Freedom for released prisoners must start in the classroom

In this season of giving, the United States Senate gifted federal prisoners a priceless holiday present — hope for a better future wrapped within the provisions of the First Step Act, passed on Dec. 18.

For over a decade, the public narrative has centered on a “second chance” for 2 million incarcerated Americans —many jailed because of a fiscally and socially expensive legacy of “tough on crime” laws that made little distinction between those who commit serious crimes and those who commit low-level, nonviolent offenses, even just once.

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This expansion in the prison rolls was coupled with cuts in what truly would have been corrections programs, like education, for example. The result of this perfect storm has fueled rampant recidivism rates, caused a financial drain on government at all levels and has led to fiscal and socially expensive costs to our nation.

Against this backdrop, every year more than 700,000 incarcerated individuals are released into communities, and many are unfamiliar with the environments to which they return. Within five years, three out of every four will return to prison. For most, education and labor market development has been stalled.

Most are poorly educated and unskilled, and many, facing harsh social stigma, will never find useful employment or become economically self-sufficient because of a past criminal record. 

Helenia Bragg spent 20 years behind bars and describes the censure she and other returning citizens experience:

“There are people who just want to define you by your least proud moments in life. And we’ve all had least proud moments; but if we all had to wear a ‘scarlet letter’ [announcing] our least proud moments, none of us would have a job or a house.”

A series of educational programs taken during her incarceration “made something in my mind click. I began to crave education; I began to crave facts,” Bragg said. She subsequently turned her life around and will soon receive a degree in social work from Marymount University.

The recently passed First Step legislation speaks to the plight of the formerly incarcerated, like Helenia Bragg, by reforming prohibitive laws and policies, providing evidence-based care and treatment and putting in place robust rehabilitation and vocational programs for some of the most disenfranchised among us.

It suggests a moral obligation to reach out and harness the human potential in lives, like Bragg’s, that might otherwise be permanently lost to the nation’s jails and prisons.

As the country looks for answers to the question, “What will best help incarcerated individuals successfully transition to life beyond the prison doors?,” education is a strategy that can and does redirect and rebuild lives.

Numerous reports, studies and research papers have shown that education is directly associated with higher rates of successful reintegration into the productive rhythms of everyday life.

Although the First Step Act calls for ramped-up rehabilitation programming, practically speaking, there are limited numbers of learning opportunities available within the nation’s overcrowded prisons and jails. 

For this reason, higher education institutions across the country — from the Ivy Leagues to community colleges —are filling the gap and redoubling education’s transformative potential.

Increasingly, professors, instructor-volunteers and graduate students are entering correctional facilities to teach incarcerated individuals college-quality coursework that instills the skills, confidence and practical knowledge to drive postrelease success. Invariably, they find their own lives immeasurably enriched by the experience.  

We know this not just from our reading of academic monographs. We’ve established a unique partnership between The University of Virginia and the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Department of Corrections for the past eight years on a returning-citizens education program, Resilience Education.

We’ve created a unique set of courses based on the assumption that after years of incarceration, education about entrepreneurship, the financial services system and business negotiations and conduct would be instrumental in improving lived outcomes.

Beyond content, this education is delivered by current MBA students and alumni, future business leaders of our nation. 

For our students, freedom starts in the classroom. Students are addressed by name, not by number. They are asked for their thoughts and opinions within a class format geared to their educational needs and abilities.

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Whether taking a class in entrepreneurship, financial literacy or business fundamentals, they are treated with a level of dignity and respect not normally associated with prison life.

In advancing knowledge, understanding, reflection and opportunities where they wouldn’t otherwise exist, carefully curated educational programs strongly influence men and women to go back to work, not back to prison.

Often coming from difficult and disadvantaged backgrounds, the incarcerated students who seek out classes keenly come to recognize and appreciate education’s power to help make their dreams come true. The academic success they achieve validates their self-worth, many for the first time in their lives.

Academia’s proactive involvement in our country’s jails and prisons reflects the belief that knowledge holds the transformative power to improve employment outcomes, reduce recidivism, and restore where we can, broken lives and dreams. It offers not only a “second chance,” but also the best chance of reentry into the American mainstream.

Gregory B. Fairchild is the Isidore Horween research professor of business administration at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business. Fairchild also serves as an academic director for  Darden's Institute for Business in Society (IBiS)Tierney Fairchild is executive director of Resilience Education, whose mission is to stop cycles of incarceration by improving employment outcomes and reentry success through business education.