Volunteer astronomers bring wonders of the universe into prisons

Two prison-education programs in the US are giving incarcerated kids and adults the space to learn science.
Silhouette of bird in front of full moon
Many US prison systems lack basic science courses in their limited education offerings. Mesut Karaduman/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“Space is for everybody. It’s not just for a few people in science or math, or for a select group of astronauts. That’s our new frontier out there, and it’s everybody’s business to know about space.” — Christa McAuliffe, high school teacher and NASA astronaut

Almost two million people in the US do not have the freedom to know about space. For these incarcerated individuals, including kids as young as age 10, their connections to the night sky and our place in the universe are forcibly severed. Astronomers, however, are seeking to change that.

Astronomy outreach programs in states, which usually consist of visits to K-12 schools or public lectures, are expanding their reach into prisons, such as at Princeton’s Prison Teaching Initiative and the University of Washington eSTEAM (Education in Science, Technology, Engineering, Astrobiology/Art, and Math) program.

Access to education is a key issue in the mass incarceration epidemic facing America. As of 2010, statistics from the Prison Policy Initiative show at least 25 percent of incarcerated people haven’t finished high school, compared to 13 percent of Americans as a whole. Similarly, far fewer incarcerated individuals have done any post-secondary education before their time in prison—and, to make the situation worse, they lack access to such education once inside. 

Prison college courses in the US are often under-funded (particularly due to a 1994 law barring incarcerated students from Pell Grants), or even entirely absent, leaving millions with no opportunities for educational progress during their sentences. Youth under 18 are required to have some access to education, but these programs are often inadequate and inconsistent as well. Yet, prison education is well-known to have incredibly positive effects—it reduces long-term costs of incarceration, reduces recidivism, and reduces violence within prisons. “If you don’t have a degree, the likelihood that you’ll return to prison in the first year is 70 percent. And if you do have a degree it’s like 13 percent,” explains Erin Flowers, Princeton astronomy PhD candidate and Prison Teaching Initiative Fellow.

Prison education also significantly improves outcomes for incarcerated individuals, such as lower unemployment rates, higher incomes, better health, and increased opportunities for their kids and families. And importantly, education reconnects incarcerated people with the fundamental human rights of knowledge and curiosity, including the ability to know about space. Astronomy courses, in particular, are key to promoting science literacy—an important part of any education in today’s tech-driven world.

[Related: On surviving—and leaving—prison during a pandemic]

Princeton’s Prison Teaching Initiative (PTI) started in 2005 with astronomy faculty and postdoc researchers teaching math classes to incarcerated students, and has now grown into a large program offering coursework across multiple disciplines towards Associate’s and Bachelor’s degrees from partner institutions to local adult prison populations. More than 350 students have earned their degrees across multiple institutions within the New Jersey Department of Corrections. It incorporates full 15-week introduction to astronomy courses and lab-based physics courses through Raritan Valley Community College, which fulfill students’ general science requirements. Flowers explains that her incarcerated students take these courses to further their education and post-education goals as active learners in the program, and many have expressed that they “appreciate having [the program] as an outlet, and they appreciate having something to set their minds to.” 

University of Washington’s eSTEAM program, on the other hand, is only a few years old, and builds off the legacy of other programs such as PTI and NASA’s Astrobiology for the Incarcerated by bringing prison education to the Seattle community. eSTEAM uniquely focuses on tutoring and teaching imprisoned dozens of kids under the age of 18. The program currently helps with astronomy, physics, and any other subjects that the youth need support in. Their goal is to keep students on track with their education, filling in the gaps of their primary classes and supporting them with one-on-one attention and tutoring. The teaching team is also currently designing experiments in astrobiology, the study of life beyond Earth, to bring to the facilities, given that the kids generally don’t get much exposure to fun topics beyond the standard curriculum. One of their working ideas is to have students make a Winogradsky column, a sort of test tube environment that shows how chemistry, physics, and biology intertwine to enable life.

Both programs face significant challenges, as teaching in a prison environment is far different from the usual classroom. With the New Jersey Department of Corrections, instructors must follow facility guidelines regarding dress, behavior, and materials, says Flowers. “For a lab-based class, there’s been a lot of MacGyvering and trial and error trying to adapt those lessons” for use inside the prison, she continues. “Many items we take for granted in a traditional physics classroom are prohibited for safety reasons, and thus suitable alternatives must be found that still maintain the intellectual rigor required for the course.”

Internet access within facilities is also often limited, preventing students from doing their own research outside class or looking into possible careers. Samantha Gilbert, a University of Washington astrobiology graduate student and eSTEAM volunteer, considers a key part of her role as “being that connection to the outside world” for the incarcerated individuals she works with.

She goes on to describe widespread challenges beyond logistics—particularly, how the prison system is designed to punish those incarcerated, even if the supposed goal is rehabilitation. She says the system tends to consider their outreach work “rewarding the students, rather than the basic things that any kid should have access to, regardless of the mistakes they’ve made in their life.”

Although many teachers and volunteers inside prisons want what’s best for the students, there are still many who treat them as lesser due to their status. Gilbert recalls a particularly heartbreaking scene, where she was “watching a child grab all of the work that they had been doing out of the trash, because apparently a security guard got really mad and threw it all away.”

Both Flowers and Gilbert see their astronomy and education outreach as crucial to building a future where prisons are no longer a place to discard people from society. Instead, they dream of a future where prison is more rehabilitative, or even abolished entirely in favor of other community-based solutions.

Gilbert says her work in juvenile facilities makes “you feel even more strongly that they should be allowed to turn their lives around.” She continues to say that this is true of the adult population as well, even if they tend to garner less instinctual sympathy from many people. She urges community members to build connections with their local incarcerated populations in whatever way they can.

[Related: A Palestinian brings stargazing to his homeland, and finds wonder alongside heartbreak]

Educational outreach provides new hope and possibilities for incarcerated people, and re-opens the door to science for many who have been denied it previously—especially groups who are disproportionately affected by policing. “The problem isn’t that marginalized people aren’t excited about science early on. The problem is the way marginalized people are systemically pushed out of science,” says Gilbert.

The factors impacting participation in astronomy and other sciences stretch far beyond traditional school systems, and outreach programs are finally expanding their efforts to match. “By using the knowledge that we have and the resources that we have,” says Gilbert, they’re opening prisons up to the planets, stars, and all the space that lies between.