Prison Entrepreneurship Project Reforming Lives

The Prison Entrepreneurship Program prepares offenders for successful lives upon release from prison.

The Prison Entrepreneurship Program prepares offenders for successful lives upon release from prison.

By Christopher Zoukis

The Prison Entrepreneurship Project has helped transform more than 1,300 convicted felons into business graduates that have transitioned successfully back into society.

The project focuses on male prisoners, and is a comprehensive, holistic program aimed at reducing recidivism, giving second chances to ex-offenders, and helping to ensure successful reintegration into their communities. Based at the Sanders Estes Unit in Venus, Texas, and the Cleveland Correctional Center in Cleveland, Texas, entrance to the program is highly competitive. From more than 10,000 eligible candidates and an average of 2000 applications — consisting of a 20-page form and three exams and interviews — about 500 men are accepted per year. The prisoners come from a multitude of backgrounds and have committed a wide variety of crimes, but all are eligible for release within three years.

The project is highly successful — more successful than the other nine major rehabilitation programs in Texas. One hundred percent of graduates will be employed within 90 days of release, almost 100 percent are still employed after one year, and the recidivism rate for PEP graduates after three years is less than seven percent — the national average for recidivism is 50 percent.

More than 200 small businesses have been launched by PEP graduates, several of which make more than $1 million per year. The Prison Entrepreneurship Project is clearly doing something right.

The program is an intensive one, combining a variety of classes and work with mentorship, and a competitive business plan competition. The goal is to spur innovation, realize potential and transform communities, using 10 driving values:

Fresh start outlook
Servant-leader mentality
- Innovation
- Accountability
- Integrity
- Execution
- Excellence
- Wide stewardship

The program is results-oriented, preparing prisoners for successful re-entry and having addressed their own needs, building a business plan, and moving forward with defined goals. One aspect of the project includes a Family Liaisons program, which helps the men to rebuild family relationships.

On their successful completion of the program, graduates receive an entrepreneurship certificate from Baylor University Hankamer School of Business, and may also receive certificates in financial literacy and Toastmasters.

After release from prison, the participants in the program receive continuing support, with transitional housing, access to mentors and other PEP graduates, transportation, counseling, social events and emergency financial assistance. Through project partners, there is access to bus passes, dental and health care, and phone cards. Graduates can continue their learning and development in the business world through e-school, and upon completion of a certain number of workshops and courses, are eligible for small grants to assist in starting their businesses. The PEP also runs Communitas Business Centers in Houston and Dallas, which provides access to typical office resources, from internet and printers to accounting services and conference facilities, for a low monthly fee.

The Prison Entrepreneurship Project receives no government funding, and is largely reliant on donations and volunteers. It's partially self-funding, with a goal to be 30 percent self-funded by 2025. The program is so successful because of financial support and collaboration with a variety of community partners and organizations, including 10 University MBA/ entrepreneurship programs, 14 churches, 10 companies and corporations, and re-entry service programs including Crossroads Community Services, Kiva Zip fundraising loans, People Fund and Workforce Solutions. For individuals and organizations, there are many ways to participate in PEP — as a volunteer, donor, business plan advisor, mentor, teacher, or by hiring a PEP graduate.

The Prison Entrepreneurship Project is a glowing example of a successful program that addresses many issues ex-offenders face upon release, such as finding employment and housing. These are key factors affecting whether someone will successfully reintegrate, and whether or not they will return to prison. This model should be followed on a broader, national scale, with or without government funding, so that American can stop reinforcing the cycle of incarceration and move toward more comprehensive, effective and cost-efficient rehabilitative solutions.

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

Instructional Leadership in Prison Education

Submitted by Peter Zitko
Adj. Professor of Political Science at Solano College

Different organizational settings require the use of various leadership theory tools. For instance, a military leader on the battlefield may necessarily use a leadership model that is quite different than that of a cleric. In many instances, a specific leadership model does not provide a single best leadership solution. Therefore a competent leader may blend leadership theories and draw from each model as necessary for the task at hand. 

This is most certainly the case for educational leaders and teachers who work in atypical environments such as a prison. This brief article will depict the prison educational setting and address several leadership models which are appropriate in the correctional environment. T

he rationale for this assessment will be described along with an explanation of the leadership culture that exists in the prison education paradigm. Moreover, a justification for the selected leadership models that fit this unique educational culture will be clarified along with a recommendation for leadership adaptations that may be necessary to provide exceptional leadership as an educator of institutionalized persons.

The Prison Educational Setting

The education of convicted felons is an understandably challenging venture. In the prison milieu, there are many factors that require an educational leader to alter existing models of leadership and inevitably adopt new leadership tools. 

The prison environment itself challenges normative leadership behavior in ways that typical educational leaders do not experience. The ethos is one of authority and safety is always an utmost concern. Furthermore, the institution itself restricts the ability of leaders to function as they would in a mainstream school. Hence, models such as servant leadership are circumscribed by the authoritarian nature of the prison. 

In many ways, the individual who is employed in a leadership position in prison must adopt some of the management methods of a military leader on the battlefield as outlined in the opening statement of this essay.

With this in mind, a leader, even one who is engaged in the education of inmates, can use one overarching leadership model as the foundation to be built upon. In general, the education industry is highly conducive to Robert Greenleaf’s servant leadership model (Focht & Ponton, 2015; Smith, 2005). In Greenleaf’s view, servant leadership is the ultimate model of leadership (Greenleaf, 1970). In short, a good leader must serve others as the primary goal. 

However, it is unlikely that Greenleaf himself had experienced the difficult role of leadership in a correctional institution. Accordingly, the educational leader in a penitentiary setting must draw from alternative leadership models which are appropriate in this challenging environment.

Leadership Models for Prison Educators

As noted in the preceding section, servant leadership is a good starting point for educational leaders. As a prison educator, the person in a leadership position can use servant leadership theory as a base model from which to build upon. 

Perhaps even more than traditional educational settings, for an educator of inmate students it very important to remember, as Townsend advises, that “True leadership must be for the benefit of the followers, not the enrichment of the leaders” (2007, Loc. 1056). Yet, as altruistic as this philosophy is, it is not an exclusive model of educational leadership that can be solely applied in this custodial venue.

The educational leader who is tasked with instructing and managing inmates can draw direction from several other leadership theories. Fiedler’s Contingency Model offers some guidance. This theory suggests that there is not a single best leadership model, rather, the circumstances at hand may dictate the appropriate managerial method (Bolden, Gosling, Marturano & Dennison, 2003). Fiedler looks at three situational criteria and attempts to match the leader to the circumstance. 

He considers the relationship between the leader and subordinate, the position of authority, and whether the circumstance is structured or unstructured (Bolden et al., 2003). However, this theory is somewhat confounding because in the prison setting leaders must be adept in all areas described by Fiedler. Consequently, the educational leader must assume a position of authority, refrain from abusing the position of power, be skillful in managing structured and unstructured tasks, and create a relationship of trust with students while maintaining a safe, professional distance. 

In addition, Tannenbaum and Schmidt’s (1973) Leadership Continuum is equally problematic as a manager of inmate students must be autocratic, consultative, persuasive, delegating, associative, and democratic as the situation dictates. Hence, these contingency theories are of narrow use for the educational leader that practices within the backdrop of a penitentiary.

Education within a prison is certainly a situation that will require innovative leadership techniques. As noted, servant leadership is a good starting point. Contingency theory is limited but helps to inform the leader as to innate leadership characteristics. Nonetheless, the educational leader can also draw from both transactional and transformational leadership theories along with Max Weber’s concept of charismatic leadership.
Transactional Leadership

If nothing else, a prison is a highly-structured environment. This is the lifestyle that inmates are accustomed to and have learned to accept. As Spahr (2016a) points out, “A transactional leader is someone who values order and structure.” This type of leader is well- suited for environments that are highly-controlled and have formative rules and regulations. A correctional facility is the embodiment of this type of structured setting.

Therefore an educational leader in a penitentiary must be comfortable in working within a decidedly controlled environment and competent in carrying out an authoritative leadership role when necessary.

