UK Prison Reform a Step Toward Reducing Recidivism

By Christopher Zoukis

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has offered a far-reaching proposal for improving what he describes as the “scandalous” failure of the English and Welsh prison system. Calling his plan the biggest overhaul to the national corrections system since the Victorian era, Cameron said he is the first prime minister to speak on the problem in several decades.

prison recidivism

In a Feb. 8 speech to the London-based think tank Policy Exchange, he called for reforms that would not treat prisoners as liabilities to be controlled, but rather as “potential assets to be harnessed.” Cameron painted in stark terms the problems plaguing the UK prison system, saying its levels of violence, drug use, self-mutilation and suicides “should shame us all.”

Official statistics for last year show the over-85,000 prison population of correctional facilities in England and Wales accounted for more than 14,000 inmate assaults on other prisoners, nearly 600 serious assaults on prison staff members, thousands of self-mutilations, and 89 suicides. In addition, about 32% of former prisoners are convicted of further offenses after being released. A recent report by the UK’s chief prison inspector conceded adult prison conditions had worsened since 2010.

Improving prisoner education holds a key role in Cameron’s reform plan, which calls for closer government ties with private teacher training and support groups, such as TeachFirst, to draw newly graduated teachers into working in national prisons. That effort will be headed by a former education minister and member of Parliament, from the Liberal Democrat party rather than Cameron’s Conservative party.

His support of prison education programs in UK prisons is refreshing, albeit a bit stale. It should come as no surprise that prison education is a smart crime control policy and also the most cost-effective, proven method that we currently know of reducing recidivism rates. Yet both the UK and U.S. prison systems have ignored the significant benefit of prison education. This isn't merely a recidivism reduction benefit, but also a public safety and corrections spending benefit.

The prime minister also said his government will accept recommendations on prison education that will be made in a government-commissioned study of education in adult prisons. The report of that public-private review panel is due this spring. Cameron’s plan also calls for giving juvenile detention facilities the leeway to adopt new educational measures.

The proposal, which will be spelled out in greater detail in a bill to be introduced in Parliament, would within the next five years give half of all 121 current penal facilities complete autonomy in their budgets and operation, while their performance on such rehabilitation factors as recidivism, literacy and finding employment would be publicly ranked. Further, by the end of this year, Cameron’s plan calls for transforming six as-yet-undesignated correctional facilities into pilot program “reform prisons.”

Other provisions of his plan would make deportation of foreign prisoners faster and easier, move towards satellite tracking of prisoners allowed to spend part of the week outside prison, and direct the government to work with communications companies on technology to block signals into prisons, as a way to disable cellphones smuggled into prisoners.

In announcing the plan, Cameron said he would fight to make sure the corrections system current £130 million budget is not reduced. As a way to improve ex-offenders’ chances of gaining employment, he also voiced support for “ban the box”-type restrictions that would prevent employers from asking job applicants in the early stages of the hiring process whether they have a criminal history.


If we could once set aside our need for retribution and instead focus on fixing those in our prison systems, we could divert billions of dollars from corrections and back into important social services such as education. Better yet, we could reduce crime and victimization. Lives could literally be saved through the vehicle of correctional education.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of 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 and


Books a Gateway to Greater Literacy for Prison Inmates

By Christopher Zoukis

How do you escape? Many people would say they’d mostly curl up with a good book, and so do we. Books are a way of getting away and seeing things from a new perspective no matter where you are, even more so if you don’t have the opportunity to do so otherwise.

prison literacy

This is the reality that faces over two million inmates in the U.S. penal system.

Six reasons why we should give books to prisoners:

1. About 70% of prisoners have a reading level below Grade 4:

Given the education and tools available it is a tragedy to know that 70% of inmates in US prisons are below the fourth grade reading level. This bears repeating - 70% of inmates cannot read above what is considered appropriate for a 10-year-old. Organizations delivering books to prisoners are extremely important in offering opportunities for growth and education by matching up reading level and interest.

2. Lowers chance of reoffending – higher chances of success:

Two out of three food stamp recipients are functionally illiterate and it’s estimated that 46-51% of Americans have incomes well below the poverty level because of their illiteracy. Not only does reading offer more opportunities when it comes to work, raising literacy levels also has been shown to reduce chances of reoffending, by 92% in some cases. In short, prisoners who have available opportunities for education and reading are more likely to succeed and less likely to reoffend.

3. Reading promotes empathy:

Author John Green once said: “Great books help you understand, and they help you feel understood.”  Reading and writing work as an act of empathy. It creates situations to escape your everyday situation and step into someone else’s shoes. Reading a book requires a person to buy in, to live another life, to gain perspective.

4. Promoting community:

Have you ever bonded over a good book? Recommended a book to a friend? UC Books for Prisoners’ volunteers interact with inmates by reading their letters, recommending and selecting books, and working within prisons to staff libraries. UC Books for Prisoners has sent over 115,854 books in 33,945 packages to 17,389 inmates. That is 17,389 inmates that have reached out and have been responded to by the community. There is life outside of prison and this form of community outreach helps keep morale high.

5. Fostering learning:

Think about what you have learned from reading. Textbooks, newspapers, blogs, social media, and many other formats are all used as tools of learning. Oftentimes prisoners are portrayed working out in the yard or in their cells in popular media, but more of their time is being spend on self-improvement than ever before. It is a great advancement for inmates to have equal opportunity to work out their mind.

6. Accessible literacy should be a basic human right:

Books foster connections between people, whether it be a writer from a century ago or a friend who really enjoys a good read. Every American should have the right to access books at their reading level and to develop those skills, not excluding inmates. Incarceration should not mean that a person be excluded from intellectual growth. Reading means potential – potential drives opportunity – opportunity allow for success and a more empathetic and successful society for us all.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of 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 and

Georgia Governor Seeks More Funds for Prison Education

The state of Georgia has earmarked education for prisoners as a top budget priority on two fronts - by enrolling more inmates in GED certificate programs and also by creating new job skills training to help prisoners find work once they are released.

