The United States accounts for only 4% of the world’s female population, but it is home to more than 30% of the world’s incarcerated women, the majority of whom will eventually attempt a successful reentry into society. Almost half of the incarcerated women in the United States have not obtained a high school diploma or equivalency, and only 31% have attempted some college, compared to 58% among the general public (Ewert & Wildhagen, 2011). There is ample evidence of the impact of a post-secondary degree on reducing recidivism and increasing reentry success. However, the Arizona Department of Corrections reports that of the more than 40,000 people incarcerated in November of 2019, only 5,333, or 12.5%, were involved in any type of educational programming while incarcerated (2019).
Few studies have looked closely at the barriers to higher education for formerly incarcerated individuals, and even fewer have focused on women. The purpose of this qualitative action research study was to examine the educational experiences of formerly incarcerated women through the lenses of critical social theory (Freeman & Vasconcelos, 2010; Freire, 1970) and possible selves theory (Markus & Nurius, 1986) in an effort to more fully understand low educational attainment in this population and use this knowledge to develop an effective, participant-informed intervention and provide recommendations for university outreach programs. Study participants were formerly incarcerated women and individuals who work with this population. Data were collected from in-depth semi-structured interviews and materials created during the College After Prison Workshop which was developed for this project.
Interviews revealed that the women in this study crave a sense of belonging, feel regret over their lost possible selves, experience a fear of standing still or going backward, and have a strong desire to help others. Findings suggest that colleges and universities can support formerly incarcerated women in the post-secondary system by curating a community of scholars and demonstrating a clear path forward for formerly incarcerated women by reducing systemic barriers.