Ascendium supports efforts that increase student success for incarcerated learners, most of whom do not have equitable access to high-quality postsecondary education in prison. To create effective, high-quality programs, it’s important to include the voices of learners who have experienced postsecondary education in prisons in policy discussions for the field. That’s why we supported The Education Trust in its efforts to launch the Justice Fellows Policy Program.
The inaugural class of eight Justice Fellows, who were named in April, are formerly incarcerated individuals who have attained bachelor's or master's degrees and have done important community work since their release.
Ascendium’s Toya Wall, senior program officer for our focus area to expand postsecondary education in prison, asked Ed Trust leaders for their thoughts on the Justice Fellows Policy program launch. Wil Del Pilar, vice president for higher education policy and practice, and Satra Taylor, manager of higher education justice initiatives, offered these insights.
Q: Why is it especially important now to include the voices of learners who have been incarcerated to help shape postsecondary education in prison policy?
A: At Ed Trust, we have attempted to center the voices of those who are directly impacted in policy and practice debates, as well as in identifying and implementing policy and practice solutions. With the lifting of the Pell ban in December and the U.S. Department of Education tasked with implementation, the voices of directly impacted individuals are critical to ensure that access, diversity, and equity in curriculum and faculty and access to programs and support services are provided to all students, and not just students in certain programs. Additionally, we know that state policy has a significant role to play in Pell expansion. We anticipate and have already experienced the contribution of directly impacted learners in our thinking about the necessary components to improve higher education in prison and in ensuring access to higher education for students who have been impacted by the criminal legal system.
Q: How does an effort like the Justice Fellows Policy Program fit within Ed Trust's larger mission?
A: Ed Trust’s mission is to close opportunity gaps that disproportionately affect students of color and students from low-income families. We know that students of color are disproportionately impacted and incarcerated by the criminal legal system. At Ed Trust, we are committed to holding colleges accountable, making college affordable and investing in and supporting students’ success, and these priorities hold for higher education in prison programs. The fellowship is the realization of our mission and an example of what is possible when we invest in students instead of abandoning them.
Q: What do you expect to see coming from the Justice Fellows, both as this program unfolds and beyond?
A: We have already benefited from the lived experiences of the Justice Fellows on the development of our equity framework, which highlights the necessary state policy conditions to alleviate barriers to reentry for justice-involved students. Beyond that, the Justice Fellows will engage with partners like the Jamii Sisterhood and Unlock Higher Ed Coalition. They will provide feedback on policy proposals and solutions, draft and provide policy recommendations and innovations for justice-impacted students and review and provide feedback on Ed Trust work related to higher education and the legal system. They’ll join Ed Trust meetings related to higher education and the legal system and participate in at least one public opportunity to discuss higher education and the legal system (i.e., blog, report, social media event, video, etc.) during the fellowship. We hope that this experience will lead to a pathway into federal and state policy for the Justice Fellows where they will have a long-term impact on policy and practice.
Q: How will work of the Justice Fellows impact the wider field?
A: We believe that the Justice Fellows will have a profound impact on the field by introducing and leveraging their lived experiences into both policy proposals and recommendations during a time where we expect to see a significant increase in higher education in prison programs. Additionally, we hope that the policy space will recognize the unique and broader contribution that justice-impacted individuals can have on developing solutions to the challenges facing higher education in prison programs and for justice-involved students on campuses. Finally, we hope that this is only the first cohort of Justice Fellows. This inaugural cohort of fellows will be our colleagues in the policy space, identifying solutions and opening doors for future generations of fellows and justice-involved individuals.
Visit the Justice Fellows Policy Program page to stay informed about the progress of this program.