Teaching Incarcerated Individuals Serving Long Sentences


I'd like to welcome to our discusion about teaching incarcerated individuals with long sentences. Through this discusion, I hope you discover instructional practices for individuals serving long sentences. Led by guest experts Dr. Kathryn Whiteley and Dr. Karen Oliver-Rider, the outcome of the two day discussion help providers increase student outcomes.   

Bio of Dr. Kathryn Whiteley: As an Australian who now lives in the United States and works as a college professor, Dr. Whiteley has had the opportunity over the last 15 years to personally meet and interview many women serving life to life without parole (LWOP) sentences from around the world. Her passion and personal goal is to work along side these women succeeds beyond academia and share their life pathways from childhood to incarceration, through their personal narrative lens. Her research lends itself to provide incarcerated individuals with a platform for a "voice," in order for them to share some insight as to their "personal challenges and complexities," and help educators and stakeholders understand the various needs of this population. 

Bio of Dr. Karen Oliver-Rider: Dr. Karen Oliver-Rider began her career in the hospitality trade. She assisted running the family bed and breakfast for several years.  Dr. Rider went on to teach art for 13 years at the elementary level.  While teaching she completed her master’s degree, and went on to receive her principal certification.  Five years ago, Dr. Rider became the principal at a female correctional institution in the state of Pennsylvania.  She completed her Ed.D. with Immaculata University.  Dr. Rider’s dissertation, “Teacher Perceptions of Trauma Informed Practices in the Female Correctional Education Setting” focused her belief as to how educators should promote academic gains with this underserved population. 

Join our discussion, ask our experts questions, and share your ideas and strategies. 

Karen, Kathy, and Kate


Good morning, 

Thank you for joining us today. To get started, I'd like to ask our experts about the educational needs of our learners. Specifically, how do the instructional needs of incarcerated individuals, serving long to life, and life without parole (LWOP) sentences in state correctional facilities, differ than those of individuals with short term sentences?


Specific to the overall context of providing educational opportunities to incarcerated women, as educators and or researchers, fundamentally, we should acknowledge that there is at least a four-tier assembly (FTA), ranging from short term, long term, life and life without parole (LWOP). Understanding, what and how intellectual knowledge should be invested through time and resources for education, “innovative” vocational and behavioral programs. As understood, sentencing guidelines can differ from state to state when discussing long to life (with possibility of parole), and life without parole means exactly that. Therefore, considering the emphasis in today’s discussion is on the later three, I share the following insight, having spent over 15 years personally meeting with women from around the United States and overseas serving long, life to life without parole sentences.

We understand that women serving lengthy sentences for violent crimes (especially murder), have significantly higher rates of victimizations to include physical and sexual abuse, mental illness, and substance use disorders. They arguably have higher rates of risk factors then non-violent offending peers. Traumas can linger and the incarceration experience itself can further traumatize (Lempert, 2016). These experiences must be addressed early within the incarceration to aid subsequent educational efforts.

Women serving lengthy sentences express the desire not to be forgotten or treated differently than their peers serving lesser sentences when opportunities arise for educational and vocational classes. Specifically, many of the women lifers contend, those with lesser sentences receive priority regarding educational opportunities (Dye & Aday, 2019).

Defining differing instructional needs for long termers can be challenging. Women who serve lengthy sentences, all are individually unique and bring with them the impact of their personal traumas, as well as low self-esteem, loss of family and social structure, stigma attached to their violent offending and lower socioeconomic levels (Whiteley, 2018).


Opportunities for ongoing education is critical. Required is the ability to provide a conducive learning platform for women to personally grow and to continue to heal and transform during decades of institutionalization. We understand there are lifers, who become mentors, peer specialists for others, specifically short termers. In these instances, it would appear the women are deemed authentic, dependable and responsible. Therefore, it could be argued that the institutional focus should be to provide more women, early in their life sentences more opportunities for personal enrichment.

Not only would this continue to support the overall well-being and reflect positively on the administrative status of the institution as a whole, but provide these women with the chance to feel more human and “give back” to society, even behind prison walls. The word re-entry and its meaning, beckons the women’s dwellings, their prison cells. However, at this moment, possibly a few such women within this cohort will ever have the chance to fully evolve as a re-entry candidate.


