Pups in Prison a Promising Rehabilitative Tool

By Christopher Zoukis

It’s the 1920s, and Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary is both the biggest and the most expensive public building of the era. New rehabilitation tools are being tested here, such as isolation. A new prisoner is arriving today. He’s been sentenced for murder...of a cat. His name is Pep, and he’s a dog. And the charges were completely trumped up.

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Inadequate Prison Food Linked to Bad Behavior

By Christopher Zoukis

According to research, despite the fact that eating a plant-based diet can help prevent and even reverse some of the top killer diseases in the Western world, and can be more effective than medication and surgery, the typical American diet remains high in animal protein, fat, dairy, sugar and junk food.

Poor diet leads to a host of medical issues, including higher levels of IGF-1, a growth hormone associated with cancer risk, heart disease, decreased lung function, inflammation, and even increased risk of dementia. Interestingly, poor nutrition can also play a role in violent and criminal behavior.

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Is There Really Gender Bias in the Justice System?

By Christopher Zoukis

Have you ever watched Investigation Discovery? It’s a television network owned by Discovery Communications. Investigation Discovery, or ID, as it is commonly called, shows documentary-style programs and re-enactments focusing on violent crimes, complete with expert commentary from journalists, law enforcement officers and those impacted by the crimes. Psychologists also weigh in on the shows.

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Prisons Under Trump: Going Forward, Backward or Standing Still?

By Christopher Zoukis

America has a reputation for dehumanizing rather than rehabilitating its prisoners. Jails are crowded beyond manageable levels. Privatization and for-profit measures have pushed more people into incarceration than ever before; for example, those with minor fines and misdemeanors. The prison population has a sixth-grade education level on average, and without access to prison education programs, released inmates often reoffend when their lack of education prevents them from accessing living-wage jobs.

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What humanity learned from the Stanford Prison Experiment

By Christopher Zoukis

It was 46 years ago that psychologist Philp Zimbardo conducted one of the most important social experiments of our time — the Stanford Prison Experiment.

The experiment aimed to study the psychological effects of prison life, and students played the roles of guards and prisoners. Zimbardo structured the experiment to make everything seems as realistic as possible.

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Prison exchange program brings diverse groups together

By Christopher Zoukis

An innovative learning program that brings together incarcerated and traditional students is breaking down barriers and giving meaningful and transformative learning experiences to all involved.

The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program (IOPE) is a national initiative that launched nearly 20 years ago. This program brings together inmates with non-inmates, and the unique mix of students spend a semester taking one of a number of course choices within the prison walls.

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Correctional Education Crucial to Inmates' Future Success

By Christopher Zoukis

America's prison began to spike in 1975. But why?

Prior to that time, the incarceration rate was pretty level. Since the late 70s, though, prisons have become more packed each year.

Many think the school system is to blame. With school shootings and other violent incidents, it’s become commonplace to see policemen patrolling the halls, to have metal detectors at entrances, and to have harsh zero-tolerance policies that can see students threatened with arrest for things like wardrobe violations. Kids can be made to feel like they are constantly suspected of being criminals.

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It’s Time to End the School-to-Prison Pipeline

By Christopher Zoukis

The “school-to-prison pipeline” describes the unfortunate trend of kids graduating not out of school, but rather into the criminal justice system.

The pipeline effect is especially evident where large segments of the population are racially, economically and/or socially segregated, and where poverty, abuse and neglect are rampant. To put it bluntly, statistics show that nonwhite and disadvantaged children are at the highest risk of going from school to jail.

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Florida Bill Seeks To Educate Prisoners to Reduce Recidivism

n Florida, one in four released prisoners is re-incarcerated—and it's a lack of education that's largely to blame.

With the average Florida inmate having just a sixth-grade education, the chances of finding steady work at a living wage are slim. Add a criminal record that turns off most viable employers, and many former inmates feel like they have little choice but to return to crime to support themselves. It’s a vicious cycle, and it's one that a proposed bill aims to break.

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Lawmaker Pushes Reforms Aimed at Disabling Michigan's School to Prison Pipeline

By Christopher Zoukis

A Michigan lawmaker is set on hobbling the school-to-prison pipeline in his state.