In a January 19 appearance before the Joint Appropriations Committee of the Georgia state legislature, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, now halfway through his second four-year term, outlined his plans to add almost $5.7 million to the budget in order to expand educational opportunities in the state’s jails and prisons.

Gov. Deal was first elected to Congress as a Democrat but became a Republican in his later terms on Capitol Hill. After being elected governor, in his first term he emphasized criminal justice reform, including authorizing alternatives to imprisonment like specialty courts for veterans or juvenile offenders, or persons facing DUI or drug use charges.

A long-time supporter of prison education, Deal included in his budget last year funds to create charter schools at two state prisons, aiming to enable inmates to obtain high school degrees as an academic alternative to GED certificates or job training programs. After a successful pilot program at the Mountain Education Charter School at a women’s prison in northern Georgia, last September the state opened the Burruss Correctional Training Center at a mid-state men’s prison.

About 250 educators and staff have already been hired to help build a statewide network of prison education programs, to be known as the Foothills Charter High School; this year’s budget would fund almost 50 more positions for prison education.

In his remarks to the Georgia appropriators, Deal supported his budget proposal by arguing that equipping inmates with education and job skills while they are in state jails and prisons would significantly cut the likelihood they would re-offend after their release. So, he maintained, prison education made sense, so ex-offenders would “have something to offer” prospective employers. (Deal has already signed a “ban the box” order for most state agency positions.)

The governor’s specific proposals would add $4.3 million for current GED and job-skills education, and plus another correctional education initiative: earmarking $1.3 million more for Georgia counties to work with the state’s technical colleges to set up job-skills training in local jails.

Deal noted some counties had already begun work on such plans, which would bring short-term offenders the same type of job training programs that longer-term inmates can find in state prisons, and urged the state government ought to “show… some good faith” to such efforts.

Other prison-system related spending requests from the Deal administration’s latest budget include $13.7 million to renovate Atlanta’s closed Metro State Prison as a re-entry facility to prepare prisoners for release and $6.3 million for equip state prisons for a higher proportion of violent offenders, due to lower numbers of non-violent offenders given prison sentences. Another part of the governor’s proposed budget would devote $5.7 million to create a behavioral health crisis center to bring quicker treatment for those with mental health issues.

The governor may face opposition to at least some of his prison spending proposals from legislators claiming the state cannot afford those outlays. But the governor argues his reforms could cut the state’s historic 30%-plus recidivism rate, and thus trim corrections system costs.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of 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 and


Real reform only possible through prison education



By Christopher Zoukis

Every week, it seems, we hear a little bit more about the sweeping reforms needed to fix America’s broken criminal justice system.

It’s encouraging to hear acknowledgement by U.S. government leaders - President Barack Obama, even - that the ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ mentality has failed not just incarcerated men and women, but also society as a whole.

More than likely, we’re going to hear more talk like this as the presidential election campaign unfurls across the country. But we must be careful that the discussion is driven by a real understanding of how the system has failed, vs. the political chinwagging that often accompanies election fever.

Yes, the national criminal justice reform agenda needs change, but it goes far beyond the current push to rectify the wrongs caused by the Nixon-era’s overzealous War on Drugs. We know that far too many inmates are languishing behind bars serving ridiculous sentences for minor drug infractions, and its contributed to an overcrowded, ineffectual prison system. 

But to focus simply on the casualties of drug-related penal policies does a big disservice to all the other inmates imprisoned for non-drug-related but equally minor offenses. Put plainly, limiting our focus to solely drug offenders - however politically savoury this seems - will help just a few at the expense of the whole. It’s a nice feel-good gesture, but it’s only a fraction of what America needs.

The biggest failing of all would be to ignore the fact that prison education is the only real and lasting way to fix the disaster in our federal (and to a lesser degree, state) prison system. Why give convicted criminals the chance to learn behind bars, you ask? Because education works - not only to changes lives, but as the most cost-effective, proven method of reducing recidivism. 

Ultimately, it comes down to what America wants its correctional system to be: is it simply about punishment simply for punishment’s sake? Or, enhanced public safety and the greater good caused when we acknowledge that rehabilitation is equally important in allowing incarcerated people to learn the skills they never had in the first place, and leave prison equipped to make it on the outside.

The research is irrefutable: college-level educational programming in American prisons is the best answer to reforming prisoners and slashing recidivism rates. As such, free or otherwise low-cost college programs for prisoners should be put in place using available Pell Grant funding so that prisoners can further their education while behind bars.

America also needs to explore alternative sentencing and other measures to slash its reliance on incarceration in favor of community-based treatment and management models so that those who break the law can stay in their communities and with their families. 

That’s another proven way to break the crime cycle, and thwart the growing school-to-prison pipeline.

Then, there are the costs. The U.S. spends $80 billion a year on corrections with little to show for it. Let’s put this money to better use by helping to reform prisoners so they can return to their communities as productive, law-abiding members of society. It's time this money actually results in some good, not simply more broken families and overcrowded prisons.

Fixing America's broken criminal justice system isn’t just about helping a smaller group of cherry-picked minor drug offenders who are deemed politically palpable. Our entire correctional system is in need of a major overhaul - let’s make sure our political leaders do right by fixing the bigger picture once and for all.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of 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,, and

New York Gov. Cuomo's prison education strategy a meaningful step forward

By Christopher Zoukis

Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Gov. Andrew Cuomo

We are so excited to hear about New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s new prison education plan to keep New Yorkers away from the revolving door known as America’s prison system.