Transformational Leadership

While the transactional leader is capable of being imperious as the need arises, the transformational leader is predominantly concerned with creating positive change in her or his followers. In this respect, transformational leadership is similar in nature to servant leadership. Transformational leaders are optimistic, committed to their long-term mission, have high ethical values and inspire others to perform at their very best (Bolden et al., 2003). These are critical leadership attributes to utilize in a setting that seldom promotes any positive virtues. Charismatic Leadership

A charismatic leader, as suggested by Max Weber (1864-1920), is a person with “extraordinary” qualities (1946, p. 290). Expanding upon Weber’s view, Antonakis, Fenley and Liecthi (2011) suggest that a charismatic leader is someone who “must use powerful and reasoned rhetoric, establish personal and moral credibility, and then rouse follower’s emotions and passions” as a means to an end (p. 2).

Others like Beyer (1999) view “charisma as an unusual form of normative social structure that emerges in times of crisis” (p. 310). Spahr (2016b) simply believes that “charismatic leadership style relies on the charm and persuasiveness of the leader” (para. 1). While these scholars have different viewpoints regarding the qualities of a charismatic leader, they all contribute to a normative leadership theme that is very appropriate as a prison educator. While charisma may be an innate character trait, it is a highly desirable and productive skillset that can be used to motivate students and achieve academic success. A person with charismatic leadership traits will be far more effective as an educational leader in an environment of skepticism and oppression, which is the prison norm.

Rationale for Specific Leadership Models

The justification for emphasizing the leadership models in the previous section is quite simple: the educational leader in prison, or any venue for that matter, must be focused on students and producing the maximum academic outcomes. For this reason, servant leadership and transformational leadership theories are quite desirable. 

However, the circumstances of teaching in prison necessitate the use of other skills which may not be as vital in the traditional school setting. Accordingly, the leader must look to other models that enhance her or his preferred theories. 

It is quite conceivable that educational leaders in correctional facilities may look to other leadership theories beyond those listed in the preceding section. Servant leadership theory may be the foundation, but good leadership requires the utilization of any relevant model that helps produce the desired outcome of student success.

Support for using the listed leadership theories is quite compelling. The typical inmate has the reading skill of a seventh-grade student (Reed, 2014). A large majority of inmates have never completed high school before their incarceration and about forty percent dropped out of school prior to tenth grade (Reed, 2014).

This data may suggest a lack of guidance and student- centered leadership in the pre-incarceration lives of inmates. Countless prison students are inexperienced with positive forms of leadership. Many are unfamiliar with proactive leadership methods that embrace productive learning and place the student at the forefront of educational achievement. 

This unfortunate fact gives credence to leadership methods that alter existing negative modes of education and create an ethos of engagement and constructive learning. Transformational leadership is one such model that inspires followers and helps to construct a norm of student-centered learning (Bolden et al., 2003; Tng, 2009).

Moreover, servant leadership promotes a normative ethos of the student as the focal point of learning, which counterbalances the pre-existing culture of absolutism inherent in the correctional facility (Fitzgerald, 2015). Nolands and Richards (2015) declare, servant leadership “puts the goals, needs, and development of ‘followers’ ahead of those of the leader” (p. 16).

This is an unfamiliar condition for incarcerated students who are accustomed to a totalitarian lifestyle. Yet, this selfless mode of leadership can build trust between teacher and student which is conducive to creating a positive learning environment (Fields, Thompson & Hawkins, 2015; Parris & Peachey, 2013). When coupled with charismatic leadership, servant leadership along with transformational leadership offers a trifecta of positive student-centered learning models.

Nonetheless, the nature of education in a correctional facility requires that leaders utilize elements of absolute leadership models. Transactional leadership is one such model that exploits leadership power to affect outcomes. 

This is quite necessary for prison education programs as many students do not react to positive leadership models in the absence of authority. Nevertheless, transactional leadership is not simply an autocratic method; it employs a system of rewards and punishments. 

As Stone and Patterson (2005) note, “Transactional leaders lead through specific incentives and motivate through an exchange of one thing for another (p. 6). In the prison education setting, leadership from a position of authority is absolutely vital.
Although, while this position of power is quite necessary, it must be used judiciously.

The Culture of Leadership in the Prison Setting

A correctional facility that houses convicted felons has a culture which can be best described as a continuum between authoritarian and totalitarian rule. This is quite understandable as a great majority of inmates are convicted of horrific crimes. 

Structure, rules, subordination, and violence is the culture by which inmate students are accustomed. Ergo, those in leadership positions must work within a pre-ordained ethos of authority, force, harshness and submission that permeates the institution. This culture is established, and the educational leader must use appropriate leadership tools that work within this atypical society.

Selected Leadership Theories as Suitable Models for the Prison Education Setting

Several viable leadership theories are discussed in this article. It is important to understand that while these may serve as a base model for educational leadership in a prison, they do not represent an exclusive database of leadership theories and tools. 

Nonetheless, the blended theories of servant leadership, transformational leadership, transactional leadership and charismatic leadership as described in this essay are valid leadership models that should be considered by those entering into management positions in correctional institutions. 

Each of the listed theories informs the leader and offers a set of tools and ideals that can be utilized at the discretion of the manager. In sum, there is no single best model for leading in a prison school, although, the leader must keep the ideal of servant leadership at the forefront of decisions to adopt alternative leadership models.

Recommendations for Leadership Adaptations as Prison Educators

As an experienced educator of inmate students, several leadership recommendations are worthy of consideration. At the outset, a person who is considering taking on an educational leadership role in prison must assess the personal reasons for doing so. 

Unlike correctional officers who work predominantly from a position of power, the educator must be willing to embrace the idea of serving the student first and using authoritative methods sparingly. 

Servant leadership and transformational leadership models are a good foundation that establishes a student-centered approach to leadership. Additionally, it is preferable to have inherent charismatic leadership qualities as those leaders who may be inclined to submissive or tedious tendencies will have a very difficult time motivating and managing inmate students. 

Related to charisma, the manager of prison education must have the ability and innate qualities to purvey a sense of power and authority while simultaneously presenting a true sense of commitment to the students. In conclusion, the leader that chooses a career in educating inmate students must be powerful, compassionate, honest and fully committed to the altruistic goal of helping her or his students attain an excellent education.



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Florida Community Initiative Supports Female Prisoners and Ex-Prisoners

The Red Tent Women's Initiative helps female inmates feel supported through education, group therapy, financial literacy, and post-prison re-entry assistance.

The Red Tent Women's Initiative helps female inmates feel supported through education, group therapy, financial literacy, and post-prison re-entry assistance.

By Christopher Zoukis

A forward-thinking group in Florida is helping women both in and outside of prison to empower themselves and help better their lives and families, after recognizing that many of their needs were not being met in the community.

The Red Tent Women’s Initiative was inspired by Anita Diamant’s novel The Red Tent, which follows the character of Dinah — daughter of Jacob and sister of Joseph in the Bible. The red tent refers to the tent in the novel in which women of Jacob's tribe must, according to law, take refuge while menstruating or giving birth, and in which they find mutual support and encouragement from other women in the community.

Barbara Rhode, director of the Red Tent Women's Initiative, saw that this kind of community support and encouragement seemed to be missing for many women in their communities, particularly for women who were in jail or prison, and who very often felt isolated. In 2013, The Red Tent Initiative started offering sewing therapy classes at Pinellas County Jail, and continued to grow from there. It has become the most popular class, often with a waiting list, and has been successful at helping reduce recidivism among the women who participate.

The Red Tent Initiative has become a safe and empowering space for women to come together, and improve the lives of those involved. In prison, inmates create handmade products from recycled, donated fabrics, which are sold, with profits going to support each woman who created that item. Not only are the women taught sewing skills, but how to create marketable products, financial literacy and social bonding. Beyond that, there is group-based education and support offered, including trauma resolution, anger management and parenting classes, as well as opportunities to hear volunteer speakers who share their stories and expertise on topics including addiction, yoga and successful reintegration into society.

Beyond the prison walls, the Red Tent Initiative is also active with building safe community spaces, continuing outreach to offset possible isolation for those who have been released, and offering support and vocational empowerment groups. The initiative advocates for clients and partners with other community groups and organizations. For example, the organization helped publicize “Coming Home: Showcase of Services for Ex-Offenders” presented by Pinellas Ex-Offender Re-entry Coalition, held at Pinellas Technical College. This was a job fair that featured employers hiring on the spot, educational assistance, information and referrals, resume help, voter registration and identification assistance. It gave access to more than 40 social services agencies. This is vital support for those who need to re-establish a place in the community and start their lives post-incarceration.

