College for Convicts

Could support for providing prisoners access to college-level courses be growing more widespread? 

March 24, 2015

Twenty-five miles from Montgomery, Ala., in the middle of the tough-on-crime, fiscally conservative Deep South, sits an unusual place of learning.

A 20-foot fence with razor wire surrounds the campus. Armed guards stand at the entrances. Students wear jumpsuits, with ID numbers printed on the right side of the chest.

This is J. F. Ingram State Technical College, where every student is incarcerated. The college was created by the state in 1965, and it is adjacent to one prison but offers programs in eight others.

It's a member of Alabama’s community college system, but does not grant two-year degrees. In response to budget cuts, Ingram suspended its associate degree offerings last year. 

College leaders see Ingram as part of the solution to a state prison system marred by severe overcrowding, poor inmate medical care, sexual abuse of female prisoners and the threat of a federal takeover. 

But being part of the solution requires adequate funding, they say. In the past several years, the college’s portion of state prison education funding has dropped by 25 percent. Job openings have gone unfilled. The student head count has dropped almost 30 percent since 2008.

As a state community college created solely for inmates, Ingram is unique. Its struggle for money is anything but.

During the recession, state corrections departments reported an average 6 percent decline in money for educational programs, according to a 2013 report. That measures all types of correctional education funding. In many states, the trends in government support for postsecondary correctional education are even bleaker.

But there are signs of a shift in momentum. The U.S. Department of Education may explore the possibility of bringing back Pell Grants to prisoners, while a handful of state legislatures have considered changing laws that block prisoners’ access to college courses. There’s also a huge push from private foundations to demonstrate the successful college-in-prison models.

Make no mistake -- there are significant obstacles to securing more money to educate prisoners, a population that has no political clout. That’s especially true at a time when so many government programs are still fractured by ongoing budget constraints. 

Yet there’s an important window of opportunity for correctional education right now, and it's part of a larger movement to improve the country's correctional system, advocates say.

There’s no longer a mystery about whether education in prison works, while there is widespread recognition -- from both sides of the aisle -- that releasing prisoners without skills or rehabilitation that will serve them on the outside doesn’t work. Every year, 700,000 men and women are released from prison. Within three years, 40 percent -- 280,000 people -- will be back behind bars.

“There’s nobody we have to convince in the correctional community,” said John Dowdell, coeditor of The Journal of Correctional Education. “It’s the funding mechanisms.”

Growing Body of Evidence

Ask anyone who runs a correctional education program for evidence, and you’ll likely hear a lot about a 2013 study by the RAND Corporation. Experts called it a helpful -- powerful, even -- demonstration of how effective prison education can be.

Of course, previous research showed that education in prison can help lead to a successful reintroduction into society. But the RAND study was a meta-analysis of research done in the past 30 years that examined both recidivism rates and postrelease job outcomes.

The study found inmates who participated in correctional education, including remedial, vocational and postsecondary education, were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years, a 13 percentage point reduction in the risk of reoffending. 

That means for every dollar spent on correctional education, a state corrections department would save five dollars it would have spent on reincarceration costs, according to the report.

“That’s a huge cost savings,” said Lois Davis, senior policy researcher at RAND and lead author of the report. “It’s really dramatic how cost-effective these programs are.”

For postsecondary education in particular, the RAND report found a 16 percentage point reduction in the risk of reoffending. But those studies haven’t singled out how much of that boost is due to postsecondary education or other factors, such as an individual motivation or vocational training, Davis said.

That’s where the evidence needs to be built up, she said, so researchers have details on the type of programs and courses that produce the best results.  

Measuring Success

At Ingram, officials say they aren’t holding their breath for any budget boosts this year. While Ingram is funded out of the relatively healthy state education trust fund, the state’s general fund is facing a nearly $300 million shortfall on top of the large price tag prison reform is expected to carry.

State appropriations comprise about 52 percent of Ingram’s budget, and 46 percent comes from a combination of state and federal grants. Between fiscal years 2008-09 and 2013-14, Ingram's total state support -- a combination of operations and prison education funding -- dropped almost 8 percent. With its current $12.8 million budget, the college educates about 800 of the state's 26,000 inmates. 

To help make their case for more -- or at least more steady -- state support, Ingram officials are in the process of developing a way to measure outcomes by tracking graduates.

Alabama’s overall recidivism rate is about 32 percent, according to the 2013 Department of Corrections annual report. The rates aren't broken out by individual institutions or programs, so the state doesn't have a rate for Ingram participants. 

