University of Utah Brings Higher Ed to Prisons

A majority of the people incarcerated in Utah have less than a high school education. Photo Credit: Pixabay

Eric Galatas
Public News Service

SALT LAKE CITY — A new program spearheaded by the University of Utah is reviving higher education classes for incarcerated people at the Utah State Correctional Facility in Draper, after a ten-year hiatus.

Erin Castro, an assistant professor at the University, is the driving force behind The University of Utah’s Prison Education Project, currently offering two non-credit classes at the state prison in Draper. Castro said her ultimate goal is to ramp up the effort and give people behind bars a chance to earn a bachelor’s degree – in part, she said, because she believes access to higher education can change lives.

“So if we look at the people who are in prison, they’re overwhelmingly people of color, from lower socio-economic statuses. We have a number of folks with disabilities inside, and with chemical dependency issues,” Castro said. “Is this the way that we want to kind of address these social problems?”

She noted the U.S. currently incarcerates over 2 million people, more any other nation in history. 

Castro said since some 97 percent of people serving time in Utah will eventually be released, higher education can be one piece of a larger puzzle to help people become productive members of society. The project has been embraced by the University’s administration, faculty, students and staff, but Castro said the biggest obstacle is funding.

A 2012 study by the University for the Utah Department of Corrections found Utah taxpayers got a 6-to-1 return on investment when educational opportunities were provided to people in prison. And that return jumped up to 13-to-1 when combined with job training and placement.

Castro said in her experience with a similar program at the University of Illinois, she saw former inmates transitioning into careers as social workers, teachers and counselors for at-risk youth.

“So there’s absolutely a connection between high quality higher education in prison, and formerly incarcerated students’ desire and ability to give back to their community – civic engagement,” she said.

Castro said the current class of students – studying Intro to Gender and Culture, and Philosophical and Historical Perspectives on Education – have recently elected a student advisory board and a librarian. The project also provides tutoring help and a lecture series.