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.

Prison Shakespeare Programs Have Dramatic Impact on Inmates

Former inmate Dameion Brown in costume as Othello for the Marin Shakespeare Company's 2016 performance of the play. Brown became involved in the company's Shakespeare for Social Justice program while in prison. (Photo courtesy Marin Shakespeare Company archives)

Former inmate Dameion Brown in costume as Othello for the Marin Shakespeare Company's 2016 performance of the play. Brown became involved in the company's Shakespeare for Social Justice program while in prison. (Photo courtesy Marin Shakespeare Company archives)

By Christopher Zoukis

Prison might be the last place you would expect to see a great performance of Shakespeare. But for more than a decade, Marin Shakespeare Company in California has taught Shakespeare in several prisons, and to rave reviews.

In 1989, the company launched to reinvigorate Shakespeare in Northern California, but has expanded its scope over the years, teaching a variety of workshops and programs, including outreach through the Shakespeare for Social Justice Program, started in San Quentin Prison in 2003, and expanding it to several other facilities. Their mission is “to achieve excellence in the staging and study of Shakespearean plays, to celebrate Shakespeare and to serve as a cultural and educational resource for the people of Marin, the San Francisco Bay Area, and beyond.”

Shakespeare might seem like an odd choice, stereotypically relegated to the fodder of English classes and the efforts of British actors, but program proponents espouse its benefits. Studying Shakespeare teaches complex language and literacy skills, critical thinking about human emotions and the consequences of choices, emotional intelligence, empathy, self-reflection and gives rise to the exploration of new ways of thinking.

The atmosphere and exercises of theater and performance also teaches cooperation, interpersonal interaction, communication and problem-solving. It assists in breaking down barriers, building bridges, and helps people recreate themselves as their best selves.

Lesley Currier, the managing director of the company, notes that inmates delve into complex themes while exploring Shakespeare. “Macbeth and Julius Caesar are about committing murder and the psychology behind that: Why they do what they do, how they feel after they do it," he said in an interview with the Marin Independent Journal.

Heavy and emotional topics can arise through studying Shakespeare, and working through these via a fictitious character can be immensely helpful for the participants when reflecting on their own situations and past decisions. The "soft skills" they learn in navigating their emotions and pasts are immensely valuable, both in prison, and as they move into their communities after they are released.

At San Quentin every year, two plays are performed — one of Shakespeare’s works, and a Parallel Play of original pieces that are written and performed by inmates, inspired by the Shakespearean work they performed. Plays are also performed at Solano State Prison. The inmates involved don’t just memorize lines and perform; they have weekly meetings where they complete drama exercises, and learn the variety of skills that can be applied to their daily lives.

Dameion Brown is just one example of the success of the program. He played Macduff in Solano’s performance of Macbeth in 2015. He has since been released, and uses the skills he learned in the program to improve his life and those of others. In 2016 he played the starring role in Othello with Marin Shakespeare Company, and has spoken about his role with students in schools. He is now a youth case manager at Community Works West, working with young men who have been recently released from jail and others referred as part of a diversion program. Brown says he identified with the character of Othello, and had hoped to play the character long before ending up in prison. He was cast as Othello for a school play, but it was canceled after outcry from his community over the interracial romance in the story.

Beyond prison walls, Marin Shakespeare Company launched the Theater Group for Returned Citizens in 2015, to allow former inmates to continue to learn about Shakespeare and theater, and to tell their stories.

Shakespeare for Social Justice isn’t the only program teaching Shakespeare and theater skills to inmates. Other successful programs include the Michigan-based Shakespeare Behind Bars, Rehabilitation Through the Arts in New York, and the Shakespeare Prison Project at Racine Correctional Institution, in partnership with University of Wisconsin-Parkside. The Mission of Shakespeare Behind Bars (SBB), as one example, “is to offer theatrical encounters with personal and social issues to incarcerated and post-incarcerated adults and juveniles, allowing them to develop life skills that will ensure their successful reintegration into society.” There are 10 core values to the program, including developing literacy, empathy and problem-solving skills. The recidivism rate of SBB participants is an impressive 5.1 percent, compared to a national average of more than 50 percent. These programs clearly make an impact in the lives of participants, who learn a wide variety of necessary life skills and re-enter their communities as better citizens. Weaving arts into the rehabilitative tapestry offered inmates is a worthwhile endeavor. 