As widely reported by media this week, this forward-thinking governor announced a major policy proposal in a Harlem church last week and reiterated his comments Jan. 13 at another Harlem church dominated by blacks and Latinos, who make up a disproportionate number of prisoners in America.

Gov. Cuomo says he wants to give New York prisoners a fighting chance by giving the access to college classes to help them when they are released.

We are blown away by his insights, which specifically call for a reduction in the number of people who return to prison or keeping them from getting there in the first place.

"I'm going to go down in the history books as the governor who closed the most prisons in the history of the state of New York and I am proud of it!" Cuomo told media.

His wise proposals include:

* Investing $100 million to on failing schools to improve their education programs and policies.

* A $55 million investment in finding jobs and training urban and at-risk youth.

* Instead of sending convicted criminals to prison, alternative means should be be used by the state such a skill development and educational access.

* Offering state-sponsored college education courses for inmates. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. has earmarked $7.5 million for this initiative - ironically, from money seized from criminal activity. Another $7.5 million will come from private donations.

His comments echo what I have been been saying over my past nine years as an inmate at FCC Petersburg in Virginia. My family had the financial resources to support my fight for better education access, but I know I am one of the lucky few. And I deeply hope other political heavyweights heed the governor’s words: “I say when they're in prison, teach them a skill, give them an education.”

More words of wisdom from Public Advocate Letitia James: ”It's really critically important that we help people in prison get an education and skills that will help them find a job and live responsibly, so they can add to the tax rolls.”

A similar proposal by Cuomo was rejected by Republicans in Albany two years ago because some politicians thought the money would be better spent on childhood education, among other things. We understand early intervention is essential, but not at the expense of of prisoners languishing with few education options.

"As someone who earned a college degree in prison and came out to essentially lead a law-abiding life," said Glenn Martin, president and founder of Just Leadership USA. "I really can't understand why members of our Senate in particular don't understand why this is not a good investment."

My dream to see this take place not just in New York, but across the United States. But it’s a wonderful start, and a truly needed topic of discussion during this presidential election.

According to media reports, once the prisoner reform program starts, the classes will be offered through he State University of New York and City University of New York.

Cuomo is also apparently set to propose an extra $50-million US in funding for apprentice training programs for young people, which he says will give them needed respect and dignity.

You can read more about the statistics we've compiled, too, at Or, check out our in our Prison Research Papers for more insights.

Our hats off to this thought-provoking New York political leader, and we’re crossing our fingers that other politicians (at all levels of government) will soon follow suit. At the end of the day, all of America wins.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of 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,, and

Prison Reform from a Prisoners’ Perspective

By Christopher Zoukis

prison survey

Issues around prison and legal reform have countless stakeholders and just as many voices. There are the American people, the lawmakers, the judges and the social policy researchers. There are the police, prison guards, correctional administrators and the probation/parole officers.

Then there are the inmates themselves.

But while there are countless stakeholders and even more opinions about justice and legal reform, the insights and views of inmates are almost never heard. To correct this oversight, I recently conducted a limited survey of my fellow federal prisoners at FCI Petersburg in Virginia to better understand what prisoners actually think about reform.

While some responses I anticipated, many others surprised me.

Survey participants first and foremost focused their responses on educational and rehabilitative program components. They repeatedly expressed an interest in ‘meaningful’ educational and rehabilitative opportunities. And when it comes to education, a majority supported vocational training taught by certified educators and courses that will see credentials awarded upon a program’s completion.

Several participants articulated that training programs should be based on local economic needs, so they can find employment in their community after they are released. Participants expressed strong support of having motivated staff educators who teach courses of importance, such as those leading to an academic or vocational associates degree.

Inmates interviewed also want training that is up-to-date and leaves them with the skills they will need post-release. They are not interested in training that merely occupies/fills their time with outdated material that is of little interest to them or the community outside.

The need for robust and relevant psychological programs was also cited as critical, with common recommendations for a better variety of psychological programs and increased access to currently-limited treatment space.

It’s interesting that those surveyed believe they should be required to participate in particular types of treatment that is relevant to their crime of conviction, and that such treatment programs be more in-depth and rigorous. Another unexpected observation was that prisoners believe they should be assigned an Individualized Education and Treatment Plan upon admittance that outlines what types of education, treatment, and training they should obtain while incarcerated, thus better matching prisoners to relevant programs.

As well, most study participants supported incentivizing such programs. In this model, prisoners would receive an incentive for completing a particular educational, training or treatment program. Suggested incentives ranged from increased time off their sentence (Good Conduct Time credits) to maximum halfway house or home confinement placement toward the end of the sentence. Essentially, those prisoners who invest time and effort to rehabilitate and educate themselves should receive some type of reward. This, many asserted, is in line with public safety ideals.

Another popular in-prison reform wish list focused on prison staffing. Many prisoners said they felt both front-line and administrative staff seems to lack motivation to perform their duties, don’t care about either their jobs or the reforming the inmate population and are generally a detriment to safe and orderly operations (external of emergency situations such as stopping a fight). Study participants suggested that prison employees be better trained, motivated, and more invested in their purpose.

Most inmates I surveyed also advocated significant reforms to criminal sentencing schemes, suggesting that sentences in general are too harsh, in large part due to political and public pressures. In essence, they felt that lawmakers continued to increase sentences to appear to be tough on crime, even when these sentences are counterproductive to an individual and society.

Another concern reiterated by many participants was that at the federal level, mandatory minimums should be abolished so that federal judges can select the right sentence for the offense, not one mandated by the legislature. Several survey participants were first-time offenders who received very lengthy sentences - two or three decades in prison. They believed strongly that the punishment should fit the crime, and, in particular for first-time offenders, community-based sanctions such as probation should be explored prior to incarceration.

I admit I was somewhat surprised by the results. Conventional thought would have it that prisoners simply want to be let out of prison early, but that is not what this study bears out. In fact, most participants started discussing improving education and treatment behind bars, not simply reducing prison sentences.