But that percentage doesn’t tell of the complexities of measuring recidivism rates, especially when dealing with multiple agencies, said William Griswold, dean of strategic planning and education at Ingram.

Definitions vary across agencies whether recidivism measures rearrest or reconviction. Different types of crimes have different recidivism rates, too. Ingram deals with individuals who are in medium-security custody and are at a higher risk to reoffend, Griswold said.   

Plus, the effect specific programs have on recidivism is difficult to evaluate because of selection bias. Generally, individuals who enroll in programs and complete the work are radically different than the control group, those that don’t take part in available programs. That begs the question of how much the program is responsible for successful transitions compared to an individual’s motivation.

Basing decisions on recidivism also only tracks those who end up back in prison. The rates tell nothing about the others who were released, whether they continued with education, found jobs or crossed state lines and committed new crimes.

Because of those challenges, some are hesitant to put so much emphasis on recidivism.

Other advocates of higher education in prisons are reluctant to use recidivism rates as the litmus test for a successful program, because that discounts the other benefits of college-in-prison programs.

Within the prison walls, inmates who are intellectually stimulated are less likely to smuggle in drugs or start fights, which means it can make the facilities safer for other inmates and guards, Dowdell said.

Plus, the majority of incarcerated men and women -- about 95 percent -- will return to their communities one day. Education can make them better parents and better citizens, advocates say.

Even for those serving life sentences, education can have a profound effect on family dynamics in the communities that are overrepresented in the country’s prisons and jails.

Sometimes incarcerated men in the Education Justice Project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are the first in their family to pursue a college degree, said program director Rebecca Ginsburg.

“If the guy in prison can do it, so can his children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews,” Ginsburg said. “It’s a sign that the people in their family are smart and able to do this work. It has potential to pull the whole family up.”

All of these benefits come up again and again when talking to supporters of expanded correctional education, especially those who run private programs.

And yet, it’s hard to ignore the sway recidivism rates hold with policy makers.

In the RAND study, 41 out of the 42 state correctional education directors who responded to a survey said reduced recidivism was the most important measure of the success of a program.

Bright Spots

Within that survey, 32 states reported offering postsecondary education, but the majority of those are self-study programs, not tied to systematic course work with a degree or certificate at the end, Davis said. Those offerings reflect a more than 20-year-old ban on federal student aid for prisoners.

Newer efforts, though, are stressing clearer paths and more support for incarcerated students. 

The Vera Institute for Justice’s Pathways Project is in the second year of a five-year, roughly $10 million initiative to provide inmates within a few years of release access to degree-track programs and other re-entry support. Nearly 900 inmates are participating in North Carolina, New Jersey and Michigan. Within those states, 14 prisons have partnered with 15 colleges to set up a continuum of support pre- and postrelease.

In California, a joint report out of the law schools at Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley urged better degree offerings for inmates as part of a project called Renewing Communities. The report’s recommendations include expanding partnerships between California’s community colleges with the prisons and jails in their neighborhoods, better staff training and more support services. 

The Ford Foundation -- a major supporter of correctional education programs -- gives money to the Pathways Project and Renewing Communities. The foundation has taken a two-pronged approach with correctional education and rehabilitation, said Douglas Wood, who works on the foundation's higher education for social justice initiative. The foundation supports private college-in-prison programs, such as the Bard Prison Initiative in New York or Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison, to help develop learning communities for best practices. But the foundation also is devoting a lot of energy to working with states, including talking with California to set up a jointly funded project based on the recommendations from the Renewing Communities report.  

Last year, California passed a law that allows community colleges to count courses delivered on-site to prisoners in the formula for state appropriations like the colleges would any other student.

In Washington State, a group of lawmakers is hoping to repeal a law that bans the Department of Corrections from offering postsecondary education. A similar bill passed the state’s House of Representatives last year but didn’t make it out of a Senate committee.  

Opposite those bright spots, though, are some states where momentum has shifted in the opposite direction.

In 2010, when Indiana lawmakers realized prisoners were receiving state education grants, they rewrote the law to make them ineligible. The year before the law change, 2,500 prisoners had received $9 million through the grant program.

In those days, Indiana had the largest participation in postsecondary prison education of any state, said John Nally, director of education at the Indiana Department of Correction. College programming reached 10 to 15 percent of the prison population every day.

Between 2003 and the first half of 2014, nearly 6,946 degrees were awarded to incarcerated individuals. A mere 40 of those degrees were awarded after the access to the grant program was discontinued.

More recently, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to use state money to pay for prisoners’ college education was met with immediate, fierce opposition

The political opposition is “more from a knee-jerk reaction of, ‘gee, my kid can’t afford to go to college, why are we paying for an inmate to go to college?’” said Davis, who calls that debate irrational.  

