NCHEP 2023 Round-Up: THEI's Impactful Path Forward

The Tennessee Higher Education Initiative (THEI) made waves at the 13th National Conference on Higher Education in Prison (NCHEP) held in Atlanta, Georgia, from November 9th to 11th. A key event uniting advocates and professionals committed to expanding educational opportunities for incarcerated individuals, NCHEP embodies a lifeline for communities dedicated to this cause. THEI, a pioneering force, brings degree-bearing college programs to prisons in Tennessee, embodying our mission to disrupt systems of harm and create pathways to autonomy and success through education, support, and advocacy. Our active engagement at NCHEP aligned seamlessly with our ethos, drawing attention to our multifaceted involvement in educational programs, transitional support for re-entry, and impactful policy advocacy.

NCHEP's theme, "Closing the Distance," echoed THEI’s core mission to disrupt harmful systems and foster autonomy and success through education, support, and advocacy for justice-impacted individuals. The conference urged a contemplation of multiple distances, from inside and outside prison walls to disparities in access, emphasizing the need to bridge these gaps through education.

Opening the Dialogue: Collective Care in the HEP Space

The pre-conference gathering of the Southern HEP Collective emerged as a collective introspection on care in the Higher Education in Prison (HEP) space. Focused on the theme of "collective care," this gathering epitomized a pivotal moment for THEI and other southern HEP organizations, fostering dialogue about recognizing signs of trauma and the indispensable need for strategies encompassing both self-care and communal well-being.

As passionate advocates for their work in the HEP realm, participants shared stories of triumphs and the harsh realities encountered while navigating a system still entrenched in causing harm. The discourse underscored the pervasive culture of "nose to the grindstone" and "bootstraps" mentality prevalent in American mindsets—a culture deeply rooted in white supremacy.

Within this dialogue, THEI and our peers confronted the deleterious impact of societal norms that extol perfectionism, power-hoarding, and an emphasis on individualism, quantity over quality, and binary thinking. Acknowledging the ramifications of operating within this framework, our communities recognized its inadequacies in fostering genuine care, both for themselves and for those within their community. This served as a clarion call for a more compassionate and inclusive approach, stressing the need to transcend these limiting cultural paradigms to better support justice-impacted individuals and enhance the effectiveness of their collective endeavors.

Student-Centric Perspectives: Voices from Incarcerated Learners

The inaugural day of NCHEP ignited with a poignant showcase—live video chats featuring currently incarcerated students. Their unwavering dedication and endeavors offered a profound glimpse into the transformative power of education within carceral spaces. This day also served as a stark reminder, shedding light on the persistent gaps and pressing needs that demand urgent attention within the landscape of providing equitable access and comprehensive care for those currently incarcerated. The vibrancy of the students’ work contrasted sharply with the systemic shortcomings, calling upon attendees to redouble efforts in fostering enhanced opportunities and holistic support for incarcerated learners.

Cultivating Education, Reentry, and Policy: THEI’s Participation and Insights

THEI's enthusiastic involvement at NCHEP encompassed multiple facets. Notably, several alumni students, invited and funded by the generous support of the Ascendium Foundation and THEI, enriched the discourse, amplifying the lived experiences and successes resulting from these educational programs. The following panels and presentations garnered significant attention at the conference.

TRANSforming Reentry in HEP


  • Chanel Pulliam, Alumni
  • Damaryious Dorsey, Alumni
  • Barbi Brown, Director of Policy & Practice
  • Laramie Riggs, Transitional Programs Manager

The panel shed light on the web of obstacles encountered by trans individuals and the need for tailored support systems and resources. Beyond the fundamental concerns of employment, housing stability, and healthcare, this session underscored the societal barriers that impede not just survival but the very essence of existence for trans individuals.

The panelists vividly articulated the dilemmas faced by this community, explaining how the absence of adequate support mechanisms may coerce individuals into compromising their identities, or resorting to self-erasure, to evade homelessness or recidivism.

Adopting a panel discussion format and an open question forum, the session fostered an environment for identifying the distinct journey and challenges experienced by trans justice-impacted individuals. The call to action resonated strongly, advocating for collective efforts to address these challenges and bring about positive changes in different regions across the United States.

Finding Reetry Success


  • Shon Holman-Wheatley, Director of Transitional Programs
  • Rachel Zolensky, Vice President of Strategy & Impact

This workshop illuminated a holistic approach crucial for the successful reintegration of students from HEP programs into society. Recognizing the intricate challenges faced by justice-impacted individuals post-release, the session championed the need for inclusive and supportive environments to foster empowerment and growth.

The comprehensive approach combined radical hospitality with trauma-informed care principles. Insights gleaned from this session included practical strategies and evidence-based outcomes, crucial in designing and implementing effective programs that catalyze post-release success.

Among the critical takeaways from the session were the significance of filling gaps within the Department of Corrections, cultivating a supportive community among alumni, and providing autonomy to students while guiding them towards trauma-informed institutions. Emphasizing the necessity for programs to begin within the confines of correctional facilities and seamlessly transition to the outside world, the session underscored the transformative impact of close familial relationships and warm hand-offs in the reentry process. 

Emerging Practice: Establishing Statewide Multi-Stakeholder Groups and Consortia for Prison Education Programs


  • Laura Ferguson-Mimms, Executive Director of THEI
  • Faiza Chappell, Vera Institute of Justice
  • Terrell Blount, Formerly Incarcerated College Graduates Network
  • Deborah Arthur, Portland State University

The recent reinstatement of Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated individuals in July 2023 marked a significant juncture. It demanded the formation of oversight entities ensuring that Prison Education Programs (PEPs) genuinely cater to the best interests of incarcerated students. Insights gleaned from this session illuminated the multifaceted roles these consortia could undertake. They serve as hubs for advocacy, resource coordination, employment pathways, curriculum enhancement, and technological integration. Beyond these practical elements, the session stressed the fundamental motivation behind all stakeholders: supporting higher education for incarcerated individuals, empowering them to catalyze positive transformations in their lives.

Dr. Ferguson-Mimms' analogy, likening stakeholders convening at a consortium/PEP Advisory Committee table to a Thanksgiving gathering, offered a resonating perspective. Proactive planning to navigate potential conflicts mirrors the preparation needed to foster understanding and connections among diverse stakeholders. Furthermore, the session advocated for the integration of formerly incarcerated individuals into professional leadership roles within these coalitions. This shift ensures not just the audibility but the influential presence of their voices, aligning with THEI's commitment to actively involving alumni as Subject Matter Experts in shaping policy and practice.

Key Takeaways and Moving Forward

Throughout the conference, THEI actively championed reducing harm, advocating for policy reforms, and supporting alumni as Subject Matter Experts. In a landscape often hindered by systemic challenges and a cultural ethos rooted in white supremacy, THEI champions a paradigm shift. 

The NCHEP 2023 conference served as a catalyst for THEI. Our approach embraces authenticity, knowledge, and compassion, nurturing a space where education transcends boundaries and facilitates a redefined narrative for justice-impacted individuals.