The forum was titled "How to Create a School-to-Success Continuum: Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline." Zemke has long been a strong supporter of education as a way to keep youth out of the prison system. He sponsored legislation signed into law last year that gives local schools more autonomy over harsh punitive decisions for students when it comes to things like suspension and expulsion. He asserts that schools should move away from the strict, zero-tolerance policies that he feels feed the school-to-prison pipeline.

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Governor recognizes achievements of prison school graduates

At a recent graduation in Arkansas, there were no mortarboards and gowns allowed — those could hide weapons. Excited family members were told to calm down and be seated when their cheers got too rowdy. There were locks, gates and plenty of security, but that didn't dampen the enthusiasm over the event, where 641 inmates of the state's prison schools were graduating, and Governor Asa Hutchinson was speaking— the only graduation speech request he accepted this year.

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New UK Super Prison A Model of Reform Over Punishment

By Christopher Zoukis

It's a slow shift, but the criminal justice system moving its focus more toward rehabilitation and corrections, and away from a philosophy of punishment and incarceration. Critics of this shift say it's a soft-on-crime approach, but research backs the effectiveness of the approach in reducing recidivism and the costs of re-incarceration.

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New Utah Prison Opening in 2020 Will Emphasize Rehabilitation

By Christopher Zoukis

Major changes are afoot in Utah's criminal justice system as part of the state's Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

Approved in March 2015, the initiative is part of a series of changes approved by Gov. Gary Herbert to reduce incarceration and recidivism rates, save taxpayer dollars and provide solutions to the current system of incarceration, aiming not just to lock up offenders, but to change the lives of those who are incarcerated.

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Literacy A Crucial Tool to Stem School to Prison Pipeline

By Christopher Zoukis

Across the U.S. fully 43% of adults read at a grade 8 level or lower — 29% can only read at an eighth grade level, and 14% can only grasp material at a fifth grade level or lower. Throughout the country, thousands of adults are functionally illiterate, which has a huge negative impact on their day-to-day lives. Early childhood is a crucial time to set the right path for literacy. An interest in reading is often determined as early as first grade, with fourth-grade reading levels being an indicator of future success. Research shows that children who struggle to read in first grade are 88% more likely to struggle in grade four. And those who struggle in fourth grade are four times more likely to drop out of school.

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The Choice Bus Uses Prisoner Perspectives to Discourage Dropping Out

By Christopher Zoukis

In an effort to stem the school-to-prison pipeline and to keep kids in school, the Choice Bus was rolled out to help students understand their options in life, and how their decisions can affect their futures.

The Choice Bus is an initiative of the Mattie C. Stewart Foundation, a national nonprofit created in 2007 to help educators, community leaders and other interested groups reduce the dropout rate and increase the graduation rate. Dr. Shelley Stewart named the foundation in honor of his mother, whose murder he witnessed at the hands of his father at the age of five. The tragic incident put him at risk of poverty, homelessness and dropping out of school. Had it not been for a passionate teacher, Stewart's life may have gone in a different direction. Instead, education made all the difference in his life.

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Florida's Troubled Prison, Juvenile Justice Systems Gearing Up For Overhaul

Proposed reforms to the Florida DOC include reducing harsh penalties on youth offenders.

Proposed reforms to the Florida DOC include reducing harsh penalties on youth offenders.

By Christopher Zoukis

Following the launch of a new goal plan for the Florida Department of Corrections, big changes should be arriving in the beleaguered system, with several new pieces of legislation introduced and new budgetary items requested. All of the proposed changes are meant to reduce recidivism, increase safety for corrections officers and inmates, improve conditions and perhaps most significantly — help keep youth of out of the criminal justice system altogether.

While bills are still being debated, their tabling is a positive sign of improvements to come, and they are grounded in hard statistics and research showing the detrimental effects of the current system — including minors being arrested for misdemeanors. Currently in Florida there are three 7-year-olds in the criminal justice system for low-level, first-time offenses — something that sounds outrageously impossible, but sadly isn’t. Florida also has the highest level in the country of transferring children out of thejuvenile justice system and into adult court.