The Red Tent Initiative and similar grassroots initiatives in the country play important roles in rebuilding communities, empowering individuals and breaking cycles of incarceration. Current studies show that children who have an incarcerated parent have an increased risk of mental health issues, emotional trauma, impacted social behaviours and decreased educational prospects.  Incarcerated mothers are often placed an average of 160 miles away from their children — much further than fathers. These numbers demand reduction so that families can remain as whole as possible. Incarcerated parents must be given the tools and opportunities to break the cycle. 

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

Justice System Throws Poor Kids Into Debtors' Prison

Inability to pay fines and fees related to the criminal justice system results in further punishment for youth, including extended sentences and probation.

Inability to pay fines and fees related to the criminal justice system results in further punishment for youth, including extended sentences and probation.

By Christopher Zoukis

It is becoming increasingly obvious that zero-tolerance policies contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline, often unfairly punishing youth for offenses that should not be dealt with in the criminal justice system. Involvement in the criminal justice system often kicks off a domino effect toward further interaction with the criminal system.

For non-violent offenses that include truancy, we are not just punishing youth harshly and setting them up for failure, we are also punishing them for being poor. Our criminal justice system as it stands is seemingly set up to ensure that youth — and their families — suffer severe consequences for stepping foot in it. We are not protecting families and communities so much as we are taking away hope and any chance at future success in life.

In a country that practices mass incarceration of adults, we are also the only nation that sentences youth to life without parole. And we continue to jail more youth than ever, despite decreasing crime rates. A million young people appear in court each year. Many are arrested for minor infractions before they leave high school. And this does not bode well. About 75 percent of youth who have spent time in juvenile detention will be incarcerated later in life, and the outlook is most grim for minorities or for those from economically disadvantaged families. We have created an unfair, tiered system of justice — one that ultimately serves no one.

In cases where children and families cannot pay the costs of dealing with the legal system, including court costs, fees, fines, court-ordered exams and assessments, and restitution payments — punishment can be severe. Consequences of the inability to pay can include extended probation, denial of needed treatments and incarceration. These punishments are unrelated to offenses committed. Youth are being punished because they are poor, they get pushed deeper into the system, and families become mired in debt.

For example, a 13-year-old in Arkansas was fined $500 for truancy. Neither he nor his family could pay the fine, so he served three months in a locked facility. Another 13-year-old punished under zero-tolerance policies faced extended sentencing because of fee non-payment. After being charged with battery for accidentally bumping into a teacher in a hallway, the youth plead guilty and served a successful year of probation, curfew, meetings with an anger management counsellor, and working in a food bank. But since neither he, nor his mother, could afford the $200 in court fees, his probation was extended by 14 months.

These are consequences that wealthier families do not even have to consider, let alone face. In a system that is already unfairly prejudiced against minorities and those of lower financial means, we do not need to create further disparity.

We need to radically change the systems setting youth up for lifetimes of failure before they’ve even had a chance to begin. To force children into the criminal justice system for nonviolent offenses like school truancy, and then to subject them to detention centres because they are too poor to pay must be ended. Doing so would immediately reduce the school-to-prison pipeline and mass incarceration. Jailing children for missing school is not a solution for educational, community or criminal justice issues, and certainly solves nothing for the affected youth. We need to scrap policies that submerge kids and drown families in the criminal justice system, and aim to build support, and to build futures — not take them away. 

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


Proposed Illinois Life Skills Facility to Benefit Prisoners Poised for Release

By Christopher Zoukis

An former youth facility in Illinois will be converted into a life skills center to help educate and train soon-to-be-released prisoners for re-entry.

An former youth facility in Illinois will be converted into a life skills center to help educate and train soon-to-be-released prisoners for re-entry.

Criminal Justice reform has been a major focus for Governor Bruce Rauner of Illinois, and a number of changes have already been made, with the goal of reducing the state’s prison population by 25 percent by 2025.

Since launching a commission on criminal justice and sentencing reform, Rauner has implemented initiatives such as providing offenders with state IDs upon re-entry to help facilitate transitioning into the community, reducing one common hurdle to becoming productive members of society, and a move toward reducing recidivism.

Recently, Gov. Rauner also announced that a juvenile facility, the Illinois Youth Center Murphysboro, which has been empty since 2012, will be repurposed into a minimum security Life Skills and Re-entry Facility, focusing on prisoners who are about to be released back into their communities. The facility will provide education, vocational skills and life skills, which will help them successfully re-enter and integrate into society as productive citizens.

During the news conference announcing the initiative, Rauner commented about the “revolving door” that is the current criminal justice system, and how it needs to change, stating that an almost 50 percent recidivism rate is unacceptable, and that society needs to give offenders a real shot at a second chance. “After somebody has been punished for a crime, we can keep our communities safer. We can reduce crime, if we give them skills so that they’re not right back doing illegal things again,” he said. “They have served their time, they have served their sentence. They need a viable second chance.”

Support has also been garnered for this reform from senators who applaud not only the positive changes to criminal justice, but for the jobs that will be created by opening the facility, including correctional, educational, and rehabilitative positions.

It was also announced at the news conference that the roundhouse – F House — at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet would be closed. Built in 1922, the facility is deteriorating, has long been considered a safety hazard to both prisoners and correctional officers, and was one of the costliest facilities to operate. The closure, which was finalized at the very end of November, will save money from its deferred maintenance costs. This was the only roundhouse still in use in the United States, and conditions have been heavily criticized. Prisoners and officers have been relocated to other facilities. The roundhouse itself will likely be retained for its historical significance.

Illinois Department of Corrections offers a number of other programs for incarcerated individuals including the Incarcerated Veterans Transition Program which assists with obtaining VA benefits, resume and interview workshops, and addresses critical housing needs with Project CHILD and transitional housing units, which include programming to address issues such as anger management, socialization and family reunification. A variety of educational and vocational programs are also available, including educational assessments, basic literacy and math skills, GED instructional programs, and programs focusing on food service, auto body, horticulture and cosmetology.

While these moves are applauded, and are making good strides toward reform, there is room for more. Addressing issues that lead to crimes before they are committed, and taking root issues into account during sentencing and not just during incarceration and upon re-entry, is crucial to help with the reduction in mass incarceration. There are calls to reduce mandatory minimum sentencing, and to seek alternatives to incarceration at the outset.

In the meantime, however, other states should look at Illinois for examples of successful programs that can help to slow down or eliminate the criminal justice system’s “revolving door” through programs that aim to ensure smooth re-entry into society for former prisoners, and ultimately result in safer and more productive communities. 

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

Initiative Examines Mass Incarceration From Past to Present

New initiative aims to foster understanding and  discussion on the topic of mass incarceration through the lens of history and current events.

New initiative aims to foster understanding and  discussion on the topic of mass incarceration through the lens of history and current events.

By Christopher Zoukis

In 2014, the Colorado College history department embarked on an initiative called the Social Issues and Historical Context Initiative, with the goal of demonstrating the connections between history and current issues and events.

One of the first initiatives, funded through a three-year grant by a Colorado College alum, was The Past, Present, Prison project, spearheaded by history professor Carol Neel. The goal of the project is to bring together students, faculty, and the community to facilitate discourse, and to educate the public about mass incarceration at both a local and global scale, and the realities of the current prison system.

Neel and her students have been meeting these goals in a number of ways. A variety of speakers have been hosted on campus to talk about issues in the prison system, there is an active Prison Project Facebook page, and a recent photographic exhibition called Incarceration Nation demonstrated the realities of prison life.

Neel's history course, Encountering the Past – The Long History of the Colorado State Penitentiary at Canon City, prompted students to delve into research on prisons in the Colorado area. The resulting articles on the website showcase student findings. The site features essays on a variety of relevant and hard-hitting topics, as well as a timeline of prison education in the U.S., and information about the history of mass incarceration.

Essays fall into six categories, exploring issues including mental illness, the economics of prisons and rehabilitation. From the prison industrial complex to incarceration of minorities, these are important topics for discussion and change. The site includes important dates, archival images and numerous resources.

While the site currently features research and information largely related to Colorado, students are hoping to expand its scope and plan to launch a blog to better engage in meaningful conversation about mass incarceration.

Neel has ambitions to expand the scope of her prison-related programming to include inmate education in liberal arts. After working with the Colorado Department of Corrections for several years, advocating for undergraduate education for prisoners after all funding was cut in the 1990s, a new program will start in 2017 that will see a humanities course taught at the Youthful Offenders Prison in Pueblo.

