ON THE AGENDA | JUNE 30TH, 2016 | ZOE MINTZ & Erin Knepler

Higher Education for Prisoners: What We Can Learn from State and Institutional Efforts

This second blog post in our series about Second Chance Pell explores state and institutional efforts to deliver education to prisoners and examines lessons we can learn.

Earlier this month, we began a series on Second Chance Pell, a federal program that permits the use of Pell grants for incarcerated individuals. Just last week, the Obama administration, together with the U.S. Department of Education, selected 67 colleges and universities for the program. These institutions will partner with more than 100 federal and state correctional institutions to enroll approximately 12,000 incarcerated individuals in educational and training programs.

In addition to what’s happening on the federal front, several states have been leading their own efforts to provide degree-earning opportunities to incarcerated individuals through state tax money or privately-funded dollars. Individual colleges and universities also have existing programs to support education for prisoners.

This second blog in our series about Second Chance Pell explores these state and institutional efforts and examines lessons we can learn from them to improve the dialogue about education for incarcerated individuals. The experiences of these states and institutions indicate two lessons in particular:

  1. They demonstrate how politically difficult it is to pass legislation for programs that provide educational opportunities to prisoners.
  2. They add to the body of evidence we introduced last week regarding the effect of these programs on recidivism.

State-level efforts have met varying degrees of support. In California, a 2014 law allowed community colleges to receive the same level of state funding for educating incarcerated students and traditional students. The bill passed with little opposition in the Assembly and Senate.

Similar legislative efforts in Arkansas and New York have faced greater opposition. In April, Arkansas state senator Linda Chesterfield (D) introduced legislation that would route $1 million in existing correctional education funding to higher education preparation for inmates slated to exit the prison system. Chesterfield intended for this funding to support inmates until Second Chance Pell pilot federal funding awards were announced.

Though Chesterfield believes these efforts will drastically improve workforce readiness in Arkansas, the legislation was defeated. In a phone conversation earlier this month, she said her Arkansas senate colleagues displayed varying levels of engagement and some mentioned that they simply did not understand how higher education is related to workforce readiness.

In February 2014, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a proposal to provide significant state funding for college courses in prisons. After considerable negative public and political backlash (including a petition begun by Senator Mark Grisanti to compel Cuomo to drop the plan), the proposal was abandoned after just six weeks.

However, Cuomo has since offered a compromise. In January 2016, the governor proposed a plan to offer colleges and other educational institutions up to $5,000 per incarcerated student for a full-time course load of 30 college credits, according to the district attorney’s office. As a compromise, $7.5 million for this effort will come from private matching funds as a supplement to state money.

While states like New York and Arkansas have struggled to pass funding for prisoner education, many individual state colleges or private universities have implemented and funded their own partnerships with prisons to offer higher education degrees. These include colleges like Adams State University in Colorado, Bard College in New York and Goucher College in Maryland.

The data collected by these colleges and through initiatives like the Prison University Project indicates that these efforts have had a large effect on the rates of re-incarceration, or recidivism.

Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that, of state prisoners released from 30 states in 2005, 67.8 percent of released prisoners were rearrested within three years of release. Meanwhile, inmates who participated in Bard College’s education program have a recidivism rate of 4 percent. Just 2.5 percent of participants who complete degrees through Bard’s program end up reincarcerated.

We see a similar recidivism rate from the Prison University Project, which provides higher education programs to people incarcerated at San Quentin. According to data from the project, the recidivism rate for graduates of the project who leave prison is 4 percent, as compared to 19 percent for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation as a whole.

Reducing recidivism is an issue with bipartisan support, and data from these private partnerships offer compelling evidence about the positive impacts of education on recidivism. Still, dialogue at the state and federal level often remains driven by hostile partisanship and knee-jerk public opinions captured by traditional polling strategies.

Efforts to reduce recidivism through education are linked to our complicated - and emotional - reactions to crime and punishment. The need for and opportunities to reimagine public dialogue about correctional education and second-chance opportunities are numerous, and people from across the political spectrum agree with Senator Chesterfield when she says, “Making the public a safer place, making individuals better than they were yesterday - that’s what this is all about.”

The final blog in this series will explore how authentic public deliberation at local, state, and federal levels can significantly improve the quality of decision making around the emotionally charged issues of crime and punishment.

This blog post is the 2nd installment in a series of three in which Public Agenda is taking a deeper look into the need for better public deliberation and more thoughtful public decision making around government spending on higher education degrees for incarcerated individuals.


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