DOC Secretary Julie Jones has detailed plans focusing on inmate and officer safety, facility repairs, recruitment strategies for new corrections and probation officers, and hopes to open an 11th mental health facility to help inmates re-enter society. This proposed residential facility at Wakulla Correctional Institution would create new jobs for 104 full-time employees, in addition to enhancing current treatments.

Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Christy Daly has similar goals, including increasing residential capacity, using evidence-based residential services, early intervention programs and improved assessment tools, expanding workplace education programs and also de-criminalizing youth.

Programs focusing on rehabilitating youth have a proven track record. For example, in 2015-2016, 60 percent of DJJ youth that participated in workplace education programs found employment, joined the military or went to school.

There have been marked changes in how what used to be considered innocent pranks are now dealt with. Senate President Joe Negron shared a personal story. In his youth he played a prank involving election signs on someone else’s property. Instead of being charged, he was warned and given a second chance by the officer who ordered him to go and clean up the mess, and never do it again. But today, Negron believes things would have gone differently. Perhaps he would have been charged with "criminal mischief, defacing property, trespassing, fleeing and attempting to elude, and since there were two of us, it’s a conspiracy,” he said. “I would probably still be explaining this on bar exam questions, on law school applications, on questions at editorial board interviews, [saying] ‘it’s not as bad as it sounds.’ "

Misdemeanors and first-time offences resulting in arrests and charges greatly damages the prospects of our youth. Besides institutionalizing them and isolating them from their peers and communities, affected youth are plagued by a criminal record, which damages their  future employment and educational prospects. Recidivism rates are high.They are set up for failure.

Going forward, new legislation, though yet to be finalized, will mean that first-time youth offenders will receive mandatory civil citations instead of being arrested and entered into the criminal justice system. In addition to the citation, the person receiving it will be required to participate in programs such as community service and life skills, meet with community-impact panels, and may be referred for counseling. Currently, this system is voluntary, and applied unevenly across the state. In counties where this system is consistency applied, recidivism rates are lower, and any officer bias is prevented.

This approach results in less jail time and fewer criminal records for youth, sparing youth that really aren’t a threat to public safety from getting trapped in the system, and reduces costs and resources for processing youth in the court system. According to a recent Stepping Up report, increasing the use of civil citations statewide would significantly improve outcomes for more than 7,000 youth.

As the Corrections reform bill goes to the House floor, an amendment has been added to allow adults to enter a diversion program for certain crimes. 

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.

Literacy and Love: Programs Allow Parents in Prison to Read To Children

Programs for imprisoned parents help increase literacy for parents and kids, and encourage parent-child bonding from behind bars. 

Programs for imprisoned parents help increase literacy for parents and kids, and encourage parent-child bonding from behind bars. 

By Christopher Zoukis

So many factors can affect childhood — and adult — success. Having a parent in prison can have a profound effect on a child's path in life.

The level of involvement a parent has in their child’s life can trickle down to many areas, including literacy. A child's ability to read can be greatly affected by both parent literacy rates, and factors such as the ability for parents and children to spend time reading together.

So what happens when parents are incarcerated? Up to 70% of U.S. inmates are functionally illiterate, and more than 800,000 state and federal inmates have children. More than 1 million children have parents that are incarcerated, and these numbers are increased when including other types of detention. One in 28 children in the U.S. have a parent behind bars — that's a total of 2.7 million. This issue greatly affects the future levels of success for those children.

Fourth-grade literacy measurements are often considered a yardstick for a child's future achievement. Fully 68% of children in the U.S. do not meet the fourth-grade proficiency standard. These children are most likely to come from rural, low income or at-risk homes — including homes where one or both parents are incarcerated.

How can these challenges be surmounted? A variety of programs across the country are helping to overcome these hurdles, assisting imprisoned parents with fostering and maintaining relationships, offering some semblance of normalcy, helping to build vocabulary and literacy skills, and assisting children to learn patience, listening skills, and how to use their imaginations.

In 2004, Jane Handel, an eighth-grade student in Needham, Massachusetts, started A Book From Mom in order to fulfil volunteer hours. She was inspired by her own relationship with her mother and the power of books, and based her ideas on a program where her school sent used books to other schools. Jane had heard about the lack of resources in prisons, and wanted to foster a tangible connection between incarcerated parents and their children. She began collecting new books, and donating them to prisons. Mothers can pick out new books, read with their children on visits, and send the books home with them.

