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Brown brick building of Minnesota Correctional Facility - Stillwater
Minnesota Correctional Facility - Stillwater (Photo source: Google Maps)

This article was published in partnership with Open Campus, a publication that covers higher education throughout the country.

This article was updated on March 17, 2023 to clarify the details of the 504 Plan.

“You find the measure of slope by dividing the change in the two y points by the change in the two x points,” I said as I helped a student study for his math exam.

He shook his head. “I’m not going to get this,” he said. “This is not making sense.”

This kind of struggle with math is something I see every day as a GED tutor at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater.

“Have you ever considered requesting an accommodation?” I asked.

“What’s an accommodation?” 

This student is one of the many people incarcerated in the Minnesota Department of Corrections who have not only been denied access to extra supports like extended testing time or having text read aloud to them, but also didn’t even know they might qualify. That’s a serious problem. 

The number of incarcerated students who qualify for the help isn’t tracked. But people in state and federal prisons were about two and a half times more likely to report a disability (38 percent) than adults in the U.S. general population (15 percent). 

About a quarter of the nearly 8,000 people incarcerated in Minnesota were enrolled in education and were eligible to attain their GED as of July 2022. But only 19 requests for GED accommodations had been submitted in the state since 2017, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

And that’s despite the fact that correctional staff interviewed by the DOJ as part of a four-year civil rights investigation said the majority of their students may have disabilities. All of those 19 requests came from one teacher at one facility. There are nine other prisons in Minnesota where students received no accommodations at all. 

The fact is, as a GED tutor, I don’t know how many of the men I work with would be eligible for an accommodation, but I expect the number is much higher than the number who actually get the support they need. 

In September 2022, the DOJ found that the Minnesota Department of Corrections violated the rights of incarcerated students with disabilities by denying them opportunities to receive GED accommodations. In mid-February, Minnesota reached an agreement with the Justice Department that it would revise its policies and procedures, hire an Americans with Disabilities Act compliance officer and educate incarcerated individuals on the new policies and their rights. The department will also pay over $70,000 in compensatory damages to individuals with disabilities who were denied accommodations.

The Americans with Disabilities Act says that people in prison cannot be excluded from regular programming because of disabilities. While the Justice Department noted that Minnesota generally allowed qualified individuals with disabilities to enroll or participate in GED programs, it found that the DOC unlawfully denied them an equal opportunity to benefit from the program by failing to provide necessary, reasonable accommodations. 

Here’s why the GED is so significant in Minnesota: It has become a gatekeeper in the DOC for people to get access to working higher-paying jobs, learning a trade and pursuing higher education. It will become even more important later this year as college programs begin expanding in prison facilities with the return of Pell Grants.

However, it doesn’t have to be that way. Official policy allows us to work a job and go to school to attain our GED simultaneously. But in reality, if you apply for a job, you’ll probably get denied and referred to education. Nobody is allowing guys to do both. Many people have been trapped in this cycle throughout their incarceration, to the point that they get released without a credential. This contributes to their inability to find a sustainable career upon release, and it may even lead to them returning to prison.

Identifying disabilities 

Although I welcome the changes that might come with the Justice Department’s settlement, there’s more that can be done. Many people don’t know what an accommodation is because they don’t know what qualifies as a disability. We could start to address this by educating students on not only what their rights are but also on what a disability is.  

Students’ disabilities aren’t being acknowledged and they are forced to continue education on a playing field where they’re at a disadvantage. There’s no equality for people who are feeling discouraged every time they fail a test and don’t even realize why they’re failing, much less that proper assistance is available for them. I often see guys lose hope that they’ll ever earn their GED. By the time this happens, they’ve mentally given up on themselves when, in reality, it’s the system that gave up on them.

To be eligible for accommodations on the GED test, a student must provide recent documentation of a diagnosis. Oftentime, people who might have qualified, don’t have access to those records in prison. Sometimes people develop disabilities after they are incarcerated. Someone might spend over a year in solitary confinement for a rule violation. Throughout that time, they can develop anxiety, depression or PTSD. If that disorder hasn’t been documented, they won’t qualify for accommodations. 

And students currently have to rely on teachers to submit the accommodation request, and in some cases, determine if they should receive the extra help. If they’re entering education without any documentation of disabilities, the teacher makes the determination. One education director told the Justice Department that she considered people disabled only if they did not have “hands or arms, or are blind or deaf.” 

These teachers and administrators aren’t psychologists. The fact that we’re in a controlled environment under constant surveillance makes it challenging for the teacher to identify if the student is actually displaying symptoms stemming from an intellectual or psychological disability, or is just being “defiant.”

And it can be particularly difficult for students with cognitive disabilities — which includes things like dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — since those things aren’t as obvious. Nationally, about a quarter of state prisoners reported having a cognitive disability, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Accommodations work

Cole DeGroot, a student I tutored, is an example of someone who was successful when he was given the necessary accommodations. He’s one of the few able to receive this kind of assistance on GED tests because he’s had a formal diagnosis and has been in special education since he was a kid. He was allowed more testing time and had his test read aloud to him. 

“It helped me out a lot,” he said. “I have a hard time reading, so it was good to have someone read it to me and give me more time to understand what I’m doing.” 

DeGroot is a great example of why accommodations are paramount to students with disabilities. His success has motivated him to go further in education and employment — options that would not have been available without secondary education. 

Instead of asking someone if they have a disability, staff should consider asking if they’ve ever been diagnosed with ADHD, depression or anxiety. Asking if they have a hard time staying focused while reading would also help identify students who might benefit from additional assistance.

Students should also be allowed to request a 504 Plan even if they do not qualify for an individual education plan, according to Eunha Jeong Wood, a former special education teacher and current college professor at the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Stillwater. The plan allows them to receive accommodations without a special education evaluation if they are seeking specific accommodations and have a medical diagnosis.

Another major change Minnesota could make is offering alternatives to the GED program, such as a high school diploma or an adult diploma, at all facilities. Those options allow students to demonstrate their knowledge without a high-pressure test, opening up multiple paths to academic success.  

With the settlement agreement in place, we’re expecting to see a significant change in our education department at Stillwater, and hopefully throughout the Minnesota Department of Corrections. My hope is that teachers, administrators and especially students can not only learn what accommodations are, but also actually receive them.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Donovan Diego is a tutor in the education department at Stillwater Correctional Facility in Minnesota. He is earning a bachelor's degree in education with a focus in special education at Metro State University.