Incarcerated learners in the Colorado correctional system will soon be eligible for additional higher education courses, including Colorado University – Denver, Adams State and Red Rocks Community College. This past year, CU-Denver’s Communications Department offered special help in how some students in prison could become better, more effective communicators.

“Bad communications can easily lead to conflict, in the home, at work, in the community,” said Stephen J. Hartnett, professor of communications and director of the College in Prison Program.

And conflict can lead to prison.


While a graduate student at University of California, San Diego, Hartnett focused his dissertation on the history of slavery in the United States. He came to realize that slavery didn’t really end; but rather just transitioned into prison systems.

Given poverty, poor schools and neighborhood violence, a lot of inmates in Colorado or the nation at large, never had the opportunity to learn the basic skills that would keep them out of trouble and provide access to a decent job. Perhaps the most basic skill of all is communications.

“What we’ve been trying to do,” said Hartnett, “is even the playing field.”

For example, one of his inmate/students recently got out of prison and decided he wanted to use past experience as a roofer, to get a job with a construction company. “He was told he needed to speak to the company’s board of directors, to explain why he deserved a second chance,” said Hartnett.

The young man was persuasive enough that he was hired and is now making a decent living, Hartnett added.

Good communication skills are essential, but Hartnett acknowledged they wouldn’t help a freed inmate balance a budget, pay bills, understand how to write business letters, understand local politics or national history. That’s why, come fall this year, the College in Prison Program will offer a 10-course program, designed to share the skills needed to become community leaders with individuals who lived in a chaotic environment.

“And our business school will be offering a four-course program addressing what you need to know if you want to be a small-business entrepeneur,”said Hartnett.

“Most of our students are not aiming at a college or graduate degree,” he said. “What they’d like is to learn the steps and skills of a small-business operator, someone who runs a landscaping service, a small mechanics shop, a food truck.”

Coupled with communication skills, future graduates should be able to communicate effectively with a loan officer at a bank, a vendor of needed supplies, a realtor or a town/county administrator who handles business licenses.

Hartnett said all 50 states have education-to-prison programs, with differing approaches on subject matter, but all with the goal of reducing recidivism, the return of former inmates, back into the correctional system.

“There is a real rennaisance going on, as more and more education institutions are focused on reaching out to prison inmages. What has happened is that Pell grants are back and available to fund a wide range of programs,” said Hartnett.

Prison inmates were cut off from Pell grants back in 1994, said Hartnett, when President Bill Clinton wanted to demonstrate he could be tough on crime. Since then, said Hartnett, Pell grants have been coming back and becoming available to more and more inmates.

Hartnett readily acknowledged that incarcerated women have extra stress and life burdens if they have children. They need all the above skills and more, if they want to provide a secure home for their children when they are free again.

The program’s students also produce an arts magazine, Captured Words/Free Thoughts, which just published its 20th Anniversary edition.