Since the program launched, more than 30,000 books have been passed from parents to children, and the program has expanded from the MCI-Framingham women's prison west of Boston to include fathers, at five institutions. Each book donated represents a positive interaction and vital connection between parent and child.

The donor base has also expanded. For example, a young girl donated 700 books after requesting books for the program in lieu of bat mitzvah gifts. And a local Barnes and Noble offers customers an option of donating from a series of preselected books. Jane Handel and her mother Elizabeth hope to continue expanding the program.

At Suffolk County House of Corrections, Diana Barbero teaches literacy and parenting classes, and helps fathers record themselves reading from the books before they are sent to their children. This ensures that children receive something more valuable than the physical book — they get personal connections to their fathers through the ability to listen to their voices whenever they want. This is important, when parental interactions can be extremely limited.

The Children’s Literacy Foundation also helps parents in prison record themselves as part of their Storybook Program, working across 17 institutions in New Hampshire and Vermont to inspire a love of reading and writing among rural, low income and at-risk children. They provide books for family visiting rooms, pay for professional authors to perform on visiting days, provide literacy seminars, and help circulate children’s books in prisons so that inmates can read stories to their children at night over the phone.

Similar programs are also run in Franklin County, Ohio, in Colorado, with Read to the Children, in Wisconsin with Reading Connections, and in Alabama with Aid to Inmate Mothers' Storybook Project. All have the goal of nurturing relationships between incarcerated parents and their children, and to foster literacy amongst both children and inmates, and are excellent examples of how seemingly insurmountable hurdles can be beat with the aid of innovative ideas, and caring volunteers and donors.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.

New Programs in Pennsylvania Boost Opportunities for Female Inmates

New opportunities to participate in rehabilitative programs give inmates opportunities to learn and heal through exploring a variety of topics.

New opportunities to participate in rehabilitative programs give inmates opportunities to learn and heal through exploring a variety of topics.

By Christopher Zoukis

For five years, inmates haven't even had the opportunity to obtain high school equivalency diplomas at the Lackawanna County Prison in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The GED program was scrapped during a county budgeting crisis in 2012 and has yet to be reinstated.

Still, positive changes are on the horizon at the facility, with three new programs recently added to boost the rehabilitative offerings for female inmates. It's good news in a county where only 49 percent of inmates have their high school diploma compared to 89 percent of the general population.

While advocates are calling for reinstatement of the GED program, which would help inmates with job prospects after release, funding is an issue. One possibility is renegotiating telecommunications, which could include tablet-based educational systems, broadening educational opportunities significantly. Beyond this, basic programming currently offered includes Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and computer classes.

The new programs include a sexual assault education program, which will be run by the Women’s Resource Centre, and offered to 15 women at a time. The program assists participants to understand that being a victim of sexual abuse is not their fault, and facilitates making connections between trauma and behaviour — unhealthy coping mechanisms such as drug use, for example.

The nationwide Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program will also be implemented at the facility. Established in 1997 and based in Philadelphia, the program helps to "facilitate dialogue across difference" and allows participants — inmates and college students — to meet each other as equals, providing learning across social boundaries and dispelling stereotypes. The program, offered as part of Keystone College’s Criminal Justice Programs, sees students and inmates learning side by side in a classroom setting, with the hope that barriers are broken down, students gain real-world exposure, and that inmates might gain the confidence and inspiration to attend college in the future.

A creative writing program through the University of Scranton’s Campus Ministries’ Center for Service and Social Justice will also be offered. The program aims to provide a superior, transformational learning experience and to prepare students to make a difference in the world. Following Jesuit ideals of academic excellence, the importance of the liberal arts, and the education of the whole person, the Center for Service and Social Justice participates in numerous community and campus initiatives.

The creative writing program is offered to 10-20 inmates at a time, over a 5-6 week period, and is facilitated by student volunteers. Exercises have included blackout poetry, word mandalas and storytelling. Through writing, participants learn about themselves and each other, and how to express their emotions through telling their stories.