To them, preparing for release is their primary focus, not simply on getting out of prison. It makes clear than while many aspects of prison reform need to be addressed, those on the inside see education, rehabilitation, prison staffing, and sentencing schemes as the primary targets for review.

Perhaps for once, the people at the centre of crime control policies actually get a chance to contribute to the solution, and not just the problem.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of <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, and


Let’s get prison education on U.S. presidential election agenda

By Christopher Zoukis

In case there was ever any doubt, yet another groundbreaking study confirms our staunch belief that education is the key to reducing recidivism in America.

Rand Corporation logo

A report by The RAND Corporation, a respected research think-tank on public policy, sheds some interesting light on the grim reality of the failings of the United States prison system. The report says more than 2.2 million people were locked up in American prisons in 2013 – a number greater than the entire state population of New Mexico.

Not surprisingly, 40% of these released prisoners commit new crimes or violate their parole, finding themselves back behind bars within three years being released. A huge majority, according to the study, struggle with basic literacy such as reading and/or are learning disabled. Their work histories are poor, and so are their job prospects. Around a third of all state prisoners never graduated from high school.

Surprised? We knew this all along, but it’s time our political leaders started acknowledging the problem too. With the multitude of issues it’s hard to know where to start. Prison overcrowding and privatization; The 3-Strikes Law; Ban the Box; Pell Grants; Recidivism and its societal costs. The list goes on.

These topics need to be part of the conversation as our presidential election campaign rolls out across the country between now and Nov. 8. Outgoing U.S.president Barack Obama acknowledged the crisis briefly by reviving Pell education grant funding for prison inmates last summer. Its a great start, but it’s just one aspect of a failed system that must be addressed. As RAND researchers note in a recent article on the organization’s website, the jail-to-prison pipeline can only truly be broken through education. Their study, “Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education,” is the largest of its kind ever undertaken, reviewing decades of research on correctional education and outcomes.

“It really, for the first time, dispelled the myths about whether or not education helps inmates when they get out,” said Lois Davis, a senior policy researcher who led the study. “Education is, by far, such a clear winner.”

The report’s findings are noteworthy for a number of reasons, but especially since RAND is not an agenda-driven lobby group. The organization is fiercely nonprofit, nonpartisan and committed to public interest.

It shows that regardless of the education level of the inmates (from basic reading and math skills to those studying for college), access to education unfailingly is the solution. Inmates who take part in any kind of education are up to 43% less likely to reoffend and return to jail.

It also underscores what we at know to be true; that education itself, rather than any individual unique qualities about the inmates who enrolled, makes the fundamental difference.

“Regardless of what you think about inmates, what do you want for your community?” asks Davis. “You have to understand that they all come back eventually. If you don't rehabilitate them, how are they going to successfully rejoin society?”

Let’s hope our political leaders start paying attention to the case for prison education and all the other shortcomings in our penal system. The time for change is long overdue.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of <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,, and

What Saudi Arabia has done right in their penal system

By Christopher Zoukis

It’s hard not to read the first paragraph of this article and not think it’s the script for a lost episode of Monty Python:

"A total of 5,843 inmates in Saudi prisons, including a number sentenced to death, are preparing for the two-week midterm examination period scheduled to start next Sunday."

But beyond the bizarre punchline of executing prisoners they themselves are suggesting they have been successfully rehabilitated through education programs, there lies an important truth that we here could learn from.

Several years ago the Saudi General Administration of Prisons (GPA) began to encourage the offering of education programs to its prisoners.  Prison directors across the country are co-ordinating efforts with universities to provide opportunities to incarcerated individuals (primarily Saudi citizens), to engage in correspondence and in-facility study programs. Roughly 1,000 of those students referenced above will be sitting formal exams during the study period.  In addition to the newer university-level courses, there are also factory-based vocational training and high school diploma programs available.

This is a country whose brutal regime regularly tortures and abuses its prisoners, who ranks among Amnesty International’s “top” worst offenders when it comes to the treatment of prisoners. Yet somehow they still see a value in providing education and skills to imprisoned individuals, whether or not they will be returning to society.

Setting aside the fact that many of these prisoners face execution, a barbaric practice shared with only a few remaining nations in the world (ourselves as Americans included), there’s an important acknowledgement made regarding the value of education in this practice. The GPA believes that education and knowledge are important regardless of whether prisoners will be re-entering society or not. That in itself is something the general public fails to recognize even in the US. While momentum has been growing in recent years towards universalizing the acceptance of education as an important tool to help reduce recidivism—to the extent that many polls indicate majority approval—less accepted is the idea that education for education’s sake also has value. That there is value in educating even those who are incarcerated for life without the possibility of parole.

Education for education’s sake is not an issue that’s brought up all that often when advocating for policy change, because it’s not always understood by the casual observer. All too often, even outside the prison setting, people view education as a means to an end—that its only purpose is to provide you with employment. But for many, prisoners included, education is itself the ends.

I’ll admit to being more than a little shocked to see this kind of acknowledgement coming out of Saudi Arabia, but that in itself is the reason we should be taking note. Education is not simply about skill acquirement, it’s about human development in its purest form. It is about growing ourselves as individuals and better understanding our relationship to others and the world in which we live. And if it takes Saudi Arabia to remind us of that, then so be it.


The “buzz” on New Zealand prison vocational training

By Christopher Zoukis

Well this is one for the books, apiary books, to be specific. Inmates at several New Zealand prisons are being given training in a surprising area: beekeeping. Apiculture is now being taught to youths at Hawkes’ Bay Regional Prison through a correspondence course at Lincoln University as well as Auckland South Corrections Facility.

