Leadership in Prison Educational Programs at HBCUs

Now is the time for all Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to offer degrees to persons behind the New Jim Crow era wall. I read with great anticipation the article “Correctional education: ‘America’s balm of Gilead,’ by Dr. Tracy Andrus.  He is a Ph.D. who currently serves as Director of the Lee P. Brown Criminal Justice Institute at Wiley College, an HBCU.  Wiley College is one of the first Black schools to offer degrees to persons who are incarcerated.  Like so many other persons in the quest to have the Second Chance Pell Grant program, Dr. Andrus’s story is offered to incarcerated men and women who desire to pursue their college educational goals.   Andrus, who is formerly incarcerated, says, “Correctional education is a Godsend for the thousands of men and women locked up behind bars in federal and state penitentiaries throughout America. Hats off to the lawmakers and politicians on both sides of the aisle that recognize how critically important education is to those who wish to make a better life for themselves and their families.” Dr. Andrus’s words and testimony offer a glimmer of hope to the potential students behind bars who can benefit from obtaining a college degree behind bars and its positive effect on the recidivism rates.  

As a formerly incarcerated individual, Andrew tells a personal story and provides firsthand knowledge of education’s value. In short, he writes, education is the great equalizer, as quoted by Horace Mann in the 18th century. As Dr. Andrus tells of his experience, not only does correctional education motivate offenders to stay on the straight and narrow, but correctional education also allows offenders to reimagine themselves. Earning a quality education plays an important role in the successful reentry of men and women into their communities.  Nationally, more than 95 % of people who are incarcerated will eventually be released, but more than a third will return to prison within three years (Hughes & Wilson, 2021).  Prison educational programs cultivate hope and rekindle the thought that change is possible in a tough spot. Correctional education, the college behind bars phenomena, gives persons who are incarcerated another shot at normalcy. When HBCUs empower incarcerated persons to start down a meaningful road leading to clear paths upon returning to their communities, the endless cycle of poverty and retiring to criminal behavior is positively disrupted.  Prison Educational programs allow offenders the opportunity to right their wrongs. Correctional education will enable children, spouses, and relatives to speak in the affirmative of their loved ones behind bars and gives them hope that they will learn their lesson and utilize their newly acquired skills and credentials to remain free, employed, and taxpaying citizens. 

The reimagining, reemergence, and resurgence of correctional education opportunities through the Second Chance Pell Initiative has given hope to incarcerated persons who were not fully engaged in the reduction tool of prison education programs initiatives.  What is Second Chance Pell?  In 2016, the U.S. Department of Education created the Second Chance Pell (SCP) Experimental Sites Initiative to provide need-based Pell grants to those in state and federal prisons. This initiative examines the impact expanded access to financial aid has on incarcerated adults’ participation in educational opportunities.

Dwan J. Warmack, President of Claflin University, and Kent J. Smith, Jr., President of Langston University, wrote in a Washington Post Op-Ed in November 2020 about the need to give an incarcerated person access to Pell Grants.  These two HBCU presidents are leading the way to give men and women an educational pathway to being empowered to change the course of their lives. In his statement on leadership, Ralph M. Stogdill (1974) asserts, “There are almost as many different definitions of leadership as there are people who have tried to define it” (p. 7).

One way to define this term is to examine the four parts of leadership as noted by Northouse (2007): “(a) leadership is a process, (b) leadership involves influence, (c) leadership occurs in groups, and (d) leadership involves common goals” (p. 5).  Another definition of leadership from Northouse (2007) is that “leadership is the process whereby an individual influences groups of individuals to achieve a common goal” (p. 5). However, it is defined, one thing is constant, outstanding leadership is a highly sought out commodity. 

This is especially true in the enrollment management leadership pursuits of recruiting traditional and non-traditional students. A decrease in HBCUs enrollment numbers can be attributed to leadership challenges. With the competition of more affluent white institutions giving free tuition to the brightest of black and brown people, HBCUs need to expand their reach to stay in business. It is time for these 110 Black schools in 26 states to pursue offering degrees to incarcerated persons and do so with the aid of the Second Chance Pell Grant. 

