Unlocking Potential: The Case for Postsecondary Education in Prison

The second session on criminal and social justice was devoted to in-depth examination of solutions to the challenges of the system. It focused on improving prison and re-entry programs to ameliorate outcomes and reduce recidivism. Noting that most offenders eventually come home, Fred Patrick presented the data on successful programs designed to educate offenders and prepare them for living-wage jobs when they leave jail.

The Pathways from Prison Project provides postsecondary education for offenders and prepares them for re-integration into the community when they leave prison. Project data demonstrate that education combined with re-entry services can reduce recidivism, increase employability and earnings, and improve public safety.

Since 1994, the criminal justice system has imposed more punitive measures, longer sentences, and mandatory minimum sentences, often with the punishment far exceeding the severity of the crime. Meanwhile, programs to rehabilitate inmates faced deep cuts. Prisoners receive minimal occupational or educational programming, cannot qualify for Pell grants, do not vote and cannot get drivers’ licenses. Individuals involved in the criminal justice system are severely undereducated compared to the general population. Some 78% of the prison population do not have postsecondary education compared to about 49% of the general population. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 eliminated the eligibility of persons incarcerated in federal or state prisons to receive Federal Pell Grant awards.

Mr. Patrick encouraged State Senate leaders to investigate the conditions of confinement in their state prisons and to assess what happens when people are released.

Issues such as a lack of education, a dearth  of job-training opportunities, few jobs, and little availability of housing as well as substance abuse and inadequate substance abuse services, mental health problems and a lack of adequate mental health services all make re-entry into the community a major hurdle. “The Iron Law of Corrections is that most people come home,” Mr. Patrick reminded the Forum. “What do we want for people when they come home?” he asked. “We want them to get a job and earn a living wage, support their families, be better parents, and be better neighbors.”

Of the 2.3 million people in detention in the US, about 700,000 return home annually, but 44% of them will be re-arrested in the subsequent 3 years.

A key indicator that a person will make a positive transition from jail to home is having a job that earns a living wage, with education being essential in achieving this. Offenders with higher education are less likely to be re-arrested or re-incarcerated. According to a RAND study, the odds of recidivism are 4% lower for prisoners who received post-secondary education in prison, and their odds of getting a job are increased by 13% compared to similar individuals who did not have post-secondary education.

The Pathways Project

By 2018, two-thirds of jobs will require postsecondary education and training. The prison population can become a talent pipeline to fill the skills gap, Mr. Patrick observed. The Pathways Project is a 5-year, $9.6 million initiative now active in North Carolina, Michigan and New Jersey, and serving as a model for a planned effort in California. The Project provides those states with incentive funding and technical assistance to expand access to higher education for those in jail and those recently released. The Project is gathering data that demonstrate access to post-secondary education combined with re-entry services can increase credentials, reduce recidivism and increase employability and earnings.

 Partners in the Pathways ProjectFunders: the Gates, OSF, Kellogg, Ford and
 Sunshine Lady Foundations
State Correction DepartmentsColleges and UniversitiesParole/Community Supervision AgenciesRe-entry Services ProvidersBusiness CommunityExecutive and Legislative Branch OfficialsEvaluation Team: RAND Corporation/RTI InternationalVera Institute of Justice

Prisoners who are eligible for a course attend a classroom and receive the same courses from the same professors as on the college campus, with the same criteria for performance. Many inmates need remedial education, Mr. Patrick noted. In Michigan, for example, 51% of prisoners had GEDs, but they lacked the skills for college work. Michigan provided remedial skills training and upgraded their skills to the college level.

Postsecondary education in prisons is cost-effective compared with the direct costs of re-incarceration. Furthermore, it can transform lives, families and communities, Mr. Patrick noted, concluding that ROI can be measured in greater public safety, fewer victims and less crime, and stronger families and communities.

Discussion

Sen. Ryan McDougle (VA): Most jobs that require postsecondary education also necessitate a background check. Employers are concerned about hiring someone with a record as they may not be able to get insurance and can be sued if there is a problem in the workplace. Because of these concerns, we focused on certificate-based or trade-based programs such as waste-treatment technical training. It’s important to consider alternative endpoints for education. Four-year college — even community college — is expensive, and all costs are borne by the states. There is no federal funding. Virginia saw a $25 million cut in the corrections budget, so expensive programming is off the table.

Mr. Patrick: That’s why it is so important to restore Pell grants for people in prison. In addition,  support “Ban the Box” or stopping background checks until a job has been offered. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recommends a rational approach where a background check is required only if it is relevant to the job requirements. We have to give people a chance to show they have been educated and rehabilitated.

Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker (MI): Most prisoners need GEDs and even those who have a high school diploma still need remediation to have functional skills. The skills level may be too low to get to postsecondary education. The Detroit Re-entry Center’s academic program allows for special and remedial education as well as General Education Development completion for all prisoners, including those in segregation. The educational program priority is to develop reading skills for each prisoner up to the eighth grade level. Vocational training includes an on-the-job training program for porters and food service personnel.

Mr. Patrick: In Michigan, 51% of prisoners had earned GEDs, but they were not ready for college. The Michigan Department of Corrections recognized the need to provide remedial education to help prisoners upgrade their skills so they could get jobs after returning home.

Other Criminal & Social Justice System articles.

 

Fred Patrick
Director
Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary
   Education Project
Center on Sentencing and Corrections
Vera Institute of Justice

 

The Pathways from Prison Project provides postsecondary education for offenders and prepares them for re-integration into the community when they leave prison. Project data demonstrate that education combined with re-entry services can reduce recidivism, increase employability and earnings, and improve public safety.

 

Mr. Patrick encouraged State Senate leaders to investigate the conditions of confinement in their state prisons and to assess what happens when people are released.

 

Of the 2.3 million people in detention in the US, about 700,000 return home annually, but 44% of them will be re-arrested in the subsequent 3 years.

 

A Rand study found that the odds of recidivism are decreased by 43% when prisoners receive postsecondary education; their odds of getting a job are increased by 13%.

 

“There is a strong return on investment (ROI) from in-prison education, without taking funding from nonprison education. The RAND study found a 3-year ROI for taxpayers of nearly 400%, or $5 in re-incarceration costs avoided for every $1 spent.”

— Fred Patrick

Sen. Ryan McDougle

Senate Presidents’ Forum

Phone: 914.693.1818

The Senate Presidents’ Forum is a nonpartisan, nonprofit
educational organization for State Senate leaders.

Copyright © 2017 Senate Presidents' Forum. All rights reserved.