Honey is actually big money in the country, with Manuka honey quickly becoming a premium product globally. It's been so much so, that the sweet nectar has been the focus of a number of thefts of beehives recently. There are concerns among some that because the industry itself has had so many issues with crime that there may be an incentive for those “graduating” from the program to take a seedier approach beekeeping upon release—but it’s a spurious argument. That’s like saying that prisoners educated in mathematics or computing are necessarily going to cook the books or become hackers. The value of these types of programs is not simply about the skills developed, but about building self-esteem and feeling as though one is contributing to society.

The potential for criminality exists in every career in existence, so to criticize it on that basis lends little weight to arguments against it. It also means that it’s a growing industry that could provide numerous job opportunities to prisoners upon re-entry. The honey that has been generated from the project is used in the prison kitchens and is also disseminated under the name “Bad Boys Honey,” to families and individuals in need.

Globally, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has been a growing concern for the last decade, and remains so in many parts of the world, so there’s an additional benefit to encouraging individuals to learn more about the species and their role in seeing it thrive.

The program was spearheaded by a prison guard, Carl McQuinlan, who was himself a hobbyist beekeeper and saw the potential not only to assist prisoners in their social development, but also to provide them with job skills for the future.


The Fine Arts of prison education

By Christopher Zoukis

Slowly, but surely, it feels like change is coming when it comes to prison education. Certainly many days it can feel like an uphill battle, but that’s why it’s so important to enjoy stories like these.

Ten years ago prison reform wasn’t even on most legislators’ radars, let alone the public’s. Fast forward to today, and we even have bipartisan agreement on the need for reform and, as part of that, the importance of prison education in reducing recidivism. Increased dialogue on these issues is also having a trickle down effect to individuals who, in the past, would never have even given a second thought to how they could help contribute to changing the lives of prisoners.

A couple of weeks ago we came across information on a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream out of Australia. What made this staging notable, however, is that it was performed by prisoners at Acacia Prison.  Nichola Renton, an award-winning actor and director, took it upon herself to develop a theatre program to compliment the institution’s existing education program. She recognized the potential of such training to improve literacy and generally bolster one’s sense of self-worth. Just as with art therapy, it provides participants with an important creative outlet for expression they not have otherwise.

In that same vein, Lucy Wallace of Boulder Academy of Movement studio has brought dance classes to inmates at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. Recognizing the opportunities dance has brought to her life, and how it has helped shape her as an individual, she created Dance 2B Free, a way for women to escape through movement one day a week. And beyond that, she has created a teacher training program for those women who want to be able to run classes for fellow inmates.  

For everyone who doubts the importance of fine arts to a well-rounded education, I beg you to take a moment to read the stories of the women on her website, to hear what the Shakespearian prison actors gained from their experiences.

Every step in this process comes from a single individual. So I want to take a moment to thank each and every one of those Lucy Wallaces and Nicola Rentons out there, for taking a step that translates leaps and bounds for each and every incarcerated individual whose life they touch.

From the streets to programming tweets

By Christopher Zoukis

One of the biggest obstacles we face in prison education programs these days, is the outpacing of technology in terms of both course content and equipment. Technological development has occurred at breakneck speed in the last ten years, yet instruction in those areas is largely absent in the bulk of penal institutions. Lack of internet access is, of course, one of the biggest issues in this respect. And while we completely acknowledge the need to control access, that needn't come at the complete expense of computer and internet literacy, and Columbia University’s Center of Justice has just done wonders to prove that.

@rikersbot tweets out a new message every day.

@rikersbot tweets out a new message every day.

Using unconventional, primarily paper-based methods, instructors taught young students being held at Riker’s Island the basics of programming and allowed them to contribute to the creation of a “Riker’s Story Bot.”  With a paucity of computers and no internet, these teachers went above and beyond, using physical representations and modelling to help students to understand the basics of programming and, specifically, Python (a programming language that is recognized for its relative “readability” in the world of code). The end result was the creation of a twitter bot that every day tweets out messages developed and edited by inmates at the facility.

The beauty of this collaboration is that it’s not just about coding; it’s about story-telling as well.  Students had to write their own tweets and figure out how best to engage within the constraints of the 140 character maximum. Inmates are given a digital voice to share their experiences with the world. The individual messages crafted by inmates are then tweeted out as a singular expression of their experiences.

Because Rikers only houses inmates for a short period of time, the scope of this program is limited. But it represents an important landmark in pedagogy, illustrating the incredible opportunities that can be offered  While the Riker’s students were primarily teens, most of whom were likely tweeting before entering the jail, many inmates across the country have incredible difficulty conceiving of, let alone fully understanding, the role of social media in the modern world. This puts them at a tremendous disadvantage when it comes to being successful upon re-entry into society. 

Some institutions are realizing this, as San Quentin’s Code 7370 illustrates. There, prisoners are provided instruction in CSS, Javascript, and HTML. Because of internet restrictions, these courses also function offline, with a program officer who can access the internet on behalf of students when needed. Models for prison education and training that keep pace with the digital world, even within the constraints of the prison environment are possible--it just takes creativity and political will to make it happen.

The JPay giveth, while the JPay taketh away.

By Chrstopher Zoukis

News about the JPAY tablet seems to be making the rounds again, even hitting the BuzzFeed wire. The articles have been focused on the special tablets they’ve created to be used in the prison setting (see initial coverage here). We wrote about this important innovation in prison education some time ago, because there’s little doubt as to its utility when it comes to improving access to education behind prison walls. But while the technology itself is marvellous, there’s an important flipside to JPAY’s involvement that also needs to be discussed. Because while JPay is pleased to take responsibility for any gains made in prison education due to their innovations, they’re less likely to want to talk about the financial gouging they exact on prisoners and their loved ones--gouging that fundamentally undermines those educational efforts.