This can be done by following Wiley College’s example in Marshall, Texas, Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma, and Shorter College of North Little Rock, Arkansas, who created a Director of Prison Education Initiatives (PEI) position and an administrator for this program. They also have faculty, staff, and groups of committed volunteers from the school of Social Work. As a result of these developments, incarcerated men and women can begin the journey of changing their futures by obtaining a college degree; when this is done, the inmates’ recidivism rate is greatly reduced. Without a college degree, their chances of going back to prison are significantly higher. The Director of Prison Education can use transformational, service role-taking, and removal of Path-Goal obstacles to facilitate change. The problem is that leadership efforts to increase enrollment efforts have failed at HBCUs and new innovative initiatives such as Prison Education Programs may be the tool needed to solve fiscal and administrative issues on these campuses.

The purpose of the HBCUs Prison Education Program is to inform administrators of the importance of effectively allowing incarcerated men and women to re-enter society with college degrees that will change the course of their lives and strengthen a positive impact on the community to which they will return.  This article’s focus is to inform HBCU leaders about the importance of utilizing the Second Chance Pell Grant to educate incarcerated individuals and reduce recidivism rates in the American prison system.  To achieve enduring significant and life-changing transformation through Prison Education Programs (PEPs), HBCUs can prepare prisoners for reentry by equipping them with the skills and education necessary to attain exemplary citizenship, successful quality of life, and prevent recidivism.

Prison Education Programs in HBCUs using Transformational Leadership Approach

According to Garmon (2002), President of Vista Community College in Berkeley, California, there is an alarming number of incarcerated adults who could benefit from gaining an education that could rehabilitate them and lower the number of repeat offenders in America. Garmon (2002) writes:

It is estimated that there are 1.6 million potential students that Colleges and Universities across the country could serve. Throughout the United States, without much fanfare, some community colleges are already going about the rewarding business of serving students in prisons. Helping these inmates gain an education and start a new life has helped reduce recidivism rates (a tendency to slip back into previous criminal behavior patterns), thus saving a huge amount of money for local and state governments (p. 3).

Hall (2015) agrees that recidivism can be reduced in prisons by initiation Prison Education Programs (PEPs) so that inmates can complete degree programs and feel a sense of pride about their accomplishments. Hall writes: “The relationship between participation and completion of correctional education programs is important to the role of education as a tool for reduction of recidivism. Specifically, the importance of degree completion while incarcerated further aids in the reduction of recidivism rather than participation only.” (Hall, 2015, p.12).

I believe the leadership within the President’s cabinet should embrace the fact that it is time for more Historically Black Colleges and Universities to bolster their enrollment numbers by developing and implementing face-to-face offerings for persons who are incarcerated. The goal is to provide selected men and women (who have sentences of five years or less and are currently incarcerated in the Department of Corrections across this country) opportunity and access to Prison Education Programs. 

Through the Higher Education Act of 1965, which was renewed in August of 2008, the PEP provides 100,000 inmates with the academic opportunity to pursue higher education. It does this by allocating finances that create avenues and provides resources for inmates to pay for and earn educational degrees. The pilot program qualified eligible incarcerated Americans to receive Pell Grants and pursue postsecondary education degrees. The college degree is the spigot that provides an entrance to mid-level career-track employment. The college eligible incarcerated can support themselves and their families upon reentry to society. The Second Chance Pell Grant program results were so positive that the current administration has reaffirmed and expanded it for the incarcerated. 

Incarcerated students are generally prohibited from receiving Pell grants, which provide need-based federal financial aid to low-income undergraduate students. However, the U.S. Department of Education has the authority to waive specific statutory or regulatory requirements for providing federal student aid at schools approved to participate in its experiments. Accordingly, the department initiated the multi-year Second Chance Pell pilot in 2015 to test if allowing incarcerated individuals to receive Pell grants will increase their participation in higher education programs and influence their academic and life outcomes; or if it can create an obstacle to the schools’ administration of federal financial aid programs. 

Dr. Michael L. Lomax, President and CEO of United Negro College Fund wrote an article entitled 6 Reasons HBCUs Are More Important Than Ever. His sixth reason, HBCUs Offer a True Value/Values Proposition, aligns with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s article, The Purpose of Education. Lomax writes: “HBCUs are rooted in faith, community, and service. Black churches have long been pillars of the black community, and the history and life of black colleges are closely intertwined with faith, values, and service to others” (Lomax, 2015, p. 4).

