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.



“Inside-Out” is a “right-side up” approach to prison education

Some years ago an inmate at SCI Gratford Prison Pennsylvania conceived of an entirely new approach to prison education, designed not only to enlighten its participants intellectually, but socially as well. Through its implementation it’s succeeded in providing prisoners with hope, and breaking down barriers between social groups.

Called “Inside-Out classes,” an inmate by the name of Paul (last name withheld), the programs operate by inviting college students to participate in courses held inside prison walls.  Paul, who is serving a sentence of life without parole for a gang-related stabbing, conceived of the idea in 1997: “ He envisioned a space where the two groups could maintain an ongoing dialogue and delve into the root issues of crime together, where individuals could ask questions, address stereotypes, and examine criminal justice literature – in the context of honesty, authenticity, and trust.” They operate as an exchange program of sorts, where instead of students going to another country, they study in another world, as it were. To that effect, once a week, college and prison students meet inside the prison to share their insights and ideas, and work together on term projects.

Since I first began to observe Inside-Out programs when writing College for Convicts, their popularity and importance has been steadily growing, to the extent that they’ve expanded beyond national borders. Several courses have been implemented in Canada, plans are underway for customizing training across the country, and training of individuals from Norway, Ireland, the UK, South Africa, and Australia have also begun.

What makes these so important and so effective, is the way they promote dialogue and through that dialogue, deepened understanding of a variety of social, economic, and political topics.

The impact such courses have on participants on both sides is immeasurable. Inside and outside students are able to relate to one another without the bias of media lenses, bias, and socially constructed perceptions of one another. Outside students gain insight into the complexity of reasons behind incarcerations, and the systemic machinations that lead many of them to find themselves in that position. Inside students are able to interact and connect directly with other students, and grow to understand the opportunities education may afford them and know that they will be represented passionately and truthfully on the outside.

Outside students’ understandings of the prison experience are also challenged. There is no candy-coated view of what it means to be in prison, and students who may have grown up with the view that it’s an “easy ride” with free room and board have the opportunity to look behind the curtain. Similarly, they are privy to the emotional toll of imprisonment and the added impact this has on prisoners’ lives. 

Uncharacteristically, availability of Inside-Out programming to women is high—especially important given the relative paucity of prison education programs in women’s prisons.  The educational needs of incarcerated women are unmet even more often than they are for men, which is particularly problematic given that many of these prisoners will need to provide for children upon release.

This model has proved to be so effective that it’s also being expanded to promote dialogue and communication between other at-risk or marginalized groups in settings like homeless shelters, halfway houses, and domestic abuse shelters. 

While other prison education programs have suffered from unrelenting government cutbacks, Inside-Out classes have been better able to weather the retrenchment storm through their reliance on private donations and university contributions. But in the long-term, such dependence may be unsustainable. As such, I would urge institutions to start looking at forging partnerships with universities and colleges willing to participate in training and implementation, because even law enforcement officials involved are testifying to their effectiveness. But at the end of the day, aside from the educational opportunities these sessions afford, it provides its participants with lessons in empathy and compassion that is an absent guest in most classrooms of today. 

The University of Oregon is one of the main providers of these programs, and several journalism students created a short documentary on their impact. You can view it here: 

Where alternative sentencing and education meet

News out of Iran’s criminal justice system last week could not be more surprising. One Judge Qasem Naqizadeh in the city of Gonbad-e Kavus is adopting an alternative sentencing mechanism for juveniles that the rest of the world would do well to pay attention to.

Juvenile offenders with no previous records, having committed relatively minor crimes, are being sentenced to buy and read books. They are then required to summarize them and submit a “book report” to the judge, the books the children buy are then donated to a local prison. Putting aside the jokes that most of us would probably have made back in our school days, that writing a book report is “cruel and unusual punishment,” the judge’s actions serve as recognition of the systemic role prisons may actually play in increasing criminal activities and result in a social deficits.

The rationale guiding such decisions are not dissimilar to those regarding prison education and access to books more generally, namely that reading and education develop individuals’ critical thinking abilities. It also acknowledges the propensity of prisons to exacerbate existing mental health issues, and present very real physical dangers to juveniles. And as with adults, many of the issues that land juveniles in the criminal justice system are often related to issues of poverty and lack of opportunity—a lack of hope. Books and education offer hope for an alternate future, and also help provide young people with the tools for realizing that future.


Mr. Smith went to prison, and what did he learn?