Now, I 100% support the use of these kinds of tablets in the prison setting. However, these articles would have you believe that JPAY is some kind of philanthropic non-profit, committed to reducing recidivism through education, but JPAY is a private company. While certainly as a company, they want to be profitable (and should be), there’s a difference between becoming profitable, and profiting off of others; for JPAY, it’s the latter.

Just read this comment from the BuzzFeed article: “JPay doesn’t make money from Lantern beyond the sale of its tablets, and he’s quick to point out that the company is more of an attempt to improve the correctional system than it is a cash cow.” The “Lantern” they’re referring to is a tablet-based education system being implemented at various prisons. A boon for prison education? Absolutely. But the idea that JPay is a company that operates strictly out of the goodness of their own heart is beyond naive and, quite frankly, offensive to the hundreds of thousands of families pushed nearly to bankruptcy by this same “benevolent” company’s fee structure.

This is the same JPay that charges took in revenue of $50 million in 2013, largely by charging $14 service fees to inmates for whom it takes a month to earn that sum. This is the same JPay that claims ownership over every single document transmitted by inmates and those who communicate with them.

Creating technology that can help people is only a benevolent act when it’s done so with the intention of genuinely benefiting others. I’ll believe JPay is actually concerned with rehabilitation and reducing recidivism when we see them enact policies that stop gouging the very people they claim they want to see succeed.

Australian program seeks to break the recidivism cycle through education

Prisoners in the state of Victoria, Australia, will be part of new plans designed to try and meet prisoners’ educational needs immediately upon entry into the system. The $78 million (AUD) program aims to dramatically improve prisoner access to instruction from a variety of universities, colleges, and institutes across the region.

Of particular note is the fact that basic numeracy and literacy proficiency tests will be applied both to those entering for both long-term and short-term (including remand) sentences alike. As in the United States, many prisoners do not possess even the most basic literacy and numeracy skills, making gainful employment post-release a virtual impossibility. Prisons in the state will also utilize a new network system, which links up computers to afford inmates continuity of studies. One of the greatest barriers faced by prisoners in the U.S. is their inability to continue studies, and to lose credits when they move to a facility that does not support their previous study program.  

Such changes are likely the result of pressure to improve the state’s penal system, which currently reports an alarmingly high recidivism rate of nearly 50%. The state has been criticized by ombudspersons charged with examining the problems inherent to the system, specifically the serious lack of education and vocational training available to incarcerated individuals. If this trend isn’t reversed, prisons in the region will quickly be overwhelmed, with its rehabilitative capacity equally taxed. The end result, of course, is predictable: a never-ending cycle of recidivism.

Pennsylvania stands alone as DOC recipient of federal grant

By Christopher Zoukis

This week the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections was awarded one of nine “Improved Reentry Education (IRE)” awards of $1 million each from the US Department of Education, Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education. The program itself is mandated to support “demonstration projects in prisoner re-entry education that develop evidence of reentry education’s effectiveness” recognizes the daunting, complex, and varied list of barriers that impede successful prisoner re-entry. This year’s successful applicants were required to demonstrate an additional commitment to first, support high-needs students, and second, improving supports and correctional education. Chief among additional requirements were a solid comprehension of social and theoretical models related to prison education and re-entry, and demonstrated commitment to increasing the number of successful program participants.

Pennsylvania is the only DOC to have been successful in their application this year, likely due in part to their demonstrated commitment to reducing recidivism rates through a variety of mechanisms. Chief among those efforts has been the state’s “Justice Reinvestment Initiative” (an approach which, while accepted across the country, has yet to be fully realized), geared at early intervention facilitated by improved data on offences and alternative justice mechanisms. However the sustainability of this reduction is somewhat in question, as the number of educational programs available to inmates has actually decreased in recent years; it is hoped this grant might help stem, if only marginally, that tide. 

One notable inclusion in Pennsylvania’s approach is the need to examine underemployment rather than simply unemployment. Similar to much popular analysis of employment figures, there is a failure to recognize that underemployment is just as detrimental to economic and social well-being as being jobless. The insecurity of part-time work and its incumbent lack of benefits and protection leaves former inmates and their families just as vulnerable as before they were released.

The DOC is also seeking to bridge the gap between education and training inside prison with those on the outside. A lack of continuity between curriculum and/or accreditation between programs can mean that efforts spent at furthering education while in prison are rendered null and void upon release. This ties in with the additional goal of changing how offenders are assessed when it comes to choosing appropriate educational programs, and matching them with occupational opportunities and existing job markets. 

“Each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built.”

Brandon Stanton's photo of Vidal Chastanet from HONY

Brandon Stanton's photo of Vidal Chastanet from HONY

By Christopher Zoukis

Those are the words of young Brooklynite, Vidal Chastanet, describing on Humans of New York (HONY) how his teacher, Nadia Lopez, explains the importance of education for individual and social well-being.  While we generally focus on prison education initiatives on this blog, we would be remiss to not include to mention the continuation of a story that went viral earlier this year. In fact, no story more poignantly highlights the intersects between marginalization, education, and prison than this one.

The full quote is as follows, and it may just have sparked an education revolution:

"My principal, Ms. Lopez. When we get in trouble, she doesn't suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter."

The Ms. Lopez Vidal is referring to, is the founder of Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a school she opened in 2010 in Brownsville, Brooklyn—recognized as one of the poorest areas in New York.  When the quote went viral this past February, Lopez been ready to call it quits—overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenges she faced and the institutionalized barriers that mean for every graduate of Mott Hall, there are thousands more students left out in the cold.

But the world is fortunate indeed that she did not resign, and she is working towards expanding her vision nationally. At a recent TED talk, she announced, “I opened a school to close a prison.” And that, in a nutshell, is precisely why I do what I do as well. Each effort we make to improve the education of inmates is with the specific view to emptying a prison cell and ensuring it remains so permanently.