Neel is hoping more courses will be offered, and that college students can become an integral part of delivering inmate teaching and tutoring. Despite safety concerns by the DOC, Neel and students are hoping for programs similar to those in other states, and remain committed to education and remediating mass incarceration.

Advocacy and educational initiatives like Neel’s at Colorado College are a vital way to educate and engage the public on the realities of mass incarceration, both past and present. Hopefully projects like this can be expanded, spurring further engagement and commitment to remedy the issues surrounding the current justice program. Neel’s multifaceted approach reaches students in classrooms, internet users, and the general public through speaker series and exhibitions to effectively educate and demonstrate the need for action on prison reform.

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

Counseling and community service for juvenile offenders instead of incarceration

Restorative justice is an alternative approach aimed at rehabilitating youth and keeping them from entering the criminal justice system.

Restorative justice is an alternative approach aimed at rehabilitating youth and keeping them from entering the criminal justice system.

By Christopher Zoukis

King County, Washington is one of the most recent courts in the country to turn to the alternative approach of restorative justice over criminal justice when it comes to dealing with juvenile offenders with no previous criminal record.

King County courts already try to use detention sparingly and only for the most violent offenders, and the juvenile division focuses on rehabilitation and education, but restorative justice goes one step further to spare kids from being jailed. Few of the bad decisions and indiscretions perpetrated by youth warrant punishment in the criminal justice system, so this is being lauded as a welcome move that will see vast benefits to both offenders and their greater communities.

Restorative justice, first used in New Zealand in the 1980s, is an alternative to traditional detention and criminal justice punishments. Often offenders meet with their victims, may be assigned mentors, and family members, community members and others are brought into the process, whose aim is to restore relationships and mediate toward agreeable solutions and reparations.

This can take the form of a series of conversations, counseling sessions, time spent in self-reflection, peacemaking circles, community service and other activities. The goal is to keep youth out of the prison system, and to inspire empathy and change, helping young people to see firsthand the consequences of their actions and how they affect others. It fosters a greater sense of accountability and creates mindful connections to feelings, emotions and actions, through group discussion. The end result is fewer youth in detention centres, and fewer sentenced to holding lifelong criminal records that could affect future educational and employment opportunities —  which can spur further criminal behavior. The restorative justice approach means that root causes of crimes are addressed. It allows offenders the opportunity to get involved in — and give back to— their communities, sometimes in a very direct way, such as leading mediation or peacemaking circles.

The first case to use restorative justice in King County has been successful thus far. A 15-year-old who had been charged with first-degree robbery for stealing a cellphone and some sneakers is participating in peacemaking circles, checking in with community members, and working out issues with his family, instead of facing two years in prison.

He has been participating in mediation, will lead peacemaking circles, and must complete community service. Community members and justice workers — including a judge — who have worked with the teen have remarked on the change in his attitude and behaviors. More youth will soon be funnelled toward restorative justice methods rather than traditional sentencing.

While new approaches to handling criminal behavior can seem experimental and somewhat time consuming, diversionary practices for low-level offenders should continue to be pursued and given appropriate funding and resources. There are still too many young people across the country encountering the criminal justice system, which can set an ominous tone for their whole lives. To end mass incarceration we must examine systems such as restorative justice, which keep offenders out of the system, along with programs that analyze the root causes of criminal action. If misguided youth can be supported and steered onto better pathways, and given opportunities to help build stronger families and communities, it will go a long way toward changing how our future prison populations look.

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

Yoga and Meditation Improve Life Behind Bars and Beyond

Yoga and meditation has a host of benefits for prisoners.

Yoga and meditation has a host of benefits for prisoners.

By Christopher Zoukis

The Bureau of Justice Statistics has found that within five years of release, 76 percent of prisoners released in the U.S. reoffend. Breaking this cycle requires radical reforms in rehabilitation methods, and some surprising approaches are showing promising results —  downward dog and mantra chanting.

Educational and vocational programs already in place for prisoners are proven to help to reduce recidivism, but some facilities taking steps beyond those by offering programs that target wellness, such as yoga and meditation. Studies have shown teaching prisoners meditation and mindfulness can have positive effects on their behavior, and translates into further reductions in recidivism compared to prisoners who have only participated in traditional rehabilitation and educational programs.

The Prison Yoga Project is the most well known program of its kind. Started in 2002 at California’s largest prison — San Quentin State Prison — the program has expanded to 24 states and several countries outside the U.S. More than 1,500 volunteers — some of them prisoners themselves — have been trained to deliver the program, which is taught in more than 115 prisons. Through it, more than 15,000 free books teaching meditation and yoga have been sent to prisoners. At San Quentin there is a waiting list to participate, and there are often waiting lists for the volunteer teacher training.

The mission of the Prison Yoga Project is to help prisoners resolve and heal from issues related to the traumatic backgrounds many of them come from — backgrounds that may include such experiences as homelessness, addiction, bullying, sexual abuse, domestic violence and witnessing crimes. Indeed, the experience of prison is in and of itself is traumatic.

Yoga and meditation can effect behavioral change, offering an opportunity for self-reflection and increased self-awareness. With self-awareness comes increased empathy and compassion for others. Prisoners begin to learn emotional intelligence, self-discipline and impulse control. Using meditation as a tool can help prisoners disengage from conflicts, negative impulses and violent situations. It helps them to develop coping mechanisms to deal with the stressful environment of prison and the challenges faced after release. Yoga and meditation are known to reduce stress, improve attention span, and create a general sense of health, psychological wellbeing and mental clarity. Additionally, it has been shown to help relieve the symptoms of PTSD, and is effective in supporting addictions recovery.

Numerous personal statements on the Prison Yoga Program website testify to the positive effects yoga and meditation have had on prisoners’ lives and outlooks.

 “I used drugs and alcohol for many years basically to kill the pain of my life. Yoga has helped clear my mind, deal with the pain, move into the present and just love myself and who I am.” J.B.

“Yoga and its emphasis on the power of a single breath has promoted for me a respect for life and a profound realization of the destructive force of violence.” S.L.

“The demands of prison have changed me for the worse, but participating in this yoga class on my path to returning to society has helped me feel like a positive, capable individual once again. The practice brings me a more clear and enlightened mind.” J.H

Several studies back up the changes these prisoners have witnessed in themselves. 

•  A 2012 study by Oxford University found that prisoners who participated in a 10-week yoga program experienced less stress, improved mood and concentration, and an ability to override impulse.

• A 2012 study of a 10-day Vipassana meditation (an ancient technique originating in India) program at an Alabama maximum-security prison showed improved levels of mindfulness and emotional intelligence for those who participated compared to those who did not. Another study on the Vipassana method concluded participants showed significant reductions in alcohol, marijuana and crack cocaine uses, as well as decreased psychiatric symptoms.

• A study done at Wake Correctional Facility in Raleigh, NC, found that prisoners who participated in more than four yoga classes had a significantly reduced re-incarceration rate.

• A 1987 study published in the Journal of Criminal Justice tracked released prisoners who had learned Transcendental Meditation. Sixty percent of parolees that meditated were still clean after two years, compared to 45 percent of parolees who did not meditate. The recidivism rate of meditators was at least 35 percent lower than for those who had received only prison education, vocational training, or psychotherapy but no meditation classes.

With indisputably positive outcomes, yoga and meditation programs should be available in all prisons help fill out what is still missing in many — a holistic rehabilitative approach that significantly improves lives both behind bars and beyond them, and alleviates the strain of repeat offenders on the justice system.

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’s Criminal Justice Overhaul Demonstrates Widespread Positive Effects

Reforms have helped successfully reduce the state’s prison population by more than 10 percent, and have demonstrated cost savings

Reforms have helped successfully reduce the state’s prison population by more than 10 percent, and have demonstrated cost savings

By Christopher Zoukis

In the last five years, Georgia has been successful in making badly needed, sweeping changes to its criminal justice system under the direction of Republican Governor Nathan Deal.

The state has come a long way from where stood in 2009, when a Pew Research Center study indicated that one in 13 citizens were involved in the prison system in some capacity — whether incarcerated or on probation. That was the highest per-capita prison system in the country — well above the nation’s already-high rate of one in 31 adults. Recidivism rates were 30 percent for adults, and 65 percent for juveniles. As well, 70 percent of the state’s prisoners lacked a high school diploma. State officials were determined to change these statistics, and Georgia is now a model of successful criminal justice reform.