A new memoir has been released from a former candidate for the Democratic party turned inmate, and its timely release is poised to bring another voice to the current debate on prison reform and, in particular, the lack of education available in American penal institutions. Jeff Smith spent a year in prison for conspiracy for election law violations and, like many who actually spend time in a prison environment, realized that the system is fundamentally broken. 

In interviews surrounding his memoir, Mr Smith. Goes to Prison: What My Year Behind Bars Taught me About America’s Prison Crisis, he accurately highlights the complete lack of rehabilitative program content in most prisons in this country. And he provides an important contrast with Scandinavian countries where the emphasis is not strictly on punishment, but on providing individuals with the skills and tools needed not only to become productive members of society, but emotionally healthy community contributors. Smith has stated that one of his key concerns is the lack of education in the system, and the fact that behind those walls, so much potential is lost because of it. 

I applaud Smith for speaking out about his experiences, and for pushing us to examine prison reform through a humane lens, and I'm eager to read his book. Let’s not forget, that in the one year Smith spent behind bars, he saw but a fraction of what life in prison is like, and even that was enough to reveal to him the profound failings of our system. And also that Smith went into, and came out of, prison with advantages most prisoners could only dream of (like a doctorate). So please, while Smith makes the rounds largely because of his prior public presence, remember that everyone in prison has a story. Theirs are no less important and no less deserving of a moment of your attention.


Internet provides more education options for inmates—if they can access them

A new online course is being made available to students across a spectrum of backgrounds that holds great promise for prisoners preparing for re-integration into society. Designed to suit the needs of a broad range of populations. Alison, a company based out of Galway, Ireland, has launched a new set of courses for their Advanced Diploma in Workforce Re-entry Skills , part of their growing massive open online course (MOOC) program.The course is offered free of charge, as part of a growing trend amongst institutions the world over. But what differentiates Alison’s programs is its focus on practical skill acquirement, rather than university-style classes. These courses provide for the development of competence in a wide variety of areas that are valuable in and of themselves, but are also important to those wishing to go on to further studies.

Included in the program are courses that teach digital and computer literacy. Their courses provide the basics of computer knowledge—even explaining the fundamentals of how a mouse works. The programs are also extremely flexible, an important consideration for the incarcerated which many other college programs do not account for. Access to computers/tablets and internet (which are easily monitored) are critical tools for online education that could help make the difference in reducing recidivism.

It continues to be heartening to see how many organizations are dedicated to expanding the access of education globally. Unfortunately, the bulk of American prisons do not share that level of commitment, and are reluctant to provide the infrastructure to make these plans a reality. While, of course, programs like these will be accessible to inmates upon release they would be best served as an option while still incarcerated, to give them a head-start on their reintegration efforts.


Vice President’s Son Discharged from Navy Due to Drug Use

by Christopher Zoukis

In an embarrassing coda to Vice President Joe Biden’s long career as one of the chief architects of the War on Drugs, one of his sons was booted from the U.S. Navy after testing positive for cocaine.

Hunter Biden, 45, the younger of the Vice President’s two sons, was commissioned as an ensign in May 2013; an attorney and a managing partner at an investment firm, he had received a direct commission. After a short training course he was assigned to a Naval Reserve duty post as a public affairs officer in a Norfolk, Virginia-based unit. His career in the Navy did not last long.

Within a month, Hunter tested positive for cocaine; he was dishonorably discharged in February 2014, though his discharge was not publicly reported until October. Hunter had enlisted with a waiver based on his age and a second waiver due to a previous drug-related charge.


ACLU Awarded $50 Million to Help End Mass Incarceration

by Christopher Zoukis

On November 7, 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union announced it had received the largest grant in the organization’s history: $50 million from George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. The donation will fund an eight-year campaign to slash America’s incarceration rate and reduce its prison population, which is the largest in the world.

The grant was made to the ACLU’s political arm, not to the organization’s larger, litigation-based program. The funds will be used to pay for media ads and finance political action committees to donate money to candidates. The announcement of the grant, which is not tax-deductible, came on the heels of a successful ballot measure in California – Prop 47 – that downgraded many low-level crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. The measure was aided by $3.5 million in support from the ACLU.

Anthony D. Romero, the ACLU’s executive director, said the goal of the Soros-funded campaign will be to reduce the U.S. prison population by 50 percent by 2020.



Pitfall in path to Pell Grants

The recent announcements of the pilot project restoring Pell Grants to qualified inmates has been greeted almost universally with praise; there is no question that the positive social and economic outcomes of this initiative will be huge.  But while we should certainly applaud these measures, we must remember that there’s an important step that becomes before inmates can even think about accessing college courses, let alone the grant system: the GED.