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.

Maryland Focuses on Crime Prevention and Re-entry Programs

600,000 individuals will be released and returned to their communities this year — more than 8,000 of them in Baltimore.

600,000 individuals will be released and returned to their communities this year — more than 8,000 of them in Baltimore.

By Christopher Zoukis

Maryland has increased its efforts to focus on crime prevention and rehabilitation programs for offenders as a way to reduce recidivism and reliance on the prison-industrial complex.

It is of increasing importance and necessity crime-reduction programs are installed to prevent crime before it begins, and rehabilitation is the focus for offenders so they can lead productive lives and contribute to their communities, instead of falling back into old patterns.

To do that, corrections — not just punishment — should be a key philosophy, and facilities should provide support in the form of re-entry programs and skills building. Across the country, there is a need to do a better job preparing incarcerated individuals to return to home. It's ludicrous to lock up offenders, give them no education, skills or tools, and expect that they will all come out transformed, or even know how to change.

Politicians, lawmakers, nonprofits, and other community leaders are all getting on board, realizing change needs to maintain momentum. “Our mission is preventing crime, not just sending people to prison, so we focus our crime-prevention efforts on two groups: school students, to deter them from turning to crime, and ex-convicts, to stop them from re-offending," said Maryland State's Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein in a statement.  Rosenstein’s office has received funding to promote re-entry and crime prevention programs and efforts. These programs are crucial, considering 600,000 individuals will be released and returned to their communities this year — more than 8,000 of them in Baltimore.

There is a comprehensive list of programs in Maryland available to newly released adults, organized by county. The list is 181 pages and covers resources for substance abuse, mental health, emergency funding, conflict resolution, job training, mentoring, food help and legal assistance.

Here are a few of those programs:

• Several counties offer SHORE UP! The organization name is an acronym for Self Help on Rural Economics and Urban Problems, with the main focus being to help low income and disadvantaged persons reach economic sufficiency. Programs include energy assistance, emergency assistance for food, housing and medical, job training and employment programs including Job Start for youth ages 16-19, Adult Basic Education and GED, and housing programs.

• The Druid Heights Community Development Re-Entry Program’s mission statement is "to cause, encourage and promote community self-empowerment through the development of economic, educational, employment and affordable housing opportunities." It focuses on newly released ex-offenders. Services provided include transitional housing, peer mentoring, mental health services, family reunification, life skills, conflict resolution, computer literacy, resume writing and job placement assistance. This comprehensive range of services helps to ensure a complete and successful reintegration into the community.

• Maryland Correctional Enterprises' Continuing Allocation of Re-Entry Services (CARES) is a reintegration program for inmates nearing their release, with the goal of reducing recidivism by 20 percent  in comparison to the general MCE release population. Participants receive three months' training in cognitive behavioral therapy, and three months of the Employment Readiness Workshop, with a minimum of 50 contact hours providing assessments, interview skills, job search strategies and skills building. 

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.

Folsom Prison Programs Improve Lives Inside and Outside its Walls

Programming at California's second-oldest prison take a holistic approach at rehabilitating — from puppies to addiction assistance.

Programming at California's second-oldest prison take a holistic approach at rehabilitating — from puppies to addiction assistance.

By Christopher Zoukis

Johnny Cash may have talked about time "draggin' on" at Folsom Prison in his '60s-era hit song, but times at California's second oldest prison have changed.

Folsom State Prison first opened in 1880 and has come a distance from its harsh, punitive roots, increasingly offering a wide range of rehabilitation and re-entry programs. The facility houses primarily medium-security males but also contains minimum-security facilities for both males and females, and offers programs that not only build inmate’s skills, but that also have a direct impact on the community outside of the prison.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation recognizes that programming opportunities are the best way to prepare an offender for success upon release, ensuring that programs are available at all stages while in prison, and upon parole. These programs benefit the community in numerous ways including reducing recidivism, which contributes to lower taxes and costs, and increasing numbers of ex-offenders that can effectively re-enter society and contribute to it.

Some of these programs also have immediate tangible benefits to the community — such as providing bicycles to children, supplying hand-sewn items to charities, and delivering well-trained puppies that eventually become service dogs.