 Bex Lempert, L. (2016). Women doing life: Gender, punishment, and the struggle for

   Identity. New York, NY: New York University Press.

 Dye, M.H.., & Aday, R.H. (2019). Women lifers: Lives before, behind, and beyond

bars. Maryland, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

 Whiteley, K.M. (2018). “I am more than a crime!” In Media, Prison, and Experience.

         K. Foss (Ed). NC: McFarland Publications.


It is important to reconcile the possibility that a teacher’s individual feelings and personal biases can influence the likelihood of success in the classroom for the long-term offender.  It is essential for the educator to establish pre-assessments of attitudes towards school, evidence-informed interventions, and participate in on-going training to alleviate the possible negative effects of maltreatment that this underserved population may have experienced.  The long-term offender must possess buy-in with the importance of continuing their education journey. Encouragement by building upon the long-termer’s strengths and addressing their current needs promotes well-being by establishing a professional, transformative relationship.

I have a list of possible behaviors that teachers might observe from the long-term offender which could inhibit the educational environment.  I am interested in what correctional teachers and instructors have observed from this population. 


Kate and Karen, 

Thank you for this great introduction. I am fascinated by the idea of the four tier assembly and evidence-informed interventions.

  • Considering how the instructional needs differ across these tiers, how do you recommend engaging or motivating learners with long term sentences to fully participate in their education?
  • And for our community members, what questions do you have to add for our expert guests? 



Upfront, the four-tier assembly (FTA) that pertains to these cohorts of incarcerated women, requires more attention. Historically and today, within the criminal justice realm, often incarcerated women have been essentialized, that is, as one group of “mad and or bad women,” who need similar rehabilitation. Distinctions between their individual educational and vocational needs, especially early into their incarceration, should be clearly identified and opportunities provided for each woman entering under the premise that she may never leave.

For women serving life without parole sentences, many of the traditional vocational programming is not of felt benefit. Some lifers contend that their age off-sets any true benefit from learning a job skill. However, some of the women do express an interest in just learning a new skill set whether it will be used or not. Most often women communicate that they prefer creative skills such as art and music, and self- enrichment activities.

Women serving life sentences frequently cite the hope of being able to give back to society but feel frustrated by the inability to step outside, into the community (Dye & Aday, 2019). Therefore, any indirect means by which the women believe they are giving back to society serves as an important personal motivator. A classic example of this would be the prisons where the women are afforded the opportunity to train service dogs, where in turn benefits others.

Women serving long term sentences, find value in educational efforts that enhance their communication skills. Being able to communicate a sense of responsibility for their actions and ownership for their behavior is valued (Whiteley, 2018). Lastly, many of the women will seek educational programming as it is a break from the daily realities of their long-term prison sentence.


Dye, M.H.., & Aday, R.H. (2019). Women lifers: Lives before, behind, and beyond bars. Maryland,

          MD: Rowman & Littlefield. 

Whiteley, K.M. (2018). “I am more than a crime!” In Media, prison, and experience.

           K. Foss (Ed). NC: McFarland Publications.


For long-term inmates to fully embrace a lifelong journey of the importance of education I believe it is imperative to embrace a strength-based modality of instruction.  There are five basic principles for strength-based education to take root in the classroom, they are,

1.Measure strengths~ Use an assessment to determine unique strengths to provide learners and educators an awareness of their skillsets.  Ideally this is best at the beginning of their education journey, yet you can apply this anytime. You might be surprised as to what you find out about the learner!

2.Individualize the learning experience to each student~ Help students apply their strengths to individual goals as part of the developmental process and provide feedback that emphasizes strengths. When possible, tailor teaching methods to meet student needs and interests.

3.Network with personal supporters of strength development~  Establish connections with professionals who encourage excellence.  By modeling this behavior the long-term inmate will be selective as to who he/she works with in the classroom setting.  Trained peers are an excellent resource!  

4.Deliberately apply strengths in and out of the classroom~ Create opportunities for students to showcase their strengths and guide students to utilize strengths independently.

5.Develop strengths through novel experiences or focused practices~ Invest time and effort in new experiences to elevate skills and knowledge of existing strengths.



