“Education of incarcerated people must be included in the overall strategy to transform society,” said Dr. Jody Lewen Executive Director of San Quentin’s Prison University Project (PUP) in a July 23 interview with SQ News.
Dr. Lewen ‘s opinion is shared by an increasing number of educators, legislators and philanthropists nationally. Education is earning a position as a cornerstone for the incarcerated individual’s successful return to society.
Recently, the Vera Institute of Justice’s Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education conducted a study of 201 offenders from six minimum and medium-security prisons. In a June 2 report, Inside Philanthropy. com presented the results of the Vera study that confirmed education has now become the fourth characteristic vital to a successful reentry.
Previously, employment, housing and transportation were recognized as the three factors vital to a successful return.
The Vera Pathways study involved three states; North Carolina, Michigan and New Jersey.
The 5 year program, funded by the Ford Foundation, the Sunshine Lady Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Open Society Foundations and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, required participating states to offer inmates an array of courses and reentry tools that were to continue upon their release. The study’s mission statement included inmates receiving encouragement to continue their postsecondary education after they are released.
College programs for incarcerated people currently include academic institutions like Columbia University’s Justice in Education Initiative which is funded by The Andrew Mellon Foundation. That curriculum is designed to focus on current and formerly incarcerated persons in New York State.
Other top educational prison programs have expanded in the last decade and are vigorously competing for philanthropic dollars, albeit in an inclusive and supportive approach. According to Dr. Lewen most of the competitors in this field are “allied by common goals.”
Nationally leading incarcerated educational centers include the prestigious Bard Prison Initiative, a program which is affiliated with the Bard College of New York and California’s highly respected Prison University Project (PUP) at San Quentin State Prison. The Ford Foundation has aided in the growth of the two prominent colleges, allowing Dr. Lewen’s Prison University Project to become a leader in prison education for over 10 years.
Dr. Lewen stressed the need for donors to understand the critical role of education for incarcerated people in any strategy for systemic change. “The funding sources do not always get the importance of education,” she told the SQ News. “The great challenge is a lot of philanthropic foundations dichotomize between advocacy for the incarcerated versus education for them.”
The Vera Institute report supported Dr. Lewen’s educational beliefs when it found
inmates who complete a credentialed education program are more than 40 percent less likely to reoffend.
The study also stated that every dollar spent on educational programs results in a $5 cost savings when compared to re-incarceration.
Though Dr. Lewen’s col- leagues agree that education, along with other reentry efforts, can reduce recidivism, she is still unsatisfied with the level of direct commitment for incarcerated education.
Her vision includes formerly incarcerated people leading the march for social reform. “They (the philanthropists) often cannot imagine the potential of incarcerated students as advocates for social reform.”
“Changing the focus of philanthropic investment will only happen when we change the hearts and minds of society,” she emphasized.