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Evaluating Rehabilitation Programs: Education for Assimilation

When people think of life in prison, many imagine the world portrayed in movies and television series such as Orange Is the New Black. Though fictional, this show is inspired by the real life experiences of convicted felon Piper Kerman.

“When I was locked up in Danbury [Federal Correctional Institution], I knew women who were trying to raise their children during brief reunions in the visitors’ room while fending off sexual harassment and struggling with addiction and trying to get a high school education, so that when they got out they stood some chance of surviving despite their felony conviction,” Kerman said in a 2014 speech to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Life is very difficult to adjust to upon release for ex-prisoners like Kerman, and though there are some programs in place to help assist them, many who have been through the criminal justice system say that it is not enough.

Unfortunately, the former inmates Kerman speaks about are often released into a world where they face the same socioeconomic factors that led them to commit a crime in the first place. In addition to these pre-existing issues, having a felony on record makes people ineligible for welfare, student loans, public housing and food stamps in many states, according to the Office of Legislative Research in Connecticut. Not only that, but having a criminal record plastered on every job application can often deter people from getting the jobs they need. Nothing sends a job application to the trash faster than a criminal record.

This is the adverse situation that many prisoners face when they are released from jail, but one type of program being implemented in correctional facilities across the United States aims to break this cycle by preparing inmates for the productive lives in society that they desire—higher education rehabilitation. As Kerman stated, education can serve as the solution for prisoners to stand “some chance of surviving despite their felony conviction” and reduce the recidivism rate, or the rate at which prisoners return to jail after release.

“The higher an inmate’s education, the lower their recidivism rate is,” said Roger Meyer, the Deputy Director of Rehabilitative Programs at the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in California. “Studies have shown that inmates who participate in programs have a lower recidivism than those that don’t participate in programs… thereby actually increasing community safety and reducing the cost of imprisonment.”

Reducing recidivism is the end goal of rehabilitation programs. Unlike the common practice of simply incarcerating people for a set amount of time, rehabilitation offers an alternative approach that many professionals in the prison industry today find appealing.

“These are human beings that may not have had the same chances we’ve had,” said Dianne Stone, a former Cook County Illinois corrections employee. “And just like dogs in the kill shelter, they’re being adopted. No longer do we just kill them. If they have proven themselves to have changed and learned something, they deserve a chance. But so many go back to a life of crime because they never got that second chance.”

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the United States contains only five percent of the world’s population, but holds 25 percent of its prisoners. This makes the rate of incarceration in the U.S higher than any other country in the world, with 724 people imprisoned per 100,000, according to the BBC World Prison Population Report.  

To put that into perspective, Pew Charitable Trusts reported that one in every 31 Americans are either in prison, on probation or on parole. And of those released from prison, 58 percent end up going back to correctional facilities within 10 years, according to a 2014 report from the Bureau of Justice. In an effort to address this, researchers have been trying to find ways to reduce recidivism by focusing their attention on higher education rehabilitation as a solution.

The goal of in-prison higher education is to teach inmates how to think critically and be prepared for the job market upon their release.

“Education is clearly the way to a better life,” Stone said. “Education helps them fill out job forms. If they say they have a GED and some college credits, [they] definitely have three steps ahead. Any education is better than none.”

These sentiments are shared throughout the field of corrections.

“Not only does education help inmates when they release from prison back into society, but it’s also good for the economy and it saves taxpayers money,” Michelle Ribeiro, a retired education director of the New Mexico Corrections Department, said in an interview with Arizona State University’s online newspaper, ASU Now.

Preparing for a job and honing critical thinking skills are crucial steps to avoid the prison cycle. However, some are critical of inmate education. The editorial board members of Syracuse newspaper the Daily Orange, for example, argue that affording higher education is a problem that many people, not just inmates, face.

“It is not fair to give inmates access to higher education when there are law-abiding citizens who work hard to earn the grades required to be admitted to college that cannot attend a college or the college of their choosing because of financial issues,” the authors state. 

Though there is a price tag to educating prisoners, the returns on this investment have proved to pay off in the long run. According to Meyer, every dollar spent on rehabilitative programming saves anywhere between $2.50 to $11 for social services. Since education reduces recidivism, taxpayer money that would have funded future incarceration is instead saved for other purposes.   

Studies also indicate that by offering education for prisoners, correctional facilities are accomplishing three goals: saving money for the taxpayer, keeping prisoners from returning for other crimes and preparing former inmates for life on the outside again.

“The United States has proven that you can’t incarcerate and expect things to change,” Meyer said.

He’s not alone in this belief. Organizations across the country are advocating for educating prisoners as a solution to America’s massive incarceration rates. In March of this year, students at ASU organized the 5th annual ASU Prison Education Conference, which featured a variety of guest speakers and talks highlighting the importance of education for inmates.

The event, organized by the student-run Prison Education Awareness Club (PEAC) and the Department of English, hoped to raise awareness on the topic while promoting current programs in place for prisoners—for example, the university offers a program known as the Pen Project,  a writing class connecting maximum-security and other incarcerated writers with student interns in the Department of English, who provide feedback on their work. 

Efforts like the Pen Project, mixed with the push for prison education policy on both a local and national scale, have begun to change the mindset of American incarceration practices.

“Political positions on prison education shift like the wind, and we’re coming out of an incapacitation and punishment model and realizing again [that] there’s a direct relationship between education and recidivism,” Ribeiro said. 

More importantly, eduation programs have real impacts on the lives of returning inmates. 

“I have worked with many women and men who are returned citizens like me,” Kerman told the Senate. “And we all want to get back on out feet, to reclaim our rights of citizenship and to make positive contributions to our communities.”

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