No Matter What the Future May Hold: Prisoners’ Rights to Learn

Authored by Kaitlen McPherson

While the confidentiality of College Guild Students is a priority, the way the program impacts them is important to share. Especially for those who have been sentenced to life and historically have been “given up on”. But College Guild is incredibly important to those who may have given up on themselves.

Criminal conviction affects the individual far past the surface level of physical incarceration. Qualitative interviews have shown that life in prison develops negative self-stigma. But higher education can counteract that and help develop a more positive sense of self (Evans, Douglas and Pelletier 2017, 260). The focus of most studies has been on using higher education to improve the mental health of prisoners, as well as make them less stigmatized once they re-enter society. 

However, these higher education programs are often unavailable to those sentenced to life in prison, a.k.a. “lifers” who society sees as no point in educating.  A “virtual life sentence” is when an individual is serving a sentence past the point of life expectancy. There are more than 31,000 people in 26 states serving virtual life sentences (Henry, Salvatore and Pugh 2018, 294). College Guild is a program that understands that every individual, including those serving a virtual life sentence, deserve to develop a sense of self. Thus, College Guild remains an unaccredited education program so that they can remain accessible to all behind bars. 

Those sentenced to life in prison often experience intrusive recollections similar to the symptoms of PTSD, due to the direness of their situation. When studied, three categories emerge as to how they deal with that: suppression, denial, and sublimation (Wright, Creme and Hulley 2017, 225). In oversimplified terms, there is the squashing down or denying of painful emotions, usually resulting in a cycle of worsening symptoms, or a type of creative outlet is found. College Guild provides a creative outlet to those who are often denied access to creative and stimulating activities but need them the most. 

College Guild’s blog provides examples of how their program has aided those in prison. In particular, the letter “A brighter future” (2019) written by Eileen H. a 48-year-old who has been serving a life sentence since she was 19. While she was allowed to receive her A.A. in liberal arts, she states it was College Guild that let her see and love a world that she had almost forgotten. 

Her words affirm the quote by Clint Smith, a creative writing teacher who taught in the Massachusett’s State Prison: 

“People in prison should have access to education not simply to reduce the likelihood of recidivism; they should have access because having the opportunity to learn is a fundamental human right” (Smith 2017, 87). 

Self-efficacy has been linked directly to participation in prison education programs. Even more significant, those with longer sentences are twice as likely to participate when compared to those with shorter sentences (Jonesa, Mangerb, Eikeland and Asbjorsen 2013, 41). Not only is there a population who wants to participate, but they will also do so in any way possible. Much like most of the work done for College Guild, Eileen’s original letter was handwritten because a pen and paper are what she had access to. It was then typed up for the College Guild blog so that others can have access to the impact made by programs for life-sentenced prisoners. 


Evans, Douglas N., Emily Pelletier, and Jason Szkola. 2018. “Education in Prison and the Self-Stigma: Empowerment Continuum.” Crime & Delinquency 64, no. 2 255–80. doi:10.1177/0011128717714973.

Henry, Jessica S., Christopher Salvatore, and Bai-Eyse Pugh. 2018 “Virtual Life Sentences: An Exploratory Study.” The Prison Journal 98, no. 3: 294–313. doi:10.1177/0032885518764915.

Jonesa, Lise Øen, Terje Mangerb, Ole-Johan Eikeland, and Arve AsbjØrnsen. 2013. “Participation in Prison Education: Is It a Question of Reading and Writing Self-Efficacy Rather than Actual Skills?” Journal of Correctional Education 64 (2): 41–62.

Smith, Clint. 2018. “Complex Sentences: Searching for the Purpose of Education Inside a Massachusetts State Prison.” Harvard Educational Review 87, no. 1: 81–98. doi:10.17763/1943-5045-87.1.81.

Wright, Serena, Ben Crewe, and Susie Hulley. 2017. “Suppression, Denial, Sublimation: Defending against the Initial Pains of Very Long Life Sentences.” Theoretical Criminology 21, no. 2 225–46. doi:10.1177/1362480616643581.