Reform initiatives have been wide reaching, collaborative, and achieved through the support of many interagency programs. They cover juvenile offenses, address issues with the “school-to-prison pipeline,” and include programs for the currently incarcerated, and involved the implementation of much-needed re-entry programs.

For juveniles, the reforms focus on reducing sentencing rates, diverting charges for offenses such as truancy and breaking curfew, seeking instead to address root issues of such behaviors instead of locking up teens. Juveniles now have increased access to community programs and educational opportunities. The Second Chance Court offers alternative sentencing for minor offenses, helping reduce the chances that things like minor drug charges do not eventually result in a lifetime prison sentence. Counties using these programs saw a 62 percent reduction in juveniles being sent to detention —much greater than the 15 percent target when the programs were first enacted. And to raise levels of education, charter schools have been established inside correctional facilities.

Outside prison walls, programs have been set up aimed at increasing released prisoners’ chances at successful reintegration into society. For example, the Max Out Re Entry Program (MORE) helps eligible offenders find jobs, obtain driver’s licences, and participate in programs to address personal and behavioral issues.

The Re-Entry Partnership Housing Program supplies housing to ex-offenders. This is particularly needed in Georgia, where offenders cannot be released unless they have a documented address to go to. Securing housing can be tough in the face of barriers including credit checks, the need for references, the overall lack of access to public housing, and landlords requiring criminal records checks. This housing gives the formerly incarcerated a supervised place where they can begin reintegration.

And to give ex-offenders a fairer chance at obtaining employment, Georgia has banned the criminal history check box on state agency job applications.

These reforms have helped successfully reduce the state’s prison population by more than 10 percent, and have demonstrated cost savings. In Georgia it costs $18,000 per year to house an adult prisoner, and $90,000 per year to house a juvenile in a detention center. But rehabilitation programs are much more cost effective. Second Chance Court programs for youth cost less than $8000 per year per youth. The reduction in sentencing and recidivism has also translated into savings on infrastructure — two juvenile detention centers have now been closed, and new prison construction has been halted.

Georgia’s prison reforms have their origins in Governor Deal’s personal experiences and knowledge. He spent time as a juvenile judge, and realized his only two choices — sending youth back to the bad situations they were in; or prosecuting and sending them to detention centres — both resulted in bad outcomes that didn’t solve any of the core issues leading to crime. After becoming governor, he convened a panel of prosecutors, attorneys, judges, law enforcement officers, and legislature members to form the Council on Criminal Justice Reform. Many of the reforms that have been enacted passed uniformly or almost uniformly, demonstrating this is not a partisan issue.

Reforms like those made in Georgia are crucial because they are being enacted at the state level. While there has been national attention on criminal justice reform, and President Obama has enacted many changes, those changes only affect those in federal facilities— fewer than 10 percent of the national prison population. Changes must occur at state levels in each state. These reforms create safer and more productive communities, break generational cycles of crime, and give offenders — particularly youth — second chances to turn their lives around by addressing root problems that lead to crime, such as addictions and mental health issues.

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 Guidelines Target Ending “Zero-tolerance” Policies, Aim To Stem School-to-Prison Pipeline

President Obama's new guidelines target ending "zero-tolerance" policies aim to stem school-to-prison pipeline.

By Christopher Zoukis

The Obama administration has taken more steps to improve an atmosphere of fairness and equity and to support a climate of achievement for public school students. New materials to be used as tools by educators were released in September as part of continuing effort to urge schools to abandon controversial, harsh “zero-tolerance” punishment policies for students that commit offenses.

These policies have funnelled countless kids — a disproportionate number of them black and Hispanic — into the juvenile justice system, and have been tied to the “school-to-prison” pipeline contributing to mass incarceration in the U.S.

To help mitigate these issues, the Departments of Education and Justice released new recommendations and guidelines for school resource officers and student discipline. Both departments encourage the utilization of the SECURe rubric, which outlines five steps of action. SECURe stands for Safe, School-based Enforcement through Collaboration, Understanding and Respect.

In 2013-2014 at least 30 percent of schools had at least one school resource officer (SRO), and 11 percent had one law enforcement officer not designated as an SRO. The presence of officers is ostensibly to keep schools and children safe, however a 2011 study published in Justice Quarterly states that the increased use of police in schools increases referrals to law enforcement for minor transgressions, and increases harsh responses to minor disciplinary issues. When minor issues are criminalized, teachers, administration and other staff step away from disciplinary responsibilities and rely on SROs and police.

The new recommendations call for limited involvement by officers in discipline matters, and training for teachers and staff aimed discouraging them from calling in officers for nonviolent issues. At the same time, training is recommended for SROs in the areas of child development and conflict de-escalation. The goal is not to take SROs out of schools, but to have them operate under new guidelines that more sharply define their roles, in an effort to foster greater trust between law enforcement the community.

This is a vital overhaul of the system, considering there are more than 17,000 school resource officers working in schools across the country. SRO programs and goals need to be clearly defined, and mutual understandings of roles should be developed between schools and law enforcement. This ensures appropriate disciplinary actions are taken, rather than unnecessarily escalated. Under the guidelines, schools and teachers are being urged to move away from relying on officers to administer discipline.

Zero tolerance policies are disruptive to classrooms, schools, and can affect students’ educational futures if they are suspended or expelled. According to civil rights data collected in 2011-2012, black students were three times more likely than whites to be suspended or expelled from school. Between 2013-2015 black students were twice as likely to be referred to law enforcement or arrested compared to their white peers. The difference in treatment is so stark that the Education and Justice departments issued a letter to school districts stating that racial discrimination in school discipline is a definitive problem. Zero-tolerance policies are not meted out evenly for the same infractions. Some punishments result in arrests, which can severely limit future opportunities and have been correlated with lower academic achievement and increased incidence of repeat offenses.

The U.S. needs to move away from zero tolerance policies in the classroom, and toward other forms of discipline which better foster a supportive learning environment, and which do not result in the expulsion or suspension of students. Students should not face expulsion or jail time for nonviolent offenses, which can send them into the school-to-prison pipeline. If schools embrace these new guidelines and resources, it is a step in the right direction to help create brighter futures for public school students, to alleviate strain on the justice system and to reduce mass incarceration.

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

Community Involvement in Programs Boosts Chances For Successful Lives After Prison

Community members can provide valuable links to the outside world, a support system during and after incarceration, and assist in delivering much-needed resources like education to help with successful re-entry.

Community members can provide valuable links to the outside world, a support system during and after incarceration, and assist in delivering much-needed resources like education to help with successful re-entry.

By Christopher Zoukis

Twenty-five percent of the world’s prison population is located in the United States, and most — 95 percent — of those incarcerated will eventually be released into their communities.

The issues that arise from mass incarceration and high recidivism rates are well known. A family with an incarcerated father is 40 percent more likely to live in poverty. About 65 percent of prisoners haven’t completed high school, with 14 percent possessing less than an eighth grade education. Children whose parents are incarcerated are at higher risk for antisocial and violent behaviour, mental health problems, school dropout and unemployment, according to a presidential report from the Council of Economic Advisors called Economic Perspectives on Incarceration and the Criminal Justice System, released in April.

Education, vocational programs, skill building and other programs, are all vital tools for ensuring that prisoners who will be returning to their communities will be able to lead productive lives. Access to these opportunities will help break the cycles and factors that can lead to further incarceration.

It’s not only lawmakers and prisons themselves that are realizing the benefits of various programs, but local communities too. Community organizations can help to fill some gaps in resources, funding and programming, as well as providing reassurance to current inmates that the community is there for them, aware of them, and will continue to be there after release and during integration.

Just knowing that there is support from people outside of the prison walls can make a huge difference in the mindset and motivation of someone currently incarcerated, and who will soon be released. Programs that bring volunteers inside prisons, such as those driven by colleges and church groups, can also benefit the community, as individual interactions with inmates helps to humanize them. These interactions also allow community members to learn about the criminal justice system, and about the various external factors at play that may have influenced prisoners to end up where they are. This is an important way to help de-stigmatize prisoners and change viewpoints of those who might see prisoners as deserving only of punishment behind bars, and not of rehabilitation, when in reality many have received sentences for nonviolent crimes.

This shift in attitude can be demonstrated in Lubbock County, Texas, where 60 percent of the population in the detention centre are serving time for offenses related to addiction. Sheriff Kelly Rowe has addressed this, noting that while some people need to be kept away from society “the biggest majority of our population, they’ve got a debt to pay, but we don’t need them in a recurring cycle.”