Canine Companions for Independence currently has 8 puppies in training at the Folsom Women’s Facility. Each dog is paired with an inmate, who is responsible for its care and basic training 24/7. These dogs will go on to do more advanced training, and hopefully pass muster to become service dogs for a wide variety of community members in need, including children with autism and veterans suffering from PTSD.

In the meantime, not only do the dogs receive care and attention, the inmates involved take pride in their service, given responsibility to care for a creature for completely non-selfish reasons. Participants learn a lot about themselves, build self-esteem, learn group dynamics, and come to appreciate unconditional love and the importance of sustained, long-term goals. The puppies are also pretty good stress relievers inside the prison walls.

Hooks and Needles is another initiative at Folsom. It began in 2011 as a charitable crocheting and knitting program with the purpose of helping inmates to design, develop, and craft various handicrafts such as booties, bonnets, blankets and toys for donation to hospitals, shelters and children’s care facilities. More than 1800 items have been donated since its inception. This program teaches inmates new skills, and there is a direct tangible benefit to the local community.

In a similar vein, another program that has been running for 20 years sees inmates repair and refurbish bicycles, which are then given to children in need year-round, with a particular focus on Christmas. Local service clubs contribute to the program by donating paint, parts and tools for the prison bicycle shop.

Beyond those programs, Folsom’s other rehabilitative programming focuses on helping prisoners become more productive, address issues such as addiction, and learn how to successfully re-enter society. Each offender’s risks, needs, and skills are assessed upon incarceration, and each is enrolled in the appropriate programs.

Vocational and educational programs include masonry, welding, auto mechanics, GED, ESL, parenting skills, college programs and correspondence courses. Inmates can participate in a pre-release program called California New Start Prison to Employment Transition Program, consisting of transition planning, job searching and applications, interview preparation, and career orientation. A transitional treatment facility houses inmates and parolees where they tackle their substance abuse issues. About 40 parolees per month graduate from the program.

This holistic approach to helping inmates come out of prison better prepared to participate in society than they were when they entered is an example of a system focusing on rehabilitation rather than punishment. In the best-case scenario, these opportunities help ensure those released have dealt with their demons, and are prepared with new and relevant skills to rejoin the community and the workforce, becoming — perhaps for the first time — functioning members of society.

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.

 

Nearly Half of Prisoners Lack Access to Vocational Training

Nearly half of prisoners in the United States do not get vocational training in jail. Learn more at prisoneducation.com.

By Christopher Zoukis

In the ongoing discussion of prison reform, mass incarceration and reducing recidivism, vocational programs are often overlooked in favor of formal educational courses and other activities and programming.

Maybe it is assumed that most incarcerated individuals have access to, and participate in, vocational training and prison jobs. At least that’s what popular TV shows and the media might lead us to believe. But in reality, despite the crucial role that vocational training plays in the success of an offender upon release, there is not nearly as much focus on vocational training as is needed.

In a recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics, it was found that only 7 percent of inmates receive vocational certifications while incarcerated, and only 2 percent receive associate degrees. This is not for lack of interest — 29 percent of respondents wanted to obtain vocational qualifications, but there was no program availability. For 47 percent of these respondents, future job prospects were a serious concern. Some respondents indicated a lack of interest in enrolling in programs, but reasons included a lack of quality programs available — a 2005 report from the Department of Justice found that only 52 percent of state and federal facilities offered vocational programs. Other respondents cited not wanting to have to sacrifice a current prison job or assignment in order to take vocational training.

There is a wide range of good programs offered in some facilities, but it's clearly not enough. The majority  — 95 percent — of those currently incarcerated will eventually be released. It's incumbent upon society to see that ex-offenders are not the same — or worse — coming out then they were going in. These individuals need opportunities to lead different lives once they're released.  And vocational programs that teach real and desirable skills are one of the most effective ways of ensuring this, by qualifying people for jobs that can help stabilize their lives.

The importance of these programs is highlighted in a 2013 RAND corporation report, which performed a meta-analysis of all reports on educational and vocational training in prisons from 1980 to 2011. Inmates with vocational training were 36 percent less likely to be re-incarcerated, and much more likely to find employment, and this training was found to be even more successful than having a high school or college education in obtaining post-release employment.

