It’s time to modernize federal prison education programs
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The prison system in the United States is broken in too many ways to list, but the underlying purpose of prison has always remained the same: retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, and rehabilitation. 

As a nation, we’ve focused heavily on the retribution and incapacitation aspect, and let deterrence and rehabilitation suffer because of it.

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Considering that we can take someone out of society – oftentimes during young, formative years – and release them back into society – oftentimes decades later – with only the clothes on their back and expect them to succeed in a world unfamiliar to them is a naïve notion. We set them up to fail, but less than twenty-five years ago that wasn’t the case.

 

Often considered the ire of criminal justice reformers, the “Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act,” or the 1994 Clinton Crime Bill banned inmates from receiving Pell Grants.

At the time, only .6 percent of Pell Grants overall were going to inmates but this was an era when reform-minded criminal justice policies made lawmakers “soft on crime,” so many supported legislation that proved to have many unintended consequences.

Without Pell Grants, publicly funded prison education programs struggled to continue. Some privately funded programs did pop up in their place, but with limited revenue they were, and still are, highly selective regarding which inmates enter the program.

Despite the ban, in 2016 the Obama administration decided to offer about 12,000 Pell Grants for inmates through the “Second Chance Pell Grant” program. The $30 million program was offered to inmates at 141 state and federal correctional institutions. The $5,815 per student grant could be used to pursue a two- or four-year degree from one of 67 approved colleges and universities. 

Around the same time, the administration announced that the Department of Labor would provide $72 million in grants to train and assist ex-offenders in job searches.

But the in-prison education programs ran by the federal government are too often aimed at outdated employment models.

The DOJ’s “school district” offers “adult literacy/basic skills, high school diploma, post-secondary education, and expanded opportunities for individuals with learning disabilities.”

While basic skills are necessary and many of those incarcerated could benefit from finishing their high school education, the programs don’t enable inmates to excel in our technologically-inclined society post-release.

Taxpayer-funded programs, especially those with such an ability to impact public safety, need to be as efficient as possible, and to do that the federal government needs to move away from vocational training and towards skills that will be not only valuable, but highly sought after.

By moving away from vocational training in-prison education programs can teach skills that allow ex-offenders to go into business for themselves, compete for high-skilled positions, and clear barriers of entry to employment. 

One program that does that is Code.7370 in San Quentin prison.

San Quentin Prison doesn’t usually incite visions of innovation or technology, however, the prison – with its 137 percent occupancy rate – is home to a unique coding program for inmates that, so far, has proven to be a success.

Code.7370 was created by The Last Mile, a non-profit prison program, and it is a 6-month intensive computer programming class for inmates. For eight hours a day, four days a week, inmates are taught to program in CSS, HTML, JavaScript, and Python for front-end development, and web and logo design along with data visualization and UX/UI for back-end development.

In a similar fashion, Texas’ Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP) teaches inmates how to build a business plan and carry themselves in the professional world upon release. The program consists of three-months of character development followed by six-months in a business plan competition. PEP is wildly successful both in terms of reduced recidivism (7 percent compared for those who complete the program) and high rate of producing entrepreneurs.

Inmates that participate in some sort of education program while in prison have a 43 percent lower chance of returning to prison than their counterparts, and inmates who complete PEP average only 21 days from prison to paycheck after release.

Economic crimes are one of the leading causes of recidivism, by simply changing the skill set we’re teaching inmates we can make a significant impact on both their future and the future of the communities they return to.

On average, educating one inmate ranges between $2,000 and $4,000, while incarceration for that same inmate can range from $30,000 to $40,000. So for the return on investment of educating the incarcerated, we are significantly improving the lives of those in the system.

Prison education programs are important because with more than 650,000 Americans being released from prison annually, it’s not just in their interest to return them better than when they left, it’s in each community’s best interest as well. If federal tax dollars are going to continue to education programs for offenders, the programs need to prepare them to succeed in modern day America.

Charles Blain is the Executive Director of Restore Justice USA, a criminal justice reform project of Empower Texans. He campaigned for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in 2014 and has a background in public policy. Follow Blain on Twitter @cjblain10


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