In a survey of incarcerated students enrolled at PUP, nearly 90% were victims of violence or abuse while growing up, nearly 50% had experienced homelessness and 36% had struggled with food insecurity. These and other traumatic circumstances can cause long-term emotional scars that create barriers to learning. Of the surveyed students, 33% reported that they either had been diagnosed with a learning disability or suspected they had one.

PUP students bring with them a wide array of life experiences, but they are not unique. These experiences are too often shared among students in prisons across the country. Because such a high proportion of incarcerated students are living with the long-term effects of trauma, student support services that incorporate trauma-informed practices are particularly critical.


PUP is the nation's largest prison-based higher education program, operating at San Quentin Prison since 2003. Their instructors are trained to identify students who are struggling and develop plans to help them finish course materials at their own pace rather than applying more traditional grading methods. As an extension of this approach, trauma-informed instruction is an emerging part of their work.

With support from Ascendium, PUP’s Teaching and Learning Initiative will focus on developing trauma-informed techniques and sharing best practices with other practitioners. Over the next three years, PUP plans to:

  • Hire a learning differences specialist who will design, implement and manage expanded services for students with learning disabilities, psychological obstacles to learning and challenges related to a history of trauma.
  • Build organizational capacity to improve student supports, develop an assessment to use with incoming students and create systems for tracking and evaluating interventions provided by instructors.
  • Develop training for instructors and other practitioners that will help them adapt their teaching techniques for students with learning disabilities and histories of trauma.
  • Document best practices and create a toolkit that will be available to the field through PUP’s technical assistance network.

By addressing the needs of students with diverse learning challenges, we hope this project will help more incarcerated students thrive in postsecondary education programs nationwide. Because underserved groups are disproportionately represented in prison populations, this work advances our mission to help more students of color and students from low-income families get to and through college.


Contact Senior Program Officer Toya Wall at