HBCUs offer a real value/value proposition: not only are they a great value to their students, but they also produce students with great values. Over and over, one is reminded of the heroes and leaders who have emerged from HBCUs. Whether it is the kindness of parishioners at the Emanuel Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston who perished after opening their doors to a stranger, or the inspired, nonviolent Leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., HBCUs produce the best kind of values-based leadership. For more than 100 years, HBCUs have been educating minorities, giving them economic opportunities, and instilling great values. Not only have they consistently produced leaders in their communities and across the nation, but HBCUs in the past and today have always affordably made the leaders of the future.

Lomax’s words of possessing and producing students with great values have the spirit, if not the letter, of King’s thought of “knowledge plus character.” King (1947) wrote, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education” (p. 123). It is important to continue in the same spirit as Dr. Martin King, Jr. by providing ethical and creative leadership within HBCUs; and to take his legacy of great values to incarcerated persons by allowing them to change their reentry paths from not returning to prison.

Recidivism is a monumental problem to overcome by ex-felons who are not prepared to re-enter society. Recidivism is one of the most fundamental concepts in criminal justice. It refers to a person’s relapse into criminal behavior, often after receiving sanctions or undergoing intervention for a previous crime. To achieve enduring significant and life-changing transformation, HBCUs must prepare prisoners for reentry by equipping them with the skills and education necessary to attain exemplary citizenship, gain a successful quality of life, and prevent recidivism. This is where the HBCUs can become not only instrumental but a deciding factor in taking the helm in reducing crime by educating incarcerated prisoners.

To restore this population of non-traditional students, transformational leaders can inspire their followers and give these incarcerated men and women a brighter future through education opportunities. Although the term transformational leadership was introduced by Downton (1973), the concept did not gain credibility and wide acceptance until the publication of the book Leadership by James Macgregor Burns (1978). In his book, MacGregor (1978) states:

The transforming leader recognizes and exploits an existing need or demand of a potential follower. Beyond that, the transforming leader looks for potential motives in followers, seeks to satisfy higher needs, and engages the follower’s full person. The result of transforming leadership is a relationship of mutual stimulation and elevation that converts followers into leaders and may convert leaders into moral agents. (p. 4).

According to Burns (1978), the transforming approach encourages leaders to reimagine concrete change in leading HBCUs to embark on this new frontier of progressive education. New insights are driven by “purpose and character” within correctional educational programs, and they contribute to the inmates’ recidivism rates being lowered.

The concept of transforming leadership is found in Burns’ (1978) descriptive research on political leaders. Still, this term is now used in organizational psychology as well. Transforming leadership is a process in which “leaders and followers help each other advance to a higher level of morale and motivation” (Transformational Leadership, n.d., p. 3). As the Director of Prison Education Programs and faculty teach positive psychology within the offerings of degree programs to inmates, the students benefit from the transforming leaders’ instruction to better themselves by articulating HBCUs’ educational curriculum offerings. Teaching inmates who participate in college behind bars learn to rethink how they were and begin to imagine the way they may become better citizens. The influence of transforming leadership provides and instills in students the capabilities in their futures by imparting moral imperatives and ethical vision. Doing so helps change negative thoughts into adopting the concept of Dr. King’s “purpose plus character.” In Burn’s book entitled, Transforming leadership, he writes, “The word for this process is empowerment. Instead of exercising power over people, transforming leaders champion and inspired followers…As leaders to encourage followers to rise above narrow interests and work together for transcending goals, leaders can come into conflict with followers’ rising sense of efficacy and purpose” (Burns 1978, p.26). As HBCU leaders operate from the premise of “purpose plus character,” leadership and followership unearth vital components to achieve the goal of administering degree programs to incarcerated men and women.

Seven years later, Bernard M. Bass (1985) further expanded the concept of Burns’ work in the book Leadership by adding key components, which also explained transforming leadership and transactional leadership to becoming “transformational leadership.” Bass added to Burns’ (1978) initial concepts to explain how transformational leadership could be measured and how it impacts follower motivation and performance. Bass (1985) says, “Transformational leadership occurs when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of morality” (p. 20). Transformational leadership is defined as a leadership approach that causes a change in individuals and social systems. It creates a valuable and positive difference in followers’ ability to develop into leaders in their ideal form. Transformational leadership enhances followers’ motivation, morale, and performance through various mechanisms in its original condition.

