave here. We co-published the story with Slate.

To listen to the entire conversation between Thomas and Gonzalez, check out this episode of Death by Incarceration.

‘Is there anything else I may assist you with today?’

In August, President Biden announced that the Education Department will grant up to $10,000 in student loan cancellation for all borrowers with federal student loans who make less than $125,000 per year and up to $20,000 for people who received Pell Grants. Incarcerated borrowers also are eligible for student loan cancellation. 

On Monday, the federal financial aid office, Federal Student Aid, launched its online application for the one-time student loan forgiveness on Monday. The office says on its website that a paper application for debt cancellation for those who can’t apply online will be coming sometime “soon.

In the meantime, incarcerated borrowers are left waiting for information. I logged onto the Federal Student Aid chat to see if they had information on how people in prison could find out about which servicer held their loans and what type of loan they had. 

This was the experience: 

A chat with a customer service representative at the Federal Student Aid Information Center

It turns out, at least according to the representative I chatted with, that there’s no way for someone who does not have access to the internet or the ability to dial a 1-800 number to contact the Federal Student Aid Information Center. There’s no address to write to, there’s no non 1-800 number, and they won’t talk to an authorized person on the outside. 

The vast majority of prisons do not allow people to call toll-free numbers. Some departments of corrections, like Michigan, have put the numbers for the Federal Student Aid Information Center and the Debt Resolution Group (for defaulted loans) on a list of allowed numbers. But that seems to be the exception. 

I asked a few incarcerated people to try and dial those 1-800 numbers. Some people thought I was being silly for asking because they knew they’d be blocked, but they tried anyway.

Here’s what they reported back.

From Minnesota: “I called both numbers prepaid and collect 6 times. The message said this call is not allowed.”

From Indiana: “I tried as soon as I got your message, and they are not authorized. I know they can make 800 numbers authorized because we can call about tax stimulus.”

From Washington when calling the Info Center: “When I try the number it says, ‘Your account has been restricted by the correctional facility.’ I tried both prepaid and collect.”

(Washington has already approved the number for the Debt Resolution Group and is in the process of adding the FSA Info Center). 

From North Carolina: “I tried the number and as I suspected I can’t place 1-800 numbers from the prison phone. So, anyone who has to deal with GTL is not going to be able to call about Federal Student Aid from prison. Probably the same with other prison phone companies. It will require a third-party call, which in some cases isn’t possible either.”

The review from Iowa was mixed: “I guess that the answer is yes, but you have to go through the approval process. The prompt does not say that the call is disallowed, it says that the number is not on your approved call list. This system has a few numbers that it automatically adds to your list, and at least one–possibly more–is an 800 number, I think that it is the Prison Rape Elimination Act number. At any rate, I sent an email to my counselor concerning this, unfortunately, he will take 3 to 5 business days to answer.”

These are the responses just for the Student Aid Info Center and the Debt Resolution Center. Each loan servicer also has a 1-800 number that needs to be approved. In the states where numbers have been approved, incarcerated borrowers also need to be told that these numbers have been approved. 

People in prison also face issues accessing other government agencies such as Veterans Affairs and the Internal Revenue Service, which became a major issue last year in relation to stimulus checks. There’s precedent to make government 1-800 numbers available to incarcerated people. In 2003, as part of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, all correctional facilities were required to give people in prison access to a 1-800 hotline to report sexual assaults and access support services. 

Stay tuned for more on this issue as the Education Department announces the specifics of how it will be working with incarcerated borrowers. 

++ Related coverage: Read my previous newsletter on the intersection of student debt and mass incarceration. 

News & Views

We published a special dispatch from the 2022 National Conference for Higher Education in Prison. Conversations focused on the tensions between scalability and quality, the role of educational technology in program delivery, and who might be left behind with so much focus on Pell. It also provided an opportunity to hear from Education Department representatives on the return of Pell Grants for people in prison next year.

The Collaborative for Higher Education Research and Policy at the University of Utah released a series of 12 briefs, Exploring the Experiences of Second Chance Pell.

The Vera Institute of Justice and the Higher Learning Commission published Postsecondary Education in Prison Programs and Accreditation—General Considerations for Peer Reviewers and Accreditors, a guidebook intended to prepare higher education accreditors and the college faculty and administrators who serve as peer reviewers to evaluate postsecondary education programs in prisons.  

Mneesha Gellman, political science professor and director of the Emerson Prison Initiative, edited a new book, Education Behind the Wall:Why and How We Teach College in Prison. The book seeks to address some of the major issues faced by faculty who are teaching college classes for incarcerated students. 

A new article, “Beyond Pell restoration: Addressing persistent funding challenges in prison higher education toward racial and economic justice”, by Erin L. Castro, Caisa E. Royer, Amy E. Lerman, and Mary R. Gould was published in the September volume of the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education

Ithaka S+R released a new report, Supporting the Academic Research Needs of Incarcerated Students: Building JSTOR’s Offline Solution for Prison Education. on developing and piloting an improved, offline version of JSTOR, a database of academic journals and other research resources, for use in prisons and jails.

Let’s Connect

Please connect if you have story ideas or just want to share your experience with prison education programs as a student or educator. You can always reach me at charlotte@opencampusmedia.org on JPay/Securus/Connect Network/Corrlinks or on Twitter at @szarlotka. To reach me via snail mail, you can write to Open Campus Media, 2460 17th Avenue #1015, Santa Cruz, CA 95062.

We know that not everyone has access to email, so if you’d like to have a print copy of College Inside sent to an incarcerated friend or family member, you can sign them up here. We are also publishing the PDFs of our print newsletter on the Open Campus website.

There is no cost to subscribe to the print edition of College Inside. But as a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on grants and donations to keep bringing you the news about prison education. If you would like to support our work, please send a check made out to Open Campus Media to 1 Thomas Circle NW, Suite 700, Washington, DC 20005. You can also donate online here.

Attribution: This article originally appeared in Open Campus, College Inside on Oct. 20, 2022.  Photo/Rahsaan “New York” Thomas and David Luis “Suave” Gonzalez both graduated from college while serving a life sentence in prison. Illustration by Charlotte West/Open Campus. Photo of Thomas by Eddie Herena. Photo of San Quentin by Shutterstock.

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