Lopez SJ and Louis MC. The Principles of Strengths-Based Education. J Coll Char. 2009;10(4):1-8.


Building on these tiers, what do you think are the potential behavioral indicators that may interfere with academic success IF the educator and the offender have not established a transformative relationship with an educator. 

Potential Behavioral Indicators that May Interfere with Academic Success if the Educator and the Offender have not Established a Transformative Relationship

·         Expressing feelings of inadequacy

·         Fearful of trying new ideas

·         Overly compliant

·         Poor peer relationships

·         Excessive dependence on staff

·         Habit disorders (sucking, rocking, etc.)

·         Poor impulse control

·         Frequently fatigued

·         Mistrusting

·         Withdrawn

·         Low self-esteem

·         Poor school performance/attendance

·         Attention-seeking

·         Depression

·         Social isolation

·         Unpredictable moods

·         Self bodily injury

·         Easily frustrated/impatient

·         Issues with authority

·         Perceive threats in safe situations

·         Blaming, disparaging, and rejecting others

·         Lack of organizational skills and the capacity to plan

·         Not able to take pride in academic accomplishments

·         Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)



As we reflect on today's conversations, what stood out to you? What questions do you have? We will start tomorrow with a discussion about what educators can do to support long-term offenders in the corrections setting. While this has certainly been today's focus, our conversations will continue so share your thoughts and comments.  



Establish a Transformative Relationship with Educator

Transitioning into a prison setting, especially for women who represent the three tiers (long, life, and life without parole) of the assembly, for many, it is their first time incarcerated. A larger percentage of these women range from 30 to 40 years and have families. Prior to incarceration, their life experiences may have granted them vast opportunities for communicational, societal and or educational engagement. Supporting these women at the early stages of their transition by providing designated steps of “core educational and or vocational learning,” could encourage for many self-confidence, personal motivation, and continue to assist in their long-term well-being. Attempting to build ongoing rapports in the early stages with educators is a positive outcome for all concerned.  

Women serving life sentences are often confronted with both personal and educational challenges. Women express personal barriers upon entering the prison system, that include the shame and stigma associated with their violent offending (George, 2015). Some women bring with them significant learning deficits. There is also a lingering fear of failure and some more subtle hindrances such as test anxieties and speaking in class activities (Whiteley, 2018). Women discuss the need for good communication skills, in order to be better understood in the yard and in the classroom.

Acknowledgement early into their incarceration of such personal concerns, supported with appropriate learning and vocational programs that appear part of their everyday life, that provide women with a daily routine, can deliver positive personal outcomes. Women argue, they have much time on their hands and wish that this “time” had been put to better use, early into their incarceration. Being kept busy, minds kept stimulated and mentally challenged by early offerings of prison programs, set goals to achieve during the first years of their incarceration, would help with their personal transformation as the years progress.


George, E. (2015). A woman doing life: Notes from a prison for women. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Whiteley, K.M. (2018). “I am more than a crime!” In Media, prison, and experience.

           K. Foss (Ed). NC: McFarland Publications.


Kate and Karen, 

Thank you so much for yesterday's insignful dialogue. As we continue our discussion today, I'd like to start looking at specific action steps that corrections educators can use in the classroon. Building on the list of potential barriers and the need for transformative relationships, how does that translate into meaningful instructional action steps? 

And to our peers, how do you approach instruction with individuals with long term sentences? 

I'm looking forward to Day 2 of our discussion. 


Meaningful Instructional Action Steps

The women note the need for not only early intervention for offering programs, but the relevance of supportive learning surroundings in order for their overall success. Many share that it is years since entering a classroom, therefore they lack the fundamental “preparation skills” for study and hence, overall encouragement. Most women understand “what and how” they will learn comes with mandatory restrictions.

However, they share that programs which pertain to basic communication skills through to advanced, and instructions on how to navigate learning strategies within the classroom are imperative. Women within all three tiers note, that these fundamental classes are sometimes overlooked. Furthermore, within their personal space, confidentiality is of high importance. Women speak of the challenges they face within classroom structures of what to share and when to share. Women further acknowledge the hierarchy relationship between instructor and student. For many women, this is not necessarily noted as a negative, but they identify the need for more open discussion, on how to learn to relate and respond to the acceptance of such structure.

