Many barriers hinder efforts to develop talent among the incarcerated

For the nation to thrive in the global economy, it can ill afford to ignore what may seem an unlikely source of talent: its prison population. According to a recent report from the Prison Policy Initiative, more than 2.3 million people are now being held in the American criminal justice system, and nearly 640,000 are released from prison each year. Those individuals – mostly young men with decades of potentially productive life ahead of them – need what any citizen needs to succeed these days: education. Specifically, they need postsecondary education – high-quality learning that leads to a marketable credential.

Corrections officials and social justice activists have long championed prison-based education programs, citing a wealth of evidence that prison education not only reduces recidivism, but also improves public health, child welfare, employment, housing, and other reintegration outcomes.

Despite that, correctional education programs have been substantially underused in the United States. Between 1994 and 1997, the number of states offering formal postsecondary education programs in their prisons dropped from 37 to 21 – a reduction that many attribute to the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, a law that eliminated inmates’ eligibility for Pell grants. In 2015, the Obama administration unveiled the Second Chance Pell pilot program that would allow eligible inmates to use Pell grants to pay for college courses in selected colleges and universities. The goal is to increase postsecondary participation by reducing or eliminating financial barriers for inmates, who often lack the funds to pay for college.

But financial barriers are just the beginning. Other challenges – from state funding to inmate transfer to data tracking – are key barriers to inmate postsecondary attainment.

Most prisons are built in rural, geographically isolated areas where qualified teachers are in short supply. On-site instruction is the most common format used by state correctional programs, though a growing number of prisons are exploring WebCT Engine, a closed-circuit Internet connection that provides secure distance education.

Community colleges are an attractive option for correctional programs because they are low-cost, open-access, and often feature multiple locations in a state. Community colleges provide 68 percent of all postsecondary correctional education, making them the largest correctional education provider in the country. Some states have stepped up to expand inmates’ access to community college courses leading to degrees and certificates or to transfer to a four-year university. For example, the 2014 passage of California’s Senate Bill 1391 provided the first-ever funding to California community colleges for courses taught inside state prisons. It also made it possible for the state corrections department, in collaboration with the chancellor of the state community college system, to develop metrics for the evaluation of career education programs that help former inmates find employment.

Another barrier to inmates’ postsecondary attainment is frequent involuntary transfer of prisoners. Overcrowded prisons and security concerns sometimes cause inmates to be transferred from one correctional facility to another with just days’ – or even hours’ – notice. This process, also known as redesignation, can interrupt a student’s coursework if the transfer takes place during a semester or if the new facility lacks college programming.

Some states are exploring creative, flexible ways to address this issue. For example, in Wisconsin, some correctional facilities offer intermediate credentials, essentially breaking down a typical semester-long course into multiple certificate programs. Though not always recognized by employers or accredited postsecondary institutions, these microcredentials allow inmates to better demonstrate academic progress when they are transferred to a new facility.

Flexible course delivery helps, but it can’t address every barrier to postsecondary completion among the incarcerated. For example, many inmates are released early, well before their sentences are up and before their educational programs can be completed. And many of them choose to return to their hometowns – typically not the same town where they were imprisoned and enrolled in college courses. Because of this, a cross-state data system and statewide articulation agreements are needed to track and measure student outcomes and to smooth former inmates’ pathways to postsecondary attainment.

Perhaps the most frustrating challenge of all is the ongoing tension between the concept of punishment on one hand and prevention and rehabilitation on the other. This tension plays out in many ways, but perhaps none with more impact than the funding decisions of state lawmakers. The fact is, 18 states now spend more on prisons and jails than they do on their public colleges. Since 1986, state funding for prisons has increased 141 percent, compared to increases of 69 percent for K-12 education and a mere 5.6 percent for higher education.

Even with these increases in funding, however, prison systems often fail to provide high-quality college programming and academic support, instead relying on volunteers to teach non-credit courses. Experts agree that, to better meet the nation’s need for talent, our criminal justice system must do much more to help inmates and former inmates take credit-bearing classes that lead to high-quality credentials.

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