The program has spilled beyond the prison walls in the form of a theatrical play. Ten education majors and three former Lackawanna County inmates performed We Rise, written by internationally renowned playwright Nancy Hasty, who has conducted arts programs at the prison.

The play highlighted the various struggles of all of the performers, demonstrating both commonalities and differences. Personal experiences from childhood bedrooms, to stories of abuse, to decisions made later in life were shared, showing how surprisingly similar histories and experiences can be shared between educators and women imprisoned only blocks away from the university.

The play was also a means of raising awareness of the struggles the former inmates had experienced, and how unaddressed issues early in life affected their later decisions, and the ultimate consequences of those decisions. 

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.

North Carolina Prisons Add Technology to Rehabilitation Toolbox

Edovo tablets deliver an array of educational and life skills programming, also offer prisoners incentives in the form of rewards points for hitting milestones.

Edovo tablets deliver an array of educational and life skills programming, also offer prisoners incentives in the form of rewards points for hitting milestones.

By Christopher Zoukis

There are more than 37,000 inmates in 55 prison facilities in North Carolina. Each year, more than 20,000 inmates are released. In fact, 98% of the entire country's inmates will be released at some point in the future. And increasingly, a wide variety of rehabilitative programs are being offered to ensure that that those freed are prepared to become part of their communities and to decrease the likelihood of them returning to prison.

North Carolina range of programs have many focuses, including the view that education is part of the total rehabilitation process, drives behavioral changes, and provides the tools for the creation of a worthwhile life. The mission of the North Carolina Department of Corrections educational services is to provide resources from basic literacy to advanced vocational skills and life skills to inmates “so that they may become responsible and productive persons who can effectively manage their incarceration and make contributions to their community upon release.”

The main goal is to create inmates who are prepared to be successful job holders and who have been fully rehabilitated. Programs include anger management, parenting classes, religious programs, life skills, computer skills, math, GED, health issues, bible study, prayer groups, traditional groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, literacy programs, Toastmasters, mental health counseling and drug treatment programs. Many programs are run with the help of outside partners, including High Point Jail Ministry, and are carefully vetted. North Carolina also participates in the Stepping Up initiative, whose aim to help reduce the number of people with mental illness cycling through the nation's prisons. This robust range of programs targets meeting as many inmate needs as possible.

Most recently, North Carolina joined the increasing number of states offering education via technology. Tablets offer learning potential in the face of thinning resources — both financial and human — and it's heartening to see their use catching on.

A trial program where inmates use Edovo tablets recently launched in High Point Jail. Edovo (Education Over Obstacles), was previously known as Jail Education Solutions, but changed its name as it expanded beyond prison walls. Released offenders can pick up where they left off behind bars by accessing EdovoGo! The mission at Edovo is to provide meaningful access to education and self-improvement tools that can unlock the potential of every person affected by incarceration. The company hopes to be a key provider of educational programs to the four out of five inmates across the country who currently lack access. This is a crucial need, since education is proven to reduce recidivism by up to 45%.

Since the trial began, the tablets have proved very popular; in the first week, 95 inmates logged 8,751 hours working on educational programs, with math and anger management courses being among the most popular. This mimics successes logged in other states and institutions. Other courses include family skills, finance, English, religious courses, and even instruction on how to behave in a courtroom. In total, Edovo has developed 10,000 hours of evidence-based programming, from basic literacy to college equivalency.

The tablets also offer incentives to inmates in the form of rewards for hitting milestones. Points earned can be spent on music, movies, television, games, or to make phone calls and send messages. Phone calls and messages sent on the secure tablets are recorded by PayTel, a jail phone service, and monitored by jail staff.

While the trial was launched only at High Point jail, there are hopes to expand it soon, as technology issues are identified and fixed. Since jails and prisons are often made of concrete, the necessary connectivity needed can be hard to navigate, and may be hindered by the solid construction materials.

By offering a rich array of programs, and trialling new forms of programming such as the Edovo tablets, North Carolina has paved a solid pathway toward meeting its educational mission, providing meaningful rehabilitation, and to seeing results such as reduced incidences of violence and greatly reduced recidivism rates. 

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.