Lopez’s central focus is to put an end to the “school-to-prison pipeline,” meaning a system that treats young students like criminal offenders, rather than pupils who need instruction and guidance. In practical terms, it sees students suspended and expelled for offences that, in the past, might have merited a detention. The unintended result is this: “Students who are forced out of school for disruptive behavior are usually sent back to the origin of their angst and unhappiness—their home environments or their neighborhoods, which are filled with negative influence. Those who are forced out for smaller offenses become hardened, confused, embittered. Those who are unnecessarily forced out of school become stigmatized and fall behind in their studies; many eventually decide to drop out of school altogether, and many others commit crimes in their communities.” 

The pipeline has become some pervasive that US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has identified its social and financial cost to the country, the latter potentially reaching $15 billion. Duncan spoke of his own role in building that pipeline as a superintendant involved in the enforcement of zero tolerance policies in Chicago: “’Those calls to the police, to put kids in jail? We were making them,’ the [Duncan’s] speech reads. ‘We were responsible. We had met the enemy, and it was us.’” 

And it’s no secret that the impacts are being disproportionately felt in communities of color, neither is it in question that we spend more as a country on incarceration than we do on education—all the while ignoring the causal relationship between the two. In that same vein, Minneapolis education officials announced this week the “Office of Black Male Student Achievement” to help close the pipeline in their city.  In doing so, they’ve recognized that the racial disparity is a function of the system, not simply its by-product. 

I want to live in a world where I no longer have to advocate for the necessity of prison education, because our young people have been afforded, each and every one of them, the opportunities they deserve. I want to live in a world where our prisons are artifacts of the past and that pipeline is irreparably broken. I want to live in that society where every child knows that they do matter. And I am grateful to the Ms. Lopez’ of the world (and there are many) that are helping us to get there. 

When GEDs mean failure for prisoners

Last year when changes to the GED programs were first announced, analysts predicted it would have a serious impact on the ability of prisoners to acquire their certificates.  A year later, those predictions have proven accurate. Prison GED success rates have dropped dramatically, in some places up to 82%  since the system switched over.

To begin, the content of the GED tests has changed—accounting for an overall rise in failures nation-wide.  Critical thinking skills—the kinds most often associated with college and university levels of instruction—are being increasingly emphasized due to observations that GED holders are not faring better economically than high school dropouts. Following that, the switch to computer-based tests immediately excludes a large swath of participants in the prison population. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners simply do not have access to computers, let alone the necessary skills to interact with them meaningfully. 

As regards the first point the quality of instruction—and thus of the higher analytical skills demanded by the new test—is frequently inadequate in prison settings. In many cases, only a basic Bachelor’s Degree is required (in some rare cases, that’s not even required), meaning that the quality of instruction varies tremendously. Teaching experience, while preferred, is also not a requirement. Master’s programs in the field can often be done online, meaning that they complete the program without spending a day in a classroom—let alone in a prison classroom which, unsurprisingly, is dramatically different from others. This variability means that while one institution’s instructor may be exceptional, another’s may be barely passable. One prison instructor even noted that during their training, two of the people who would later become teachers, failed the test themselves. The brutal truth is that the level of instruction has not kept pace with the changes necessary for prisoners to truly benefit from participation. It’s one of the reasons why we continue to push for the expansion of college-level instruction in prisons—because the emphasis on pedagogy and the development critical thinking skills among professors is simply greater.

The second factor comes down to two issues: political will and resources. Tens of thousands of prisoners do not have access to computers, let alone the internet (even through highly limited networks). In some cases, such prohibitions are premised on the justification that access poses a security risk. Banning computers at jails simply serves no purpose. It is not, as some would suggest, a security risk. Even the least knowledgeable computer person knows how simply access safeguards can be implemented to prevent unauthorized usage—the same goes for internet access. If the prison-industrial complex has taught us anything through their exploitive lockdowns of prison communication methods, it’s that security measures can be implemented with relative ease. Myriad companies have already created the models for this, and prisons committed to reducing recidivism have demonstrated their utility in practice. Prisons in New Zealand have already recognized how critical regular computer access is to ensuring the success of education programs.  Since May of 2015 prisoners at the new high security Kohuora Auckland South Correction Facility have been given access to fixed computers with restricted network access in their cells to work on their studies. 

The second issue of resources is clearly the more pressing concern. As cutbacks to prisons and jails across the country continue, the future of prison education remains at risk. We are hearing a tremendous amount of rhetoric from politicians about the importance of education and reform. But that rhetoric remains just that without committing the necessary funding that provides the resources to fully engage in rehabilitative and educational programming. Computer literacy is no longer a “bonus” skill to possess; it’s an absolutely necessary requirement for today’s job market.


Education of another mind

A fascinating new education project is underway in the United Kingdom’s infamous high-security Wakefield Prison. Known for housing those considered to be amongst England’s most violent offenders, the facility has recently started offering meditation classes to its inmates.

“Mindfulness meditation” comes from the Buddhist tradition, and is being touted as a method for treating low-level anxiety and depression in prisoners. Prisoners are offered group meditation classes, with segregated inmates afforded one-on-one instruction. It represents an important recognition of the importance of mental health treatment when dealing with violent prisoners—especially important in a facility that has been plagued by violence.

Pilot programs have already been implemented at lower-security prisons across the country, coinciding with calls to implement meditation instruction as part of the National Health Service coverage for the treatment of depression and anxiety.   Assessments of their benefits will be undertaken in the coming months and years. The timing of these programs also coincides with the announcement of major prison reforms for the country, with emphasis to be placed on prison education initiatives. 

