Column: High-quality education behind bars can reduce recidivism
One rare area of bipartisan agreement in our current political life is in criminal justice reform and, particularly, around education for people in prison.
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One rare area of bipartisan agreement in our current political life is in criminal justice reform and, particularly, around education for people in prison. Hawaii’s U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz has been leading the way and just a few weeks ago, Republicans and Democrats came to the table to talk about about expanding Pell Grants for people who are in prison. Federal Department of Education officials spent a day hearing from program leaders and local experts about education in adult prisons. But this conversation is incomplete: we don’t just need more education for prisons — we also need better.
While improving access to education programs for people who are incarcerated is critical, we don’t often ask about how good these programs are or whether they are a good fit for the needs of all the people they are meant to serve. Even if we ensure that all incarcerated people gain access to education, we still have a lot of work to do to ensure that they’re good and that they serve different student populations with different ultimate goals.
Some education programs are offered by existing higher education institutions and mirror a traditional college program. They have admissions and attendance requirements and tend to follow a traditional academic calendar. Others are designed specifically for correctional settings, focus intensively on skill gap remediation and basic education, and may offer workplace credentials and high school equivalency certificates. And there is a whole lot in between, like online access to a limited and repeating set of college courses or uncredited opportunities to build specific skills like computer coding.
We do not currently have much data on the quality of any of these programs beyond self-reporting and the general data states collect about prisoners. The evidence indicates, not surprisingly, that having access to education opportunities is good for people who participate in them and good for their communities when they return. But beyond anecdotes, we know very little about which types of programs provide the best quality experiences for different prisoners.
So in a given education program, one student might have a high school diploma and a life term, while the person sitting right next to them might lack basic literacy skills and be serving a sentence of just a few years — these students need a personalized and tailored education experience just like any other student. But these people don’t get the chance to choose the school that meets their needs; they’re stuck with whatever’s offered in the building where they’re confined. Talking about expanded Pell Grants is part of this conversation, but it isn’t enough.
The research is clear that education during incarceration reduces recidivism and improves outcomes. These programs save money and make everyone safer. Having more and better programs should be a no-brainer. But since there are so many types of programs, and the people who participate in these programs didn’t get to choose their college, it’s essential that we also think about quality and equity: Is everyone getting access to a high-quality program that meets their needs?
Prison education is no different from the rest of the higher education field in terms of the variation in program types, academic rigor, and instructional quality. More, without paying attention to good, isn’t an improvement. This increased attention to prison education is critical, but it will only produce the results that advocates want if we take seriously the next challenge, which is how we make sure that we are providing high-quality opportunities for all people in prison.
Hailly T.N. Korman, originally from Manoa, is now a senior associate partner at the nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners where she leads the organization’s correctional education reform work.