Educational programs offered to incarcerated people can reduce recidivism and enhance their chances of success after release, according to the Boston Globe’s editorial board.
“Providing education to people in prison is one of the best things the state can do to steer them toward a better future. College programs can positively impact prison culture and public safety,” stated the July 2, 2023 Globe article.
Persons who participate in correctional educational programs are 28% less likely to recidivate, a 2018 study by Rand Corporation revealed. The Washington State Institute for Public Policy reports that a college course for the incarcerated population has a return investment of nearly $20 for every $1 spent.
One example are the efforts of the Massachusetts Department of Correction to advance educational offering in its facilities, which according to the Globe, is hindered by a variety of problems.
The state recently began offering The Last Mile, a national program that teaches software development and website design, in its prisons. Each student receives a laptop computer with which to practice in their housing unit.
However, lengthy waiting lists can be expected for those interested in educational programs. As of December 2021, the Massachusetts DOC had 886 people enrolled in programs and 4,065 on wait lists. The lists included programs in adult basic education, vocational and technological training, and postsecondary education.
Correction officials claim this may not be a complete picture of the demand as some people are on multiple waiting lists, cannot participate in a class because of conflicts with other programs, or become uninterested in taking the class, the article noted
“Yet the size of the waiting lists suggests there remains room for expansion, and state officials should look for ways to eliminate barriers and expand educational offerings,” wrote the Globe.
Vocational programs have the longest wait lists because many have small workspaces and require careful supervision around tools. The past school year saw 53% of incarcerated individuals in the state’s prisons enrolled in at least one educational program, according to Bernard Audette, Massachusetts DOC’s director of education.
Five universities were offering degree-granting programs in Massachusetts prisons, according to an October 2022 report by the Boston Foundation. Nevertheless, less than 500 degrees or certificates have been awarded to incarcerated people in the state since the 1970s.
Further private colleges relying on donations for their small prison educational programs can accept fewer than 20 students per cohort, noted the Globe.
As of July 1, 2023, Pell Grants are available to eligible incarcerated students nationwide for the first time since 1994. This funding goes directly to educational institutions, which could provide a new source of money for colleges to expand prison programs, said the article.
Mount Wachusett Community College participated in a pilot program that accepted Pell Grant funding, and as of July 2, had 85 students in two prisons. The school is expanding its certificate program in business administration, bookkeeping, and accounting to allow students to earn associate degrees.
Besides limited access, numerous barriers can hinder earning a degree while in prison, according to the Boston Foundation report. The lack of computer technology limits online classes. Physical spaces for students to take classes or study can be unavailable. Students can be reclassified or transferred to other institutions where classes are not offered. Administrative barriers can prevent volunteers, instructors, and educational materials from entering the prison, the article stated.
“The two worlds of corrections and education really don’t understand each other well,” said Lee Perlman, codirector of the Educational Justice Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “There’s a real culture clash between them.”
The correctional facility in Shirley, Mass. is working to address these problems. It is creating a “dedicated housing unit for the approximately 75 to 80 men enrolled in postsecondary education to make it easier for them to create study groups and work,” stated the article.
Currently being developed are online minicourses that can be distributed through videos and basic education courses that can be taught remotely by a live instructor.
Perlman said that in Maine, he offers online classes via Zoom that connect incarcerated people with students from MIT and other teaching assistants that can provide individualized attention. He also e-mails students and conducts online conferences with them. By comparison, Perlman said Massachusetts has been slower to implement similar initiatives.
College credits earned in prison should be transferable and ensured by educational institutions, the Globe’s editorial board stated. Prison officials, according to the Globe, should expedite security reviews and materials related to educational staff.
Jose Bou earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Boston University while incarcerated for seven years. “It was the first thing I ever finished,” he said.
He went on to earn a master’s degree in criminal justice while working for an organization that helps at-risk youth. He also taught restorative justice at the college level and worked in public schools.
“Education turns someone who’s a tax burden into a taxpayer,” Bou said.