Prison education, and programs for the previously incarcerated, help to reduce recidivism and promote socioeconomic mobility. However, while close to 50 percent of the general population has participated in postsecondary education, only 24 percent of incarcerated individuals have pursued a higher education degree. Despite data showing that college educated individuals are rearrested at far lower rates than their non-college educated peers, only six percent of inmates in the US have access to college-level courses through state prisons.
Colleges and universities can promote equity and increase access to underserved populations by offering education opportunities to those impacted by the criminal justice system. Institutions interested in initiating or expanding their programming in prisons, or re-entry programs, can look to institutions that have already invested in this necessary and impactful work, like the California Community Colleges and Bard College. Institutions should consider the three recommendations below to help previously and formerly incarcerated individuals attain a higher education credential.
In order to offer effective prison and re-entry education programs, institutions must provide proactive support services to help students overcome barriers to completion. According to Corrections to College California, these support programs “vary in their structure, funding streams, and staffing patterns, but they share a commitment to addressing students’ academic and non-academic needs.”
The Restoring our Communities program offered at Laney College is one example of this type of programming. The program connects previously incarcerated students with peer advisors to help guide them through the higher education system. These peer mentors offer advice on areas such as course selection, which is critical to ensure students enroll in the courses they need to stay on track for their degree.
Institutions should also capture and track student data to identify at-risk program participants that may fall behind on their requirements. Visibility into where students are in their degree path allows administrators to take the necessary steps to re-engage students as soon as they lose contact with the program or miss a necessary course for completion.
The success of any program requires stakeholder buy-in across campus. The Rising Scholars Network recommends institutions “hire qualified staff, including whenever possible staff with personal or family experience with the criminal justice system,” so that staff can relate to students and be a consistent advocate for them on campus.
It is recommend that leadership roles within the program are full-time coordinators that must be able to dedicate ample time to promote program and student success. In order to help focus program staff on higher-level strategic decision making, institutions should reduce the time they must spend on tedious, administrative work.
Ashland University operates the largest correctional education program in the country, with over 1,130 graduates since 2016. Ashland University’s Registrar, Mark Britton, shared how academic operations software has freed up their team’s time:
“Our corrections program has 54,000 sections, this is not an exaggeration...so the thought of entering it all in manually, repeatedly, and making sure it was all right - [administrators] were screaming. [Entering data into a single form, rather than a multi-screen process] has been tremendous for them."
Instead of manual data entry, Ashland’s staff can dedicate themselves to higher-level strategy to improve the student experience.
Many individuals that are released from prison on parole must find employment as part of their conditions for release. However, individuals with a criminal record may face restrictions to different occupational paths. As a result, institutions must be aware of which industries will accept students with records so that they may direct them towards programs and courses that will lead to positive career outcomes.
Dr. Jill Wright, the AVP of Assessment, Accreditation, & Academic Services at Illinois Central College shared how their institution aligns their workforce development programs with community needs:
“ICC works on partnerships for students that were incarcerated, making sure they’ll be enrolled in courses that lead to employment, even if they have a record. For example, our local transportation industry needs more employees and is willing to hire individuals with records.”