December 9, 2022

The Urgency of STEM Education in Prison

“We have to challenge ourselves to imagine what this world would look like if people were leaving prison with STEM education and skills,” says EDC’s Terrell Blount.

As the STEM industry tries to address its growing workforce needs, one population has largely been left out of the conversation: people who are, or have been, incarcerated.

EDC’s Eden Badertscher believes this is a mistake.

“I’ve met people who have made important contributions in STEM fields after accessing STEM education opportunities in carceral settings,” says Badertscher, who is principal investigator of EDC’s STEM-OPS program. “However, the truth is that these opportunities are scarce—and once these people leave prison, exclusionary systems continue to restrict their access to STEM careers.”

From October 25 to 27, STEM-OPS held its annual convening in St. Louis, Missouri. Titled “Access to STEM Education and Careers Is a Human Right, Not a Privilege,” the conference brought together educators, policymakers, and advocates from across the STEM and prison reform communities.

Among the conference presenters were Amy Lopez, Terrell Blount, and Jessica Hicklin, three people who have extensive experience advocating for STEM behind prison walls. Badertscher recently sat down with the trio to discuss their work. (Note: This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.)

Badertscher: All of you are working to advance STEM opportunities for currently and previously incarcerated individuals. What has drawn you to this work?

Lopez: There’s no denying that STEM is where the jobs are. But the student body I was working with in prison had no access to STEM. The only real industries they were being prepared for were trade occupations like construction, or for women, cosmetology. These students deserved to have good opportunities when they returned to society, and I was really drawn to the question of, how can my students fill that STEM workforce gap?

Blount: Amy’s correct that corrections departments pigeonhole students into a particular field. For me, it’s about helping people find a route that they want to take in life. STEM is just one of those areas where you look and see that there are a lot of communities that are underrepresented. But I think people in prison just don’t know that STEM careers are a possibility.

Hicklin: My story is that I was incarcerated when I was 16 and sentenced to life in prison two years later. So stripped of all purpose for waking up in the morning, you tend to get creative. It took me about five years to figure out that the best thing I could do with the rest of my life was to try and educate other folks so that when they went home, they could stay home.

Badertscher: And you eventually settled on coding.

Hicklin: I taught myself to code while I was incarcerated. Through a friend and with the support of administration, I reached out to My Unlocked Labs cofounder Haley Shoaf responded to that request. We coordinated to offline a coding curriculum, and I completed the course on my own. Then I ran a 10-person pilot implementation of the program at the Potosi Correctional Center. From there, we have grown the program to three facilities and have graduated over 100 students.

Badertscher: Amy, talk about your success in bringing STEM education into prison settings.

Lopez: We had a one-to-one tablet program at the Washington, D.C. Department of Corrections, the last place I worked. Every resident had access 11 hours a day, seven days a week to their tablet, and they were on a secure Wi-Fi. So the students got the experience of using a smart device, but they’re really only going to spaces that were approved. We introduced Amazon’s AWS cloud certification courses using a blended learning model, and we arranged for tutors, lecturers, and instructors to visit the classroom to help students learn. I think the lesson there is, it wasn’t just about bringing STEM in, it was also about how we brought it in.

Badertscher: What is it about STEM education that makes it a good fit for people who are incarcerated?

Hicklin: You look at STEM, and there are way more jobs than there are people to fill them. So there is a workforce need. Plus, training someone in a field like coding can happen in a correctional context because it doesn’t require many resources. People can get certified in that skill and enter the job market ready to produce.

Lopez: Right—and the benefit of those STEM jobs is that they pay people a sustainable living wage.

Blount: I believe that when you put possibilities in front of people, they begin to envision themselves living out those possibilities. If you walk into a prison and say, “hey, you can earn $50 an hour as a licensed truck driver,” those people will see themselves driving those trucks and making that money. We can do the same thing with STEM, with coding, with mathematics. There’s no reason why these industries should be inaccessible.

Hicklin: STEM fields also seem to have a little more tolerance for people who have been justice-involved or who have felony records. We’ve had several folks from our program now who exemplify this. One’s a blockchain developer who was making $150,000 a year within the first month of coming home. Another is doing WordPress sites as a 1099 worker. They’ve been able to successfully step into the industry.

Badertscher: Shifting to policy: Pell Grant reauthorization has the potential to improve access to education in prisons, but I’m concerned that this huge opportunity won’t be realized with respect to STEM. What do you think?

Blount: I think that’s a legitimate concern. Most of the college programs that currently exist in prisons are in the humanities, created by a humanities professor who was exposed to the issue of mass incarceration, its impact on people in prison, and the conditions of confinement. We have to help STEM educators understand that they can do meaningful STEM programming in prison, too.

Lopez: And honestly, humanities is the low hanging fruit, right? Because you don’t need any equipment to teach. Teaching some STEM topics in prison doesn’t have to be impossible, but there are enough restrictions in place that it can become impossible. I mean, how can you teach chemistry when you’re not allowed to have chemistry labs?

Badertscher: I’m hearing that we really need to bust a lot of narratives about STEM in prison. What should policymakers and advocates be doing to provide STEM learning opportunities for people who are incarcerated?

Hicklin: One of the things that’s been most effective with our coding program is that we have coders come into the prisons and talk with folks about what it is to do that work. They use their privilege in life to come into a maximum security prison and talk with people one on one like they’re human beings and ask them, what do you need? We don’t need to solve the problem for people who are incarcerated so much as give them a platform to say what they need. Then we have to use our privilege to help make that possible.

Lopez: From a policy perspective, if you really want to provide more STEM opportunities to incarcerated folks, then you need to figure out how to codify those opportunities. So having a law or a policy that you can pull out of your back pocket when a correctional facility says “no, we can’t do that,” is really helpful.

Blount: I think we have to challenge ourselves to imagine what this world would look like if people were leaving prison with STEM education and skills. We’re so used to how things have always been done in carceral settings. But it just takes the right decision-makers and thinkers to imagine a way that we can change. When you have those two groups at the table, that’s when great things happen.