Obtaining employment upon release for offenders is critical. Offenders need the tools and skills to secure employment and be able to contribute to their communities. Without these opportunities, the rate of recidivism is significantly higher. Those who participate in vocational training are 28 percent more likely to be employed after release.  Participation in prison programming can also have a marked effect on how constructively a prisoner's time behind bars is spent. Program participation has been shown to reduce institutional problem behaviors by offering meaningful work and other opportunities during otherwise idle time, and participants sometimes even help with prison maintenance while learning new skills. Offering a range of vocational programs and certifications behind bars is a rehabilitative approach that can go a long way toward ensuring the goals society should have for prisoners — recidivism reduction, a more skilled and employable citizenship, reduction of mass incarceration and greater safety inside institutions. Nearly half of the nation's 2.3 million prisoners do not have vocational programming available to them.  It's time to take a look at expanding programming to reach the other 48 percent. 

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.

From Inmate to Inspiration: Man Helps Prisoners and Youth Turn Lives Around

John Valverde spent 16 years in prison, now focuses on helping improve the lives of prisoners, ex-prisoners, and at-risk youth.

John Valverde spent 16 years in prison, now focuses on helping improve the lives of prisoners, ex-prisoners, and at-risk youth.

By Christopher Zoukis

John Valverde is living proof that second chances are possible, and that the criminal justice system needs to be about more than just punishment — it should focus on rehabilitation and facilitating successful re-entry for the legions of ex-offenders who will eventually rejoin their communities.

Valverde this year becomes CEO of YouthBuild USA Inc., a network with a global organization of programs for low-income youth, which provides education, employment, and other opportunities to help them become leaders in their communities. These programs are important on both a local and global scales, as in the US alone there are more than 2.3 million youths who are not in education or employed, and whose prospects of becoming successful adults are pretty grim.

Valverde is certainly a good candidate for the position, and youth from troubled backgrounds appreciate the candor with which he shares his story. He was sent to prison in his early 20s after killing a man who was accused of raping his girlfriend. The man was a serial sex offender, on probation for two other sex offenses at the time. Valverde spent 16 years behind bars, during which time he felt remorse for his crime, and sought opportunities to better himself and those around him.

He earned two degrees — a Bachelor’s in Behavioral Science from Mercy College, and a Master’s in Urban Ministry from the New York Theological Seminary. He also taught other inmates how to read and write, acted as an HIV/AIDS counsellor, and lead initiatives to create educational programs after the elimination of TAP and Pell finding. The Certificate in Ministry and Human Services, today called Rising Hope, still continues in several New York State prisons. And he co-founded Hudson Link for Higher Education, which provides college education, life skills and re-entry support to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated men and women, from which more than 450 students have graduated.

After his release from prison, Valverde worked as a paralegal before going on to work for The Osborne Association — a New York organization that provides treatment, education, and vocational services to current and former inmates. Their mission is to help these individuals transform their lives, and to serve the community by reducing crime and its human and economic costs. The Osborne Association offers a broad range of programs that serve more than 10,000 people each year, including programs on economic independence, health, connecting families, and strengthening communities.

Now at YouthBuild, Valverde will continue his work to provide much-needed programs that build strong communities and give tools to some of society’s most vulnerable. The program started in 1978 in East Harlem, where a group of teens rebuilt an abandoned tenement. It now encompasses 250 programs around the US, and more than 80 programs in 21 other countries. Each helps to provide at-risk youth with the skills they need. Many participants work toward finishing their high school diplomas while learning skills through hands-on projects such as building affordable housing or participating in other community services. Participants are also offered leadership training. Valverde brings a lot to the table through his previous experiences and youth find him relatable. He is an example that no matter what you did before, you can always turn your life around, create a worthwhile future, and make a difference.

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.com and PrisonerResource.com.

Incarcerated Author Releases Federal Prison Handbook

When Christopher Zoukis first went to prison over 10 years ago, he was completely unprepared. “I had no idea how the system worked, where I was going or what to expect,” says Zoukis, who is still incarcerated at FCI Petersburg in Virginia.

