College-Level Education for Prisoners is the ‘Fourth Pillar’ of Reentry: Study

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Photo courtesy RAND Corporation

Providing incarcerated individuals with a path to post-secondary education on release through a correctional education program can reduce recidivism, save taxpayers money, and give returning citizens a major boost towards reintegrating with civilian society, says a new study.

In a review of North Carolina’s “Pathways” program—one of three pilot prison-based education programs funded by private philanthropy—the study by the RAND Corporation and RTI International found that inmates involved in the program received positive benefits despite chafing over some of the program’s limitations.

Pathways  was supported by the Ford Foundation, the Sunshine Lady Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation.

Many of the students saw Pathways as an “important chance to further their education and turn their lives around,” reported researchers Lois M. Davis and Michelle C. Tolbert, who conducted interviews with students and staff participants.

North Carolina’s program, which provided inmates with college-level classes and additional support towards achieving a degree, was part of a multistate demonstration project, “Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education,” launched by the Vera Institute of Justice in response to an Obama administrative initiative to reconsider the federal ban on providing Pell Grant funding to incarcerated individuals.

The other states involved in the demonstration project, which ended in 2017, were Michigan and New Jersey.

North Carolina’s program began in 2013, with the enrollment of 201 students at six participating institutions. Some 150 went on to pursue college degrees following participation in the program.

Although the review of the program was generally positive, the researchers found that both staff and students chafed under some of the restrictions imposed by state law.

For instance, inmates were limited to pursuing degrees only in three areas: business administration, computer information technology [IT], and entrepreneurship.

Other students said felt the admissions process wasn’t selective enough.

“There were a lot of guys who didn’t have any business to be in the program and were a distraction,” one told the researchers. “[The program] wasted resources on them.”

Many of the instructors at Pathways were from neighboring community colleges who had never taught at a prison before, and many admitted they had problems in communicating with their students.

“If you are not clear and you speak in generic terms, people hear what they already have been thinking—like, you may say I’m going to help you with housing and they may hear you are going to get me an apartment,” one instructor said. “So, we had a period of time when we had to bring clarity to it.”

After the program ended, instructors said that they wanted clearer “expectations and defined responsibilities,” because they found “the requirements and procedures to be onerous or confusing.”

They went on to say that most of the challenges they experienced with the Pathways Program came from the fact that they “were building the plane as we were flying it.”

Davis and Tolbert’s analysis also showed that these programs are more cost-effective at keeping taxpayer’s prison costs lower.

“It is estimated that for every dollar spent on correctional education programs, taxpayers save $4 to $5 on three-year reincarceration costs,” they said.

Moreover, the “North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NCDPS) continues to fund components of Pathways after the demonstration project ended,” the researchers said, adding that the program’s success has helped education has become the “fourth pillar” of reentry, along with the Housing, Employment, and Transportation pillars.

“For many of the participants, Pathways came at the right time,” the researchers said.

“They had already been focused on the future by taking whatever class was available to them while incarcerated prior to applying to Pathways. …However, Pathways was different in that it allowed them to earn a postsecondary credential and continue their education postrelease.”

The Rand study said there were key lessons for other states who wished to establish similar post-secondary education programs in their prisons.

The lessons included:

  • States must eliminate restrictions on the types of postsecondary degree programs that can be offered in prisons;
  • A “navigation mentor” who can help released inmates cope with the sometimes conflicting demands of continuing their education, finding housing and employment, and readjusting to their families is critical;
  • Long-term funding is essential to sustain any of the in-prison college programs.

The full report can be downloaded here.

Additional Reading: Does College Education in Prison Work? Ask the 8,800 Inmates Who Got Pell Grants

CORRECTION: This article has been revised to clarify Pathway’s funding. 

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.


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