They talk about the relevance of relationship building within educational and vocational programs. The significance of the rapport between the instructor/s and the women is key. For some women, early into their sentence, they would like to be given the chance to work, collaborate and assist in the implementation of various programs (courses), which they discuss as being instrumental in bridging any relational gap between educator and student. For these women to be part of the overall educational process, to contribute to some degree, tangible (educational) learning outcomes, would further build confidence and serve to empower the women, hence, instrumental in working towards a more positive relationship with educators.  

Overall, communication, common educational learning strategies (to include innovative) and relationship building, are three key facets deemed relevant and important for women to build upon and for many, sustain ongoing interest for education during their lengthy sentences.  




I really like your emphasis on communication and would like to refer our readers to a conversation about strategic communication and the use of scripts to help guide the conversations.  Our guest expert for that conversation was Tracy Palecek who demonstrated her communication approach through exploration of three levels of disclosure:

Level 1: discussion of facts and information;
Level 2: discussion of thoughts and emotions; and
Level 3: discussing personal thoughts and emotions.

After reviewing Tracy's comments and that discussion, I inivte you come back here and ask our corrections experts how to build relationships and rapport which is necessary for student success while following the three levels of disclosure. 

We would love to hear your thoughts. 

Kathy, Kate, and Karen

It is my thinking that transformative learning is the essence of all adult education.  While the focus of this discussion thread is based on long-term inmates I find it interesting that half of the students in public education have been involved in some sort of traumatic event (National Survey of Children's Health, 2011/2012).  I bring this up to emphasize that the long-term inmate in the classroom setting mirrors much of the student body in the "real world".  Prison itself is what differentiates these learners.  According Dr. Chielewska (2017) the female, long-term offender experiences multiple afflictions that I believe the teacher should have knowledge of prior to the inmate entering her classroom. The biggest hardship is the limited contact with family and the outside world.  These learners experience guilt and shame, resulting in the knowledge that they have failed as mothers.  They also are deprived autonomy from prison personnel who have power and or control over them 24 hours a day, and there is a pervasive lack of trust among their fellow inmates which in turns creates barriers to meaningful relationships.  If this information does not deter you, then you are meant to teach this specific population!

My mantra:

Positive Relationships and Safe Environments Allow for Learning to Occur 

I am very interested in the thoughts of the LINCS members, later I will add Action Steps that can be incorporated within the classroom setting to support learning outcomes.



It takes time to build a community of learning, this is an essential element for all inmate learners.  Generally speaking 95% of inmate learners will return home.  This leaves a small minority of long-term inmates in your classroom.  With that said, this population is growing due to lengthy sentences and an increasing older inmate population.  Current policy dictates that no more then 10% of the student body should encompass long-term or lifers, both in the academic and vocational setting.  Following are my personal action steps that I believe support learning in the correctional education setting.

  • To support the long-term inmate the classroom should reflect the culture of the classroom, showcasing positive individuals who have overcome obstacles and having an array of educational material that highlight different ethnicities.
  • Ensure that your long-term inmate are familiar with your classroom expectations.  Ideally, a peer can be helpful in providing and modeling this information.
  • A friendly and warm atmosphere is not the first thing you think of in the correctional environment, yet it can be done.  Pleasant music, a stress box, and a smile can go a long way in building a positive relationship with your learners.
  • Trust, the most important factor that is not discussed in correctional education circles.  To build trust start by making eye contact, actively listen to what they say, and acknowledge their thoughts and feelings.  In times of conflict remind yourself that it is not about you.
  • Predictability, this is important for the long-term inmate to feel safe in your classroom.  Establishing predictable routines helps your learners know what to expect and helps them feel confident and capable.
  •  Attitude, another area that needs to be brought to the for front of discussing what is needed in the classroom for success for the learner and the educator.  The adult, long-term offender, is able to read body language, tone, and expression better then any other group.  Be yourself, and endeavor to be your best self.  The inmates will take these ques and attempt to model them until they become second nature in the classroom.  By creating a joyful and respectful atmosphere you will receive buy-in from the long-term offender, opening up the possibility for a collaboration in which we all learn from one another.