Like most of the other 10 million Americans imprisoned across the country, he didn’t even know what to prepare for emotionally, financially or otherwise. “There was no one resource to go to and find the real information I was desperate to find,”

Now that’s all changed.

The newly-released Federal Prison Handbook compiles resources and information to help prisoners and their loved ones understand how the federal prison system works, as well as help keep prisoners safe by explaining how to avoid the near-constant conflicts found inside prisons.

Some of the topics inside include:

  • A brief history of the Bureau of Prisons and a breakdown of the current inmate population
  • Details about the different security levels and special administrative facilities
  • What to expect on the day you’re admitted to prison, and how to greet cellmates for the first time
  • What to do about sexual harassment or assault
  • Navigating racial and cultural divisions at different security levels and during transport
  • The best ways to avoid fights, and the options that provide the greatest protection if a fight cannot be avoided
  • Typical daily schedules, controlled movements and inmate counts, and how to carve out a life between mandatory activities
  • The best ways to avoid gangs and fights, and options that provide the greatest protection if a fight cannot be avoided
  • Comprehensive analysis of Federal Bureau of Prisons policy and regulatory guidelines

About Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis is an outspoken prisoners rights and correctional education advocate who is incarcerated at FCI Petersburg Medium in Virginia. He is an award-winning writer whose work has been published widely in major publications such as The Huffington Post, Prison Legal NewsNew York Daily News and various other print and online publications. Learn more about Christopher Zoukis at christopherzoukis.com.

Media Inquiries

Christopher Zoukis is pleased to speak with media by telephone about topics related to prison education and justice reform. For more information or to book an interview, email info@prisonerresource.com or send a request in writing to:
Christopher Zoukis
Federal Correctional Institution Petersburg
P.O. Box 1000, #22132-058
Petersburg, VA 23804

What Others Say About the Federal Prison Handbook

“The Federal Prison Handbook is an excellent resource for individuals currently incarcerated or facing incarceration in a federal prison." -- Brandon Sample, federal-prisoner-turned-attorney, author of The Habeas Citebook, and Executive Director of Prisology

"A must-read . . . [Filled with] extensive details on the nuances of federal prison culture." -- Jack Donson, Director of Case Management at FedCURE, Chair of the American Bar Association's standing subcommittee on Federal Bureau of Prisons policy, nationally awarded FBOP retiree.

"The go-to reference book for answering all those 'good questions' the incarcerated client asks but which the attorney doesn't know the answers to because they never teach you [this] in law school." -- Kent Russell, expert attorney and author, California Habeas Handbook

From Ex-Prisoner to Professor and Prison Reform Advocate

Aaron Kinzel faced obstacles after being released from a 10-year prison stint, and now teaches criminology and is an active prison-reform advocate.

Aaron Kinzel faced obstacles after being released from a 10-year prison stint, and now teaches criminology and is an active prison-reform advocate.

By Christopher Zoukis

It’s easy to think only of the crimes committed when words like “offender,” “incarceration” or “prisoner” come up. But we should remember that many offenders in our system of incarceration will be released each year, hoping to become functioning and productive members of society. With support and rehabilitation, these individuals can become more than just their past crimes. They might even become role models and pillars of their communities.

One such example is Aaron Kinzel. Growing up surrounded by crime, in his late teens — when he should have been graduating high school — he was imprisoned for 10 years after a serious confrontation with law enforcement while on probation. He fired at an officer and led law enforcement in a high-speed chase and overnight manhunt, ending in his arrest.

Flash forward to today, and Kinzel's life is completely different. After earning three degrees, he is now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, in the College of Arts, Sciences and Letters, focusing his work on criminal justice reform and education for offenders. By focusing on education, mentoring and deterrence, his aims are to eliminate criminal behavior. He also teaches classes for the Criminal Justice Studies program, where students appreciate his real life experience, and frank and meaningful discussions in class.

Kinzel launched an experiential tour of Cell Block 7 Prison Museum in Jackson, MI, for sociology students and faculty, which thoroughly engaged the participants and gave them an idea of what it’s like to be incarcerated. He is considered an expert on the criminal justice system and in advocating for reform, and has conducted training seminars for upper-level personnel for the Department of Justice, has completed contracts with the DOJ and Federal Bureau of Prisons, and routinely does speaking engagements.

