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Online Learning a Challenge for Prison Higher-Ed Programs


Wednesday, April 22, 2020   

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Many colleges have shifted to online classes for the remainder of the school year, but for people who are incarcerated, distance learning remains a challenge.

More than 400 people in Tennessee prisons are earning college credits. The Tennessee Higher Education Initiative pairs accredited institutions with these students and helps pay their tuition. Its executive director, Molly Lasagna, said her program is lucky as one of the few with internet access. It serves the Turney Center Industrial Complex in Hickman County and the Northwest Correctional Complex in Lake County. However, she said, in prisons across the country, the pandemic is a likely setback for people working toward degrees.

"College partners are going online for the spring and summer, and the prison facilities don't have the ability to do that," she said, "and so those students are just going to get left behind, essentially."

Her organization now is offering emergency grants to help formerly incarcerated alumni and their families pay for child care, medical costs, rent or housing, utilities and other necessities during the pandemic.

Research from an advocacy group, The Prison Project, showed that access to higher education reduces the odds a person will end up back in prison after their release.

Norm, who prefers we not use his last name, lives in Rutherford County and obtained his associate's degree a few years ago while incarcerated. He said the program has huge implications for anyone returning to society, and added that he worries about those whose college tracks might be derailed.

"I'd say the biggest thing is it gives them hope for a future when they get out," he said. "You have so many obstacles ahead of you, just having a felony and coming out of prison."

According to the Sycamore Institute, a public policy research center, Tennessee's state prisons housed more than 30,000 people in 2018, about 95% of whom eventually will be released. That data is online at

Education statistics for Tennessee prisons are online at

Support for this reporting was made possible by Lumina Foundation.

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