As transformational leadership evolved, Bass (1985) expanded on the four primary areas as he noted the four I’s for a leadership change. First, Individualized Consideration is the degree to which the leader attends to each follower’s needs, acts as a mentor or coach to the follower, and listens to the follower’s concerns and needs. Secondly, Intellectual Stimulation is the degree to which the leader challenges assumptions, takes risks, and solicits followers’ ideas. Thirdly, Inspirational Motivation is the degree to which the leader articulates a appealing and inspiring vision to followers. Lastly, Idealized Influence provides a role model for high ethical behavior, instills pride, gains respect and trust (Bass & Bass, 2008).

Burns’ definition of transformative leadership and Bass’ explanation of the four areas display the type of leadership that HBCUs need in Prison Educational Initiatives.  Now on the cusp of a new frontier in Higher Education with the “College Behind Bars” concept, HBCUs can help offenders imagine having a life that can transcend the scarlet letter of having been incarcerated. Having a college degree arms students with knowledge, skills, and attitude to meet society’s demands. Beyond the course content, students become immersed in a collegiate experience that ultimately lays the foundation for professional opportunities and careers. It is the restoration of hope and the beginning of a new journey. It is essential to understand that 25 percent of offenders enter the correctional system without a high school diploma or GED; additionally, only a third more have noted that their highest earned level of education is a GED (Couloute, 2018 p. 2). Furthermore, African Americans are five times more likely to become incarcerated than their White counterparts (Criminal justice fact sheet, n.d.; Nellis, 2016). A social call to action for Historically Black Colleges and Universities to make a rather significant impact by efficiently and effectively offering prison education programs may be necessary. 

Over 2.3 million individuals are in American prisons, jails, and the vast majority of them will return to their communities ill-prepared to do anything different (Sawyer & Wagner, 2020). Transformational leadership could be the catalyst for change; it will work as a strategy to keep them from returning. The concept of transformational leadership has dominated the leadership literature since the early 1980s (Jackson & Parry, 2008; Northouse, 2007). Northouse (2007) defines transformational leadership as being “a process that changes and transforms people. It is concerned with emotions, values, these standards, and long-term goals. It includes assessing followers’ motives, satisfying their needs, and trading them as full man beings” (p. 163). Bass and Avolio (1993) expanded the transformational leadership concept to include more effective aspects of followers’ and leaders’ feelings and emotions. They also delineated vital elements of the idea: (a) idealized influence, (b) inspirational motivation, (c) intellectual stimulation, and (d) individualized consideration. Contemporary leadership theorists and researchers still cite these four elements as fundamental transformational leadership components (Kim, 2006; Leithwood & Duke, 1999; Northouse, 2007).

Agility and Removal of Path-goal Obstacles to Facilitate Change Within PEIs in HBCUs

According to Heifetz (1994), leaders are confronted with two types of problems: technical problems, which can be solved by expertise and good management, and adaptive problems, such as poverty, drug abuse, and racial tensions, which require innovation and learning.  HBCUs Prison Educational Programs must equip themselves to overcome both technical and adaptive problems by being agile in their development and educating incarcerated individuals.   It is noted that adaptive leadership, with the understanding of having to lead without authority, can constructively attack the problem of Prison Education Initiatives (PEIs) in HBCUs, a problem that case research can facilitate the exploring of the complexities of launching this program to non-traditional students. 

Consequently, addressing problems that will arise in PEIs, and being able to be adaptive, will lead to obtaining more positive outcomes.  Adaptive leadership, as defined and explained by Ronald A. Heifetz (1994) in his book Leadership without Easy Answers, is a “Practical leadershipframework that helps individuals and organizations to adapt to changing environments and effectively respond to recurring problems” (p. 34). With this definition in mind, specifically regarding the problems of launching this initiative, adaptive leadership will be required.  Northhouse (2007) adds to the understanding of being agile in planning this type of progressive education to non-traditional students by saying such leaders help “Others do the work they need to do, in order to adapt to the challenges they face” (p. 258). 