Indeed, some variation of that phrase -- which places prisoners and law-abiding students in apparent direct competition for money -- is brought up in every conversation about paying for college-in-prison programs.

The idea isn’t to pay for prisoners to earn liberal arts degrees, Davis said. But unemployment is a significant contributor to recidivism rates, and offering two- or four-year degrees that lead to a clear set of skills and certification in specific fields is a way to boost employment of ex-convicts, she said.

While private funding can accomplish a lot, it’s going to require public investment to bring these initiatives to scale, said Fred Patrick, director of the Pathways Project. The key is getting individuals past the emotional reaction and instead thinking about prison education the way government normally thinks about what constitutes a good investment for public dollars.

“Too often, this is framed as ‘what are you giving to those folks,’” Patrick said. “There needs to be an understanding that those folks are us. We’re all in this together. The vast majority of people who are incarcerated are coming back home.”

Push for Pell

Postsecondary correctional education programs were fairly robust 30 years ago. But in the midst of a tough-on-crime era, Congress barred prisoners from receiving Pell Grants in 1994. At the time, grants to prisoners accounted for about $35 million out of $6 billion spent on Pell, or less than 1 percent, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report

After the federal government bowed out of paying for prisoners’ education, most states followed suit. 

“That really was the death peal for most programs across [Ohio],” said Dowdell, who also directs the correctional education program at Ashland University, the oldest postsecondary correctional education program in the U.S.  

Today, federal money supports correctional education in part through the Workforce Investment Act. Historically, 10 percent of that money, from the adult education and family literacy portion, was reserved for correctional education. But shortly after restricting access to Pell Grants, legislators also turned what had been a minimum into a 10 percent cap. The same happened with the 1 percent of Perkins funding that is reserved and now capped for prison education.

As of last year’s reauthorization, states are allowed to increase the portion of the adult literacy dollars they spend on correctional funding, from 10 percent to 20 percent. The reauthorization also expanded the types of programs the money can support, including peer tutoring and re-entry services.

In December, the Education Department announced that students in juvenile facilities could qualify for Pell Grants. Officials were pleased that there was little negative response to that decision, a department official said. 

Those moves to open up streams of funding could be promising signs for groups that have long been lobbying to remove the restrictions on Pell Grants.

A year ago, when Education Department officials asked for recommendations for areas to waive student aid regulations to test new ideas, the department received a lot of feedback on using the so-called experimental sites to remove Pell restrictions for inmates. The department hasn’t said whether it’s considering that, and a full restoration of Pell Grants to prisoners would take a vote in Congress.

Support for bringing back Pell Grants for prisoners isn’t ubiquitous, though, even among the correctional education community.

Whether rational or not, awarding prisoners Pell Grants gives the illusion that someone’s son or daughter will be competing with inmates for funding, Dowdell said.

“I really think that’s a losing P.R. battle, because you can cite recidivism and economic impact and savings all day long, but it’s an emotional issue.”

Dowdell would rather see the federal government set aside money in a program that’s specifically for educating inmates.

Keeping Momentum Alive

When Nally presented his research on the benefits of correctional education at a series of town hall meetings in Indiana, he’d often start with a quick survey.

When he asked about support for teaching prisoners ninth-grade literacy, every hand went up. The same was true for high school equivalency certificates. When he got to associate degrees, after some reluctance, more than half the audience agreed.

“But boy, the hands disappeared when you started talking about the bachelor’s degree,” Nally said.

So how do advocates think they can get the public to see college-level education the same in the same vein as basic adult education?

Some think there should be more emphasis on success stories and more testimony from graduates of prison programs and the employers who hire them.

The way those stories are told matters, as well, Patrick, with the Pathways Project, said.  

The correctional community could do a better job of describing what lower recidivism rates actually mean. They mean less money spent on the runaway bills of corrections, and ideally more workers contributing to the local tax base. Most importantly, fewer crimes committed means fewer victims of crime.

“It’s not just a criminal justice issue,” Patrick said. “It’s a higher ed issue. It’s a ‘who are we as a society’ issue.”

Perhaps advocates’ biggest ally in pushing for college in prison lies in the very problem of mass incarceration itself.

Every time Davis gives public presentations on correctional education, audience members approach her to talk about a brother, cousin or friend. The college-in-prison conversation is no longer about educating a faceless criminal.  

Never before in history has the U.S. incarcerated so many people, and by extension, never before have so many people had a personal reason to consider new options. 


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