The issue of addiction leading to recidivism needs to be addressed, so that prisoners can return to communities and be successful. In order to address these issues, the Lubbock Country Detention Center offers several educational and rehabilitation opportunities, as well as optional religious services. Volunteers from the community lead many of these programs, which include AA meetings, bible studies, resume-building skills and GED classes. These programs are vastly needed in an area where some prisoners arrive with first-grade reading levels. The programs also encourage prisoners themselves to become long-term mentors within the facility, who are invited to return as mentors after release. Some programs also strive to address transitional housing after release.

Meanwhile other states have also made inroads toward connecting prisoners with their communities. In Nebraska, First Plymouth Church recently presented its Love of Neighbor Award to Nebraska Wesleyan University’s “College is the Key to Inmate’s Tomorrow” program, which pairs college students with inmates. The students help teach inmates, and in turn receive college credits for a course in criminal justice, benefiting both participants.

In San Quentin State Prison in California, prisoners are taught how to code with The Last Mile, a San Francisco-based nonprofit. Students who may have had zero experience with smartphones or computers before the course will learn enough basic coding to secure an entry-level job upon re-entry. Programs like this can provide prisoners with purpose and passion, as well as hope.

These are just a few examples out of many that demonstrate the difference community involvement can make in the lives of prisoners. Community members can provide valuable links to the outside world, a support system during and after incarceration, and assist in delivering much-needed resources like education, to increase the chances of successful re-entry and reduced recidivism. Other communities would do well to emulate these shining examples, as we continue to combat the root causes of incarceration and re-offense, and to help offset the stigma that prisoners can face in their communities upon release, so that they can feel that they are welcome — not isolated — in society.

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

Internet Access Is a Human Right. Should Prisoners Have It?

Allowing supervised access to the internet could help with rehabilitation and reduce recidivism.

Allowing supervised access to the internet could help with rehabilitation and reduce recidivism.

By Christopher Zoukis

Internet and computer access dominates most people’s lives to a major degree in many countries around the world. More than 45 percent of the world population has an internet connection at home — that’s fast approaching 4 billion people.

In the United States, 75 percent of people are connected. Most developed countries can also access the internet outside the home in work places, schools and libraries, and many people can connect through multiple devices. We’ve never been more connected, with access to so many resources, and so able to communicate with each other. From accessing free online university courses, to being able to keep in touch with old friends or faraway family, it’s hard to imagine not having regular access to the people in our lives, not to mention limitless entertainment in the forms of apps, games and videos.

Internet access is now considered so fundamental that the United Nations declared internet access basic a human right in 2011, affirming that connectivity is importance for democracy, freedom of expression, communication and government transparency. While this is a nonbinding resolution, it does reflect the essential nature of the internet, and how fundamental it is to our everyday being.

But not everyone has the same degree of access, despite the increasing importance of digital literacy and the recognition of it as a human right in our increasingly globalized world. Populations with limited access include those living in developing nations where internet usage is much lower than in the United States, people living in areas without the necessary infrastructure, and other groups, such as those currently incarcerated in the U.S.

Most prisoners in the U.S. have no access to the internet. Some institutions even punish inmates whose families post online on their behalves. Some prisoners use outside people to assist them to post blogs and opinion pieces, by dictating them over the phone, or sending letters to friends or family. But others gain access to the internet illegally, through contraband cell phones. In some cases, prisoners have been harshly punished for these activities, slapped with extra years in detention. In one extreme case, a South Carolina inmate named Tyheem Harris was handed 37 years in solitary for making 38 posts to Facebook — 23 more years than his actual sentence.

Some prisons do allow inmates to access email on secure, private intranets. Some also allow limited access to tablets for a variety of purposes, such as listening to music or delivering educational programming — certainly a step in the right direction. But time is often limited on tablets and other devices, and fees for using them can cost prisoners, or their families, a great deal of money.

Given how connected the world has become, should prisoners have more internet and computer access? There are hesitations around this issue for those that envision internet access as a potential free-for-all that could give rise to an increase in contraband, access to pornography, threats to victims or engagement in digital crimes. But these fears should be tempered by the fact that digital technologies can be custom designed for each purpose, and access to them strictly monitored and controlled in secure environments.

Allowing greater internet access could give prisoners the opportunity to broaden perspectives, connect with the wider world in meaningful ways, and learn essential digital skills that exist in the world waiting for them upon release. It could also avail them of important learning resources including college and vocational courses and language skills. The internet is a useful tool for self-improvement.

Granting access could contribute to more educated and skilled inmates, which has been shown to reduce recidivism. Done right, there is a potential to use this life-enriching technology without the need for increasing staff or expenditures for things like physical classrooms, materials or teachers. It would help prepare prisoners to be reintroduced to society by giving them basic workforce-ready familiarity with the online world, leaving them less likely to reoffend. The internet could be a useful rehabilitative aid to improve prisoners and prison communities, with the trickle-down effect of having more educated and equipped people being released into society.

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

Virtual Reality Behind Bars For Real Change

Virtual reality technologies could have a wide range of applications for the education and rehabilitation of prisoners.

Virtual reality technologies could have a wide range of applications for the education and rehabilitation of prisoners.

By Christopher Zoukis

Already a hot topic in the gaming world, virtual and augmented reality technologies are slowly spilling into other venues such as museum exhibits and educational institutions. But could these technologies someday be used behind bars? In prisons, where education and training resources can be scarce and difficult to administer, could VR be used to help deliver much-needed skills, education and rehabilitation?

Immersive 360-degree videos can completely transport users into a new environment. The possibilities for its application are endless, as technology advances so quickly. Virtual and augmented reality could be used to supply career training using real life scenarios — including mock-hazardous situations — without any of the actual risk.

VR trades instruction might, for example, give prisoners access to virtual versions of a construction site or a kitchen in a home — training scenarios usually not possible for most prison inmates.

Besides immersive career and vocational training, VR can be used to create individualized learning plans, virtual field trip opportunities such as to museums, galleries and even other countries, and access to books and libraries.

Virtual Reality, which relies on images and scenarios rather than text, may also benefit low-level learners and those with language barriers, ensuring a wide range of learning needs are covered. It has the advantage of providing the best view for demonstrations for all users, instead of different points of view found in traditional classroom settings. With it, students can review and repeat any information as needed.

In addition, virtual reality can let its users learn at their own paces. That means if a user wants to advance quickly through material or access more material, they can. Compare this to the limitations and constraints of a traditional classroom, where students are expected to move through material as one group at the same pace.

Beyond education and career skills, virtual reality technology has been established as a useful treatment for mental health issues. It can be used to deliver cognitive behavioral therapy to help patients change negative or destructive thoughts and behavior, and to help treat PTSD. It has been used successfully for reduction of stress, anxiety and phobias. Given that 56 percent of prisoners in state prisons and 64 percent of inmates in local jails have some form of mental illness, the rehabilitative power and potential cost savings in using virtual reality are worth examining.

While the positive benefits of VR are clear, some people may have concerns. Those focused on the punishment aspects of prison may see the use of virtual and augmented reality as giving prisoners access to expensive games and entertainment. But in reality, content would be focused on educational and vocational skills, literacy, and programs such as mental health. Educating and rehabilitating prisoners ultimately reduces recidivism, translates into numerous types of costs savings, and helps integrate released prisoners into society, making them contributing members of communities.

On the flipside, virtual reality can supply great insight into prisons and prison conditions for those not inside. Project Empathy is one such project that supplies a first-person-experience glimpse into various aspects of society using virtual reality films. Viewers get an intimate look at what prisons are like on the inside, including a feel for solitary confinement. Project Empathy kick started its film series first with a focus on prisons to create a dialogue on why prison reform is necessary

Despite perceived potential negatives, the possibilities for virtual reality technologies to enact positive change for prisoners are worth serious consideration. It could be a powerful tool for delivering a full compendium of educational and rehabilitative services during incarceration. More than 650,000 ex-offenders are released into our nation's communities each year. Don't we want them to have the best chance at being capable members of society?

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 Behind Bars Mean Better Outcomes

Prisoners who participate in educational programs have 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison compared to those who don’t. 

Prisoners who participate in educational programs have 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison compared to those who don’t. 

By Christopher Zoukis

Evidence is overwhelming prisoners benefit in myriad ways when they have access to books and education. An increase in education of any kind is connected to reducing recidivism, as reported by the 2013 Rand Corporation Study, and as demonstrated by the outcomes of numerous programs that have been implemented across institutions.