However, as a recent piece in the Guardian highlights,  tens of thousands of inmates in United States correctional facilities are waiting just to take GED classes. Functional literacy rates among prisoners are astoundingly low when compared to the general population; I cannot count the number of times I have been called on in FCI Petersburg to help inmates read and or draft even the most basic of documents.

As I outline in College for Convicts, within the Federal Bureau of Prisons, it is a requirement that prisoners either earn a GED, or spend an equivalent amount of time in classes. This likely conjures up images of prisons filled with classrooms where inmates spend their days behind desks. But given budgetary restraints and increasing cutbacks to prisons the reality is that in institutions like mine, less than 10% of the population are actually able to access the GED program. Many prisoners will spend their entire time behind bars on a waiting list to get in. New testing methods for obtaining GEDs were enacted in 2014 using computers, which will help streamline efforts, but unless a prisoner has basic computer proficiency, again we’re putting the cart before the horse.

When we have a population of people who are eager and willing to improve their situation, to leave these institutions with the intention of helping others, why wouldn’t we afford them that basic right—and it is a right under Federal Bureau law.

So if we want the recent changes to the Pell Grant system to have real meaning in our criminal justice system, let’s also make sure that we ensure that the building blocks for accessing them are also in place. If we are committed to seeing these programs succeed, to producing the results that lead to decreased recidivism, strong social networks, and healthy communities, we need to give prisoners the tools to make that happen. And to do that, we must keep the pressure on Obama to take a serious look at basic education funding in correctional institutions as well.

As the old adage goes, “celebrate today, but fight tomorrow.”

Pell Grants Extended to Support Prison Education


In the spring of 2015, the Obama administration made the exciting announcement that it would allow colleges at select prisons to provide face-to-face instruction to select prisoners. Titled The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, it will assist released prisoners "get jobs, support their families and turn their lives around," according to the Department of Education.

The program, which is not yet operational, will permit colleges and universities to submit proposals to the Department of Education for the 2016-2017 academic year. Once the programs are selected and in operation, prisoner eligibility will be restricted to those who meet eligibility and who will be released from custody within five years. 

If enacted, the pilot program would be a great first step towards re-enacting federal funding for prisoners since Congress excluded them from student aid in 1994 (learn more about Prison Education’s Controversial History). However, the administration’s announcement does not mean federal prisoners will necessarily be getting educated en masse anytime soon.

While the U.S. Department of Education and the Obama Administration have the authority to authorize the pilot program, this does not effect general prisoner Pell Grant eligibility. New legislation will need to be passed to permit inmates across the country to actually use Pell Grants for their individual studies outside of the limited number aided by the pilot program. In May 2015, a group of congressmen and women announced their sponsorship of the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, which would make state and federal prisoners eligible for Pell grants. So far, it has received widespread institutional support from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Correctional Education Association, the Drug Policy Alliance, the Legal Action Center and others. The support is most likely spurred by the dismal state of America’s prison systems and the many proven benefits of prison education. But so far, the Act has not been passed. 

So while education for prisoners is certainly not a sure thing, our country does finally seem to be heading in the right direction. Prison education is on the legislative agenda in a way not seen since the 1990s, and for prisoners and supporters this provides some hope. 

Stay up-to-date on prison education news on this website. For more information on how Prison Education Reduces Recidivism, how Prison Education improves Communities, the Economy and more visit our Prison Education Facts section.



NY State alliance designed to close gaps in prison education system

Cornell's prison education programs encourage the development of critical analysis and intellectual development.

Cornell's prison education programs encourage the development of critical analysis and intellectual development.

For anyone imprisoned, the possibility of a transfer can be very disruptive emotionally; after spending years in the same facility you become accustomed to the same faces and routines. But the impact can be far more serious when an individual is in the process of completing an education program when it happens. A student may find that they’ve lost credits; someone who has nearly completed a degree over many years may suddenly find they’re forced to start all over again. The result for many is that their efforts are completely derailed and some cases, abandoned altogether. Yet it’s a factor that very few (if any) institutions take into account when organizing such moves.

It’s a serious crack in the system that has widespread ramifications for anti-recidivism efforts and one of the reasons that several of the top prison education providers in New York State have formed the New York Consortium for Higher Education in Prison (NYCHEP). Guiding the creation of the alliance was the recognition of precisely the kind of difficulties students in prison face in ensuring the transferability of credits when changing facilities.