Kinzel was recently named a UM Difference Maker. Each year 50 students are selected, who are at the forefront of their fields, who make an impact on campus and in their communities, and who embody academic and professional achievement. In addition to this, Kinzel has received numerous grants, scholarships and fellowships, and is a finalist for an Open Society Foundation Soros Justice Fellowship, awarded to those who are leaders in criminal justice reform in the United States. The Open Society Foundations aims to reduce the impact of the criminal justice system on individuals, families and communities, by ensuring a fair and accountable system of justice.

Kinzel is a perfect example of why prison reform is needed. Even while working to obtain his three university degrees, it took him more than six years to find a job after leaving prison — because of the box he had to check on job applications. Now many states have "banned the box" in an attempt to level the playing field for ex-offenders who are re-entering society and want to become productive members of their communities. It wasn’t until Kinzel was working on his Ph.D. that someone gave him a chance at employment, and he was hired to teach criminal justice courses.

It is a reality that most prisoners — more than 90 percent —will be released. So advocating for reform and rehabilitation makes sense. We do not want these formerly incarcerated to reoffend, so they should be given a fighting chance after they’ve served their time, making housing and employment easier to obtain. Programs like banning the box, or prisoner re-entry programs help with the transition. In Michigan, recidivism has been reduced by 18 percent since the adoption of such a program. Kinzel is proof of what supports and opportunities can mean to someone who has grown up in a life of crime. People can change while they're on the inside, and thrive on the outside. All prisoners should be given the opportunity to do so.

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.

Changes to Pennsylvania DOC Improves Life for Prisoners, Staff

Educational and vocational training initiatives in the Pennsylvania prison system have improved conditions for both inmates and staff.

Educational and vocational training initiatives in the Pennsylvania prison system have improved conditions for both inmates and staff.

By Christopher Zoukis

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections spent 2016 making laudable strides toward helping improve the state of mass incarceration in this country.

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel made a statement in December outlining improvements the Department of Corrections (DOC) has made in public, prisoner, and staff safety, improving transparency and fiscal responsibility, providing more opportunities for prisoners to gain life skills, and providing staff with increased knowledge and education.

Some of these improvements include funding to help 150 people fight opioid use and return home healthier and more productive, training more than 1,300 employees in crisis intervention to appropriately respond to mental health crises, changes to the delivery of mental health services, and directing those with mental health and disabilities away from the use of solitary confinement, instead providing specialized treatment for their individual needs.

Inmates in the state are given numerous educational and other learning opportunities that help improve their chances of successful re-entry, including training in mental health first aid and becoming peer counsellors. The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program allows access to post-secondary education for inmates in six state prisons, working with four institutions of higher learning.

The DOC also changed its controversial "food loaf" punishment, — a practice of punishing misbehaving prisoners by serving their food cold after being mixed and baked into an unappetizing brick — resulted in media attention on the mistreatment of prisoners.

The changes and programs implemented in Pennsylvania prisons have improved safety, better equipped staff for their jobs, and more positively prepared inmates poised for release to re-enter society and become contributing members of their communities, since they will leave prison with increased education and life skills.

The 2016 improvements enriched the existing educational and vocational programs in offered in prisons across the state, including GED tests, computer/electronics technology and repair courses, ESL programs, financial literacy classes, cosmetology and barber programs, literacy, Braille, and a wide range of other vocational programs, though not everything is offered at every institution.

Since the statement Wetzel made in late 2016, further changes to the DOC have been announced including that the state is looking to close prisons, with several facilities under consideration. This is not only a cost-saving measure, but also a consequence of reduced crime rates and fewer incidences of recidivism. Two are expected to close, but only one has been selected thus far, slated to shut down by June 20.

In further reforms, automatic solitary will no longer be a practice for former death row inmates who no longer face capital sentences. Currently these inmates can still face years of unnecessary solitary confinement, which can cause major psychological consequences, including anxiety, depression, paranoia, and suicidal impulses. This new policy will reduce these damaging effects looking forward.

Pennsylvania has the right idea when it comes to rehabilitation and recidivism reduction, and these efforts have created better environments for both prisoners and prison staff. It's a mere drop in the bucket toward reducing mass incarceration, but it's a meaningful splash all the same.

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.