Prisoners who participate in educational programs have 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison compared to those who don’t. The odds of obtaining employment upon release are also greatly increased for inmates that have availed themselves of books and programs. This is extremely important because 95 percent of the 2 million incarcerated individuals in the U.S. will eventually be released. There should be more focus on ensuring these people can successfully reintegrate into society.

Changing Lives Through Literature is one program that successfully demonstrates this. Started in 1991 in Massachusetts, the first program participants had a recidivism rate of 19 percent, compared to the control group, which had a 45 percent rate of recidivism. The program connects works of literature with offenders with the driving idea that reading can transform lives. Through reading groups, participants learn to connect with characters and ideas, explore their imaginations, and go deeper in thinking about what has driven their own actions in life.

Besides reducing reincarceration rates, reading and other educational programs benefit prisoners by providing means of entertainment and escape, offering constructive ways to pass the time. On a deeper level, books help improve literacy rates — something that certainly needs to be worked on, as 68 percent of inmates in state prisons lack high school diplomas. Reading opens up avenues to learning vocational and professional development skills. Some of the most requested books behind bars cover topic including legal information, career development, and dictionaries and GED prep materials.

Beyond basic literacy skills, reading also builds vocabulary. It can also enrich people's emotional and social lives, boosting empathy, social perception and context, learning about choices and consequences, allowing for self-reflection and insight, and connection to society though an understanding of what is happening in the outside world. In some institutions where book clubs are run, these skills can go even further, as prisoners learn respect, discussion, listening and community building, while discussing important themes.

Prison education programs also save money. A $1 investment in education means a savings of $4-5 in further incarceration costs post-release.

Benefits of education programs, and in particular reading, are also recognized around the world. From book clubs at Warkworth Institution in Canada, to reading programs in Italy and Brazil, many institutions are turning to books and libraries to help with rehabilitation. The benefits are so recognized that in both Italy and Brazil, sentences can be reduced for reading books and writing short reflective essays — up to a reduction of 48 days per year.

The New York Public Library Correctional Services Program highlights the importance of its work of providing services to inmates, fulfilling the democratic mission of the library because it gives access to information many take for granted to a "wholly segregated group of people."

Books and libraries are especially important in prisons where other educational resources, such as formal education classes, may be very limited or not available at all.

There are a variety of book programs to donate to or volunteer with that can ensure books meet the requirements of the institution they are being sent to, including content and genre. In many cases, books must be shipped new from a bookstore, to prevent contraband entering the institution. However access is gained to books, it is important to ensure this access is not limited, and that adequate and diverse collections are provided. Additionally, books and libraries should not be regarded as an earned privilege, but as a vital and powerful tool of rehabilitation. 

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

States Should Follow Feds On Rethinking Private Prisons

A report on for-profit private prisons indicates the model has serious problems.

A report on for-profit private prisons indicates the model has serious problems.

By Christopher Zoukis

Recently the US Department of Justice announced they would be closing all privately run federal prisons, declining to renew contracts, or significantly reducing the scope of private prison contracts.

This comes following a report from the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General indicating that private companies do a poor job of housing or caring for inmates, and found serious problems with a number of categories involving the safety and security of inmates.

The switch away from contract prisons may lead to cost savings, and reduce problems such as contraband, incidents of violence, and lockdowns. Private prisons were found to have higher levels of property damage and bodily harm. One prison riot over poor food quality and medical care in Mississippi caused the death of a correctional officer, and injured 20 people.

Eight times more contraband cell phones were confiscated at contract prisons as in Bureau of Prisons institutions. New inmates at some of the contract prisons were found to be improperly housed in solitary. Services such as vocational training and education are provided at a lower level at private companies. Thus, ending contract prisons and bringing them back into the BOP fold should result in some benefits to the inmates and to society, including a reduction in recidivism, since this is linked to the availability of higher quality programs focused on rehabilitation the provision of other opportunities.

These changes will affect 22,000 inmates that are housed federally across the country, with an aim of a 50% reduction in the number housed in private facilities by May 2017. Several states have also made promises to de-privatize prisons, noting the greater benefits, and the growing recognition that for-profit prisons may skew crime rates. If there is incentive to have more prisoners, this can negatively affect sentencing, and could send more people to prison for longer — people who otherwise might be diverted into different types of punishment. The for-profit model is partly responsible for our system of mass incarceration and prison overcrowding.

Already states including Texas, Idaho, Colorado, and Mississippi have announced, already closed, or taken over privately run facilities.  Should Florida, and other states, follow in their wake? Florida, for example, currently has seven private prisons housing approximately 10,000 inmates, in addition to all juvenile corrections, and fund inmate services such as health care, education, and vocational training. While these numbers may not seem like a large portion of the 2.5 million incarcerated individuals in the US, the yearly cost to house Florida inmates alone in private prisons is $142 million.

It's reasonable to think that, if privately contracting prison services is costlier, less safe, and less effective, we should abandon the use of private prisons. Institutions like prisons should not be for-profit businesses, in whose best interest it is to see a continual increase in the prison population. They are guaranteed fat bank accounts through paying prisoners low wages — 25 cents per hour in many cases — and raking in income through contracting their labor. This is the opposite of what we should strive for: rehabilitation, less prison time, and the creation of safer and more secure communities through the proper oversight of prisons.

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

Help Reduce Crime Through Treatment, Not Charges

Treatment programs for offenders charged with minor crimes grant second chances and aim to solve underlying issues.  

Treatment programs for offenders charged with minor crimes grant second chances and aim to solve underlying issues.


By Christopher Zoukis

Utah has become the latest state push for treatment — not prison — for minor offenses, as part of an effort to offer those who without serious criminal histories and people with substance abuse and mental health issues a chance at turning their lives around.

While Utah was already making strides in state facilities, the effort will now expanded to cover federal charges and institutions, based on similar programs in California. The Utah Alternatives to Conviction Track – U-ACT- was designed by a team that included federal prosecutors, defence attorneys, probation agents, and judges, and is aimed at giving second chances, addressing the deeper causes behind crime head on, and reducing long-term costs to the court system and communities by reducing crime rates and recidivism.

The program is aimed at defendants without long criminal histories, who have committed minor, non-violent offenses, or for those struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues. A guilty plea is necessary before admittance to the voluntary program, and admission is expected to be competitive. The program lasts between one to two years. Defendants are split into two different tracks — one for people who have little to no criminal history, with minor offenses such as credit card fraud, minor mail theft or minor narcotics or other fraud offenses; and another group for those whose crimes include committing robberies not involving firearms or specific acts of violence, mail theft or credit card fraud. Some offenses — including those related to child exploitation or pornography, larger-scale fraud, or drug offenses or involving violence — will automatically exclude defendants from program eligibility.

Program participants are closely supervised, and receive treatment for substance abuse and mental health issues, or are given education and training. They attend regularly scheduled program meetings, and depending on the track, may take part in community service. Those who complete the program successfully could see charges dropped or be put on probation, and in select cases, agree to plea to reduced charges before entering the program.

Programs like these ensure that the causes of crime are addressed, instead of forgetting the individual lives involved, and punishing based on the crimes alone. By addressing underlying causes — such as heroin addiction or untreated bi-polar disorder — the likelihood of an individual re-offending is reduced. In many prisons today, people who need treatment for addictions or mental health issues slip through the cracks, and the results of going untreated can be shown in much higher rates of recidivism. By giving defendants the tools to combat addictions, or to provide them with education, we are helping ensure they are more likely to support themselves and their families, which ultimately translates into safer communities. Funding alternative treatment programs also saves money. Human Impact Partners estimates that the cost of treatment is about a quarter of the cost of putting someone behind bars.

Expanding the availability of programs like this on both state and federal levels makes sense. Reduced crime, stronger communities, retention of family unity, and reduced spending on prisons is what is gained through a more compassionate approach using rehabilitative programs. Let's hope that more states and federal institutions get on board with alternatives to incarceration, taking a closer and look at addressing the deeper issues leading to criminal behavior. 

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

Isolation Cells Empty After Change in Solitary Confinement Use

Up to 100,000 prisoners are placed in solitary confinement in the U.S. every day. Thankfully, many states are beginning to change their policies surrounding this harsh form of punishment.

