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Lumina Foundation makes investments to bolster prison education

Foundation will support efforts that improve access to quality education for people who are in prison or re-entering society

INDIANAPOLIS–All Americans deserve the opportunity to reach their potential and contribute to our country’s talent needs, including the millions of people who are incarcerated and who are re-entering society. Driven by this belief, Lumina Foundation is launching its strategy to help improve the quality of education programs in prisons and increase the number of people who are in prison, nearing release, or re-entering society able to earn college degrees or other post-high school credentials.

“Everyone who repays their debt to society should be given the opportunity to have a more fulfilling and meaningful life,” said Danette Howard, Lumina’s senior vice president and chief strategy officer. “And receiving an education beyond high school provides one of the surest paths to achieving that. By helping inmates receive educations and ensuring they can complete credentials in prison or upon their release, Lumina advances the nation’s goal of increasing the number of Americans with education beyond high school and addresses pervasive racial disparities in educational attainment.”

Last year, Lumina granted the Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison $225,000 to form a task force that will develop standards to ensure a high bar for the quality of prison education in correctional facilities across the United States. Another Lumina grant of $250,000 will support the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison, a new organization focused on improving the quality of prison higher education programs. The Foundation will complement these initial investments with new grants in 2018 and beyond.

Bolstering prison education helps meet the nation’s growing need for talent. By 2020, two-thirds of U.S. jobs will require an education beyond high school, yet today fewer than half of all Americans have post-high-school credentials such as degrees or certificates. To fill the gap, Lumina is working to ensure everyone—regardless of demographic or personal background—has access to the higher learning opportunities that prepare them for informed citizenship and success in a global economy.

The potential to drive results that benefit all Americans through improved access to quality prison education is significant. The country has more than 2.3 million in jails and prisons and another 4.5 million people who are on parole and probation. Because of systemic racism and mass incarceration policies that target and over-sentence people of color, African-American, Latino and Native American individuals are highly over-represented in prisons and among people re-entering society. Improving prison education presents a clear opportunity to address the need for racial justice in attainment.

Prison education has been shown effective at keeping those who are released from prison from returning. One study found that individuals involved in prison education programs are 43 percent less likely to commit new crimes. Another analysis of the potential cost effects of increasing prison education found that $1 million spent on prison education is twice as effective at preventing crime as the same amount spent on expanding prisons.

More important, a postsecondary credential is a pathway to the middle class and helps ensure stable employment. Lumina hopes that its work in this area will drive broader and deeper understanding of the other individual and societal benefits of providing higher education opportunities to people who are in prison and re-entering society, moving the dialogue beyond simply whether former inmates who are educated commit new crimes.

“The impact of higher education on recidivism is an important metric and is one that should be well understood by policymakers,” Howard said. “However, we are more concerned that people don’t just survive, but thrive—a postsecondary credential enables people from all backgrounds to fully participate in work and life.”

The Foundation is working with an advisory group of national leaders and experts who provide guidance and support the foundation’s work. Walter Fortson, who works with Paroled to College in New Jersey, is a member of that group. He can speak to the challenges of gaining education within the prison system firsthand. Taking a Business English 101 course while in prison put him on track to enroll in college after his release. After earning a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University, Fortson became a Truman Scholar and later earned a master’s degree from Cambridge University. He is now working to help ensure young people caught up in the criminal justice system have access to education, mentoring, and internships.

“There are numerous things that one struggles with upon leaving prison,” Fortson said. “Knowing that I could go back to college was something I thought would be the only way I would have a fighting chance at a better life.”