Towards a sustainable model of prison education funding

Cornell University has been one of the most important players in prison education of late, stepping up to fill the major gaps created by stripping access to Pell Grants for prisoners back in 1994 and providing accessible degree and diploma programs to inmate across the state. The Cornell Prison Education Program (CPEP) has received a three-year grant of $1 million from the Carnegie Mellon Foundation. But for every prison student able to enrol in CPEP, there are hundreds more unable to access the program due to funding insufficiency, and thousands more nation-wide in states where such programs simply do not exist.

The grant will allow them to expand their programs to reach a greater number of students and extend their curricula.  But while the announcement is being greeted with great enthusiasm from observers—from myself included—we also need to use such announcements as impetus to push even harder to get these programs public funding sources.

Whenever you seek to fulfil a public need with private donors you’re inevitably going to have to deal with the realities of philanthropic insufficiency. Any time you’re looking at individual grants, rather than a stable funding structure, you’re faced with the reality of programs—no matter how successful they are—ultimately coming to an end unless additional funding sources are found.

When we rely on private donors, there is necessarily going to be an uneven distribution of resources based on a variety of factors including geography and willingness of prison staff to embrace and/or seek out such programs. This means that places like CPEP are forced to make increasingly tough choices about who can access their services on a regular basis.

Charities of all kinds routinely go through low points that can have devastating impacts on the programs that rely on their contributions. For example, most charities experience a boom during the holiday months, but then suffer dramatically the 6 months after that when individuals are no longer as focussed on donating. And when natural disasters strike and the public orient their donations towards related causes, charities in other realms typically experience serious decreases. All of these fluctuations are, of course, to be expected. And they all highlight the reason why we cannot rely on such models to fund programs that require stability and sustainability to survive and thrive.

Just last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo was forced to drop plans for a comprehensive prison education program due to public pressure. The program would have amounted to an initial investment of $1 million, a fraction of the state’s prison operation budget of $2.8 billion. Given that it’s estimated that for every $1 spent on prison education, the state gains $5 in return, it made clear fiscal sense to target these funds for such a program. But it’s a case where emotions ran high—and in NY State’s case, those emotions overran reason.

For many years, prison education has been referred to as a kind of sociological “experiment” of sorts. But as with any scientific experimentation, the testing of hypothesis is designed to take us beyond the point of theory and allowing us to draw conclusions based on facts. And the facts are now clear: educating prisoners reaps dividends for society. We are no longer testing—the experiments have been a success. So at this point, choosing not to invest in prison education is, quite simply, denying the facts.

As I’ve noted before, those critics of public funding for prison education—like those who used abandoned facts for rhetoric to quash Gov. Cuomo’s plan—continue to pose the wrong question. We should not be asking why prisoners are being given access to education that is not available to non-prisoners, we should be asking why that education is not available to non-prisoners. Because ultimately those politicians who have actively campaigned against prison education are the same politicians who have done nothing to improve access to education for anyone

Prison debate team fells an intellectual giant

It’s not all that often we get the chance to post a strictly “feel good” article on here, so when one comes along I’m going to jump on it. This past week Harvard University’s renowned debating team fell to a surprising opponent: prisoners from the Bard prison initiative!

The team was comprised of members of The Bard Initiative, a liberal-arts program specifically for men and women serving in prisons throughout New York State. The program’s end results are the envy of many, reporting only 2% recidivism compared with national averages of eight times that rate. 

The issue up for debate was whether public schools “should be allowed to deny enrollment to undocumented students.” The prison team were not only successful in their rebuttal of the Harvard  assertions, but managed to stump the opposing team in the construction of their own lines of argumentation. The losing team was gracious and appreciative in defeat, stating that “There are few teams we are prouder of having lost a debate to than the phenomenally intelligent and articulate team we faced this weekend.” And while this particular win is garnering the greatest attention, it’s not Bard’s first; the team has been gaining traction and acclaim over the last year.

My sincerest congratulations go to Team Bard, and to everyone involved who made it possible. GO BARD!

How prison vocational training can help keep America’s productive sector afloat

A shortage of skilled laborers in the craft of welding is poised to seriously hinder America’s production capacity in the coming years. With education policies emphasizing that all students should pursue “traditional” college upon high school graduation, there’s been a serious drop in the number of individuals pursuing vocational training in the last decade or so. But industrial demands for skilled workers has grown, and those needs aren’t being met. Several states are setting themselves up for success by recognizing the capacity of prison populations to help stem that shortage once released. 

The same RAND study that revealed the importance of prison education to reducing recidivism also found that individuals who received vocational training were “28% more likely to obtain post-release employment.” With NPR reporting a possible shortfall of 300,000 welders over the coming decade, a welding certificate could create a world of opportunities for inmates.  Folsom Prison in California has been running a hugely successful welding program for over 20 years, but for some reason it’s only recently that other states have recognized its potential. 

Just as it is with any college graduate, one of the most serious barriers former inmates face upon re-entry is a lack of available positions in their field. This challenge is compounded for ex-inmates who may face the “box” barrier of having to reveal past convictions on their primary job application programs. This past week Oklahoma graduated its first class of welders in an integrative program that also helps eliminate that issue by forging partnerships with community organizations and employers in the region. The program has also taken things a step further by including financial literacy components into their courses.  This type of holistic approach to education can act as a template for how prison education can work towards achieving social and economic goals for everyone involved.

Unsurprisingly, for so many of these programs, funding is a major hurdle. Oklahoma’s program was a collaborative effort with non-profits, but a large chunk of its funding came from the Department of Labour, and that funding is set to end next year. A promising welding program in Alabama is also at risk, with looming funding cuts set to further cripple a prison system already nearly 200% over capacity

In the past, certain conservative pundits have railed against technical training (and every other kind of education) for prisoners—making unfounded claims that giving prisoners access to heavy machinery or equipment poses a danger to public safety. But when their states face shortages and public outcry because of stalled infrastructure works, they’ll have only themselves to blame. Because inside each prison’s walls are individuals ready, willing, and eager to help.