One of the members of the new consortium is Cornell’s Prison Education program, a highly respected provider of quality university-level education to New York prisons. Cornell (along with other institutions like NYU) have been at the fore of implementing innovative college instruction programs, providing one of the best examples of effective quality prison education; their prison educators include some of the best thinkers in their respective fields. Unfortunately, because of budgetary constraints (they are donor-funded) the program is limited to accepting but a few students each year (though they hope that the recently announced changes to the Pell Grant system may help improve that situation); only about 10% of those who apply are accepted. And so for this institution it’s particularly important that when a student is transferred out of their program that their efforts are not laid to waste.

But even with the high quality level of the instruction and curriculum provided through Cornell, along with fellow NYCHEP members, they all recognized that these benefits are seriously hindered in the absence of a continuity of standards throughout all organizations that serve the prison community. They have joined with these other groups to work towards “streamlining” the system and achieve a degree of universality and standardization common to them all. Doing so will not only assist students while incarcerated, but also allow them to transition into formalized education programs upon release. It will also allow better measurement and tracking of student needs and outcomes, all of which will assist program developers.

The process has only just begun, but it’s a critical development and the timing could not be more critical. With the impending changes to Pell Grants meaning possible funding shifts to the federal level, it will be more important than ever for organizations to be able to demonstrate continuity in terms of quality and accreditation 


Completing the education circle with financial knowledge

Curtis Carroll, AKA "Wall Street"

Curtis Carroll, AKA "Wall Street"

Zak Williams may not be as well-known as his late father, Robin Williams, but the impact he is having on the lives of others is no less note-worthy. A Columbia MBA, Williams has been working at San Quentin State Prison to provide prisoners with important financial skills to help facilitate their rehabilitation efforts. 

He is working alongside the inmate known as “Wall Street,” Curtis Carroll. Carroll is serving a life sentence, but knows the value of such classes given his own misguided focus on crime for financial gain.  So they’ve developed a popular program at the facility to help inmates avoid many of the pitfalls that can lead to disaster.

Preparing an inmate for re-entry into the working world goes beyond providing them with literacy and job skills, because getting a job is really only the first step towards making a life outside the walls of an institution. Many prisoners will be leaving the facilities with few to no financial resources; they might literally be starting at rock bottom. They will need to learn how to re-establish credit, they may have existing debts, and they may have a history of “high risk” decisions that may actually have played a role in their incarceration.

The banking habits of many of the poor rely on predatory lenders cashing “payday loans” and delving them further and further into debt. And unfortunately for some of those desperate people, it leads them to crime. With little knowledge about financial management, saving, debt reduction, retirement preparations, or investment, many who left that life for one in prison, are bound to return to it. Some facilities currently offer large-scale classes on the subject, but inmates find that without opportunities for in-depth or one-on-one interactions, their scope is too limited to be of help. Williams and Carroll are changing the way these programs are run, and the results so far are promising.

We push for educating inmates because we want them to leave prison with the skills needed to become contributing members of society—so why financial information is so often precluded from curriculum is a mystery. Especially given that one study has identified that there is a much higher likelihood of former inmates working freelance or in an entrepreneurial capacity, where financial knowledge is critical. Financial education is also important for their time while they’re incarcerated; it is all too easy for people to take advantage of the loved ones of those in prison.

While finally gaining your freedom is clearly a celebratory moment, re-entry can be absolutely terrifying for those who are unprepared for the challenges of day-to-day life in a world that is dramatically different from the one they left. The contributions of the likes of Carroll and Williams are seriously underrated, but ones that we can hope will be expanded to other institutions across the country. Financial acumen is an important element of the education puzzle that’s frequently lost in prison programs, yet it might well be one of the most important.

Pell Grants for Prisoners: New Bill Restores Hope of Reinstating College Programs

by Christopher Zoukis

It’s been over 20 years since Jon Marc Taylor, Ph.D., a Missouri state prisoner and author of the Prisoners’ Guerrilla Handbook to Correspondence Programs in the U.S. and Canada, published an op-ed in the New York Times urging federal lawmakers not to ban Pell grants for prisoners. In the two decades since his plea the higher education landscape in our nation’s prison system has shifted drastically due to a lack of funding and public support. However, it now appears that might change and Dr. Taylor’s dream may finally come true.

The Restoring Education and Learning Act

On May 21, 2015, U.S. Rep. Donna F. Edwards (MD) introduced the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, H.R. 2521, which would make state and federal prisoners eligible for Pell grants – a form of federal financial aid for post-secondary education programs. Prisoners have been restricted from Pell grant eligibility since 1994, when President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (VCCLEA) into law.