The author of this article has devised an eight-step plan to develop and implement Prison Education in HBCUs that will help to alleviate obstacles or concerns that leaders may have while attempting to institute PEPs at their schools. The eight-step prison initiative plan takes from a manual entitled: The Dream Re-Imagined Historically Black Colleges and Universities Releasing Purpose to Prisoners by G. Martin Young. For this paper, only the first four steps will be outlined. They are:

Step One

Recruit a lead person or persons who will direct the PEP (Prison Education Program) initiative. The ideal candidate will be at ease of entering secure prison environments. Next, disseminate promotional information to recruit qualified professors to teach; this may involve convening a search committee to ensure the best selection of instructional professionals. The recruitment process may include selecting adjunct instructors interested in affiliating with the schools’ first teaching course offerings to educate incarcerated adults. Recruit staff who will be liaisons and can provide the support services required to ensure effective facilitation occurs between the academic and operations components of school.

Step Two

Through the school’s administration, contact the institution’s accrediting body and the state’s Department of Education to initiate the process of offering courses leading to a degree within selected prison venues. The program director will follow institutional directions to ensure the university and the courses comply with all rules and regulations. The school recognizes that it is crucial to obtain authorization from the state’s accreditation body to get approval to offer modified but challenging courses within a confined setting. It is also critical to recognize the financial and resource commitment that institutions must make to accommodate changes and updates in the academic plan for this new venture. Therefore, solicit funding such as the Second Chance Grant and other state and/or federal options can help subsidize tuition and fee costs.

Step Three

The PEP’s objective is to oversee the coordination of the following components to maximize their joint yet flexible operation in concert with one another.  The director will also be responsible for working within the school’s regulations to conduct information dissemination and provide public service updates. Accountability is essential, and the director will provide monthly reports on student progress and services offered and utilized. The director will give a quarterly update and an annual end-of-year comprehensive report. 

Step Four

The admissions team, financial aid team, testing center, and registrar’s office will receive an orientation to this particular segment of the student body and its specific requirements. The orientation will build program familiarity, comfort, and commitment to maintaining school requirements in a confined atmosphere and answering pertinent questions concerning the “College Behind Bars” initiative’s expectations and format.

While attempting to execute any of these steps, it will require agility and dedication; step one to step four will have many challenges depending upon the timetable of implementation set by the leadership. This is where agility and Path-Goal Theory adds to the success of launching an HBCU prison education program.  According to Northouse (2007), Path-Goal Theory is: “How leaders motivate followers to accomplish designated goals…is designed to explain how leaders can help followers along the path to their goals by selecting specific behaviors that are best suited to followers’ needs and to the situation in which followers are working” (pp. 117-118). 

The agile behavior of the PEI’s leadership in directing, supporting, participating, and achieving orientation goals is crucial to maneuvering from one step to the next.  Northouse (2007) continues by adding, “Path-goal theory is an approach to leadership that is not only theoretically complex, but also pragmatic” (p. 123).  This thought is not just about theory but the importance of practice, which leads to overcoming barriers and challenges that will arise in the developing and implementing PEIs at HBCUs.  One may agree with Northouse (2007) when he says, “Path-goal theory provides a set of general recommendations based on the characteristics of followers and tasks for how leaders should act in various situations if they want to be effective” (pp. 126-127).  This statement is crucial, especially when leading a new team through the steps toward launching a PEI with followers who need to be guided through specific duties to reach the launching deadline. 


PEIs that operate with leaders and followers who subscribe to transformational, service role-taking, and removal of Path-Goal obstacles to facilitate change are essential for HBCUs facilitating the work to bring valued college education to the incarcerated.  As HBCUs benefit through progressive education and vocational training in prison, reducing recidivism, and improving job outlook, inmates receive general education and vocational training. They thereby are significantly less likely to return to jail after being released and are more likely to find employment.  Incarcerated men and women can potentially add to their state’s human capital if observed as assets, future resources to the state, communities, and citizens.

To achieve enduring significant and life-changing transformation, HBCUs must prepare prisoners for reentry by equipping them with the skills and education necessary to attain exemplary citizenship, successful quality of life, and prevent recidivism. The first four steps of the eight-step manual could be utilized at HBCUs to help them begin PEPs at their schools to reduce the recidivism rates in America and be a part of the solution by producing productive citizens who value themselves and others. HBCUs can become an instrumental part of the solution by offering college classes to inmates. However, they can become a deciding factor in effectively impacting incarcerated men and women to re-enter society with college degrees. PEPs and pertinent PEIs can change the course of incarcerated individuals forever and strengthen a positive impact on the community to which they will return. 


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