By Christopher Zoukis

Picture solitary confinement — a.k.a. "the SHU." Isolation, loneliness, deprivation. A place where a prisoner might be alone for up to 23 hours per day, in a windowless room, with non-contact visits from behind glass. You might imagine that this form of punishment is used only when absolutely necessary, for the worst offenders and rule breakers inside prisons. But that's not the case, and too many inmates have been subjected to this harsh form of treatment unnecessarily. On any given day, 100,000 prisoners across the US are held in solitary.

Thankfully, some states are beginning to realize that the SHU is no place to just put prisoners arbitrarily. It cannot be used a response to overcrowding, to a prisoner mouthing off or disobeying orders, or as a location for someone who has been victimized, therefore literally punishing the victim. Nor should solitary be used as a place to house inmates that are suspected of gang involvement and held indefinitely, regardless of proof.

In a significant number of cases, inmates placed in solitary suffer from mental health issues—which may have gone undiagnosed or untreated. Sometimes SHU is used as protective measure for those places there—and this can include disabled or transgendered prisoners — which isolates individuals who do not deserve punishment.

But there is a dawning realization about the wrongness of the misuse of solitary confinement, and action is starting to take place.

In the year since California laws changed on how solitary confinement can be used—after inmate hunger strikes brought attention to the issue—the numbers of inmates in Solitary Housing Units has been cut by two-thirds. That number includes 1,226 inmates released from solitary at the maximum-security Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California.

Any SHU term must now be based on an inmate's behavior, such as committing a violent offense. Problematic in the past has been basing SHU terms solely on the words of confidential informants who accused inmates of possible gang involvement. Cases like these should no longer go forward on this basis. This is good news for those at the prison, and their loved ones. Pelican Bay is known for its high use of solitary confinement, with more than 500 prisoners having spent 10 years in solitary, and more than 75 prisoners doing more than 20 years. The rule changes mean a big difference in how the prison will operate.

The use of solitary confinement has been under scrutiny of late, and for good reason. California is not the only body to recognize and act on the issue. Obama banned the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in the federal system in January, and stated that it could not be used for low-level infractions. Other states, including Illinois, Oregon, and New York have also made moves to reduce the number of prisoners in solitary. Many activist groups have spoken out against the misuse of solitary confinement.

These types of actions are important. Harsh punishment for the sake of punishment accomplishes nothing. Solitary confinement can be psychologically damaging. It's been shown to cause anxiety, insomnia, social withdrawal, depression, and a wide range of other severe symptoms. There are also higher incidences of self-harm. Research has also shown there are links between confinement and higher levels of recidivism. Housing prisoners this way is also significantly more expensive. Throwing inmates into the SHU with improper bases for doing so doesn't lead to safer, stronger communities—but the opposite. We need to ensure that measures like SHU terms are kept to a minimum, and used only when absolutely necessary, in the most extreme cases. Focus should be on rehabilitation, reducing recidivism rates, and preparing incarcerated individuals to re-join society, knowing how to live within it, not to be isolated from—and afraid—of it.

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

Technology Boosts Prison Education

technology use in prison can improve learning outcomes.

technology use in prison can improve learning outcomes.

By Christopher Zoukis

Technology use has grown in all aspects of life outside of prisons, including in classrooms. Prison classrooms and communities can also benefit greatly from the use of technology. There are many benefits to using technology within all education systems, including in prison settings. Personalized learning is recognized as being increasingly important to successful outcomes. One size does not fit all learning styles, and technology is one way to address personalization efficiently and effectively.

Blended learning, combining traditional teaching methods with supplementary technology, can provide access to a much wider range of content and resources. Along with traditional core teaching, it allows the individual student to access more material as needed, offers personalization within the educational system, and allows students to work at their own pace. This is especially important within the prison system where resources are limited, and where there are a wide variety of people with very different backgrounds and education levels. Formal education offerings may be infrequent, or limited to a certain number of participants. Technology use would also help streamline the process in cases where the population can be transient, such as being moved from one facility to another. It would ensure records from multiple institutions are combined and kept up to date, with as little disruption in education as possible. Interactive technologies can also be cost-effective, with the potential to purchase and circulate several of them for the equivalent cost of one staff member, but traditional teaching methods should not be entirely replaced.

The use of new technology also has the potential for more content creation by each institution, and can be used for vocational training, rehabilitation, careers skills, and mental health services. Boosting access to higher-tech options can be as simple as providing digital copies of books and learning materials versus relying on the limited materials donated to the prison library. The regular use of tablets on which these materials would be delivered would also increase much-needed technology skills.

American Prison Data Systems is one company providing secure educational technologies on a tablet-based system, which includes content, assessment tests, and delivery of small rewards for achieving goals, such as unlocking a song to listen to. Jail Education Solutions provides a system called Edovo, which provides a wide spectrum of educational resources, from college credit courses to anger management to financial literacy.

IDS is another similar system offering secure and managed learning. There are also other systems, such as JPay, which offers common-space kiosks in prisons providing music, gaming, e-mail video visitation services for inmates to connect to friends and family. Access to the service is through paid credits, and JPay users on the outside must purchase secure tablets from the company to communicate with inmates. However, there have been concerns expressed about the for-profit model used by such platforms and technology services, which are being accessed by some of the most impoverished members of the population. Complaints have been launched against Securus Technologies for the high cost of video calls, for example.

For those concerned about what kind of access these technologies provide to the greater digital world, the tablets used in prisons are completely secure. APDS, for example, uses a tablet that has been verified unhackable, and is encased in military grade plastic to ensure it is unbreakable.

These systems are now being tested in a number of states, including Alabama, which is using the American Prison Data Systems platform. APDS is also looking at expanding into telecommunications, financial services, and retail, ensuring that the needs of incarcerated individuals and their families are met comprehensively by one service, and which may make these systems even more attractive to all parties involved. Other states have already signed on to tablet based systems, including California, Indiana, Kansas, and New York.

Using technology like this, as long as it is comprehensive and well designed, and is not an additional cost burden to inmates, is another way to ensure that incarcerated individuals have the opportunity to use their free time constructively. They can improve themselves and their futures through technology and other programs. These systems may also help reduce inmate violence by addressing isolation and boredom. Technology also has the potential to be used widely to reach more individuals than ever before. This ultimately will help contribute to a reduction in recidivism, and the creation of stronger communities.

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


How To Send Money to Someone In Prison

By Christopher Zoukis

If you have a loved one or friend who is incarcerated, you may be wondering how to best send them monetary resources. This can be important, as prisoners often need money for essentials including for phone time and computer use, including to receive, read, and send emails on a secure system (this does not grant Internet access), as well as buy supplies such as supplementary food, medical supplies, and even pads or tampons.

The commissary may also sell items such as books and magazines, or writing supplies such as paper and writing utensils. A percentage of the money in their account may also be used to pay fees or restitution. Any funds received will go a great way to supplementing the money that may be earned when an inmate is assigned to a work detail. While they may earn an hourly wage, this can be quite low – sometimes just a few cents an hour.

While thinking of how best to send money, it’s also important to keep in mind how much the inmate may really need – not enough money, and they could do without some essential hygiene products, too much, and they could be targets for others, although the amount they are able to access weekly may be limited. Also, be wary of requests from other inmates, or to send resources to other inmates.

There are a number of different ways to send your loved ones money for their commissary or telecom accounts. This may also depend on the correctional institution that your loved one is in. Federal, state and local institutions may have different regulations or restrictions, and private contract facilities may have their own regulations too. There may also be certain regulations that have to be followed on the side of the receiver- such as ensuring the account is set up properly, and approved to receive payments from outside the facility.

Restrictions may exist over who is allowed to make deposits, so ensure that you qualify. There may also be maximum limits on deposits. In general these guidelines and suggestions may prove helpful, but please ensure that you contact or look up the guidelines for the relevant institutions to ensure you are following the correct procedures.

There are three ways to send funds to inmates, to be deposited into their personal commissary accounts, or phone accounts, at a Federal Bureau of Prisons institution. To send money electronically, you can choose to send via MoneyGram or Western Union. Using either of these forms will ensure prompt payment to the commissary account, generally within four hours. It is important to ensure all of the correct information is included.

You may also be able to access these services in other ways, such as by phone, or in person from an agent. You can also send funds via post through the United States Postal Service. This must be done through a money order only, not a personal cheque, cash, or including any additional items. The money order must include the inmates’ full name, as well as their complete eight digit register number. The money order should then be sent to the central processing center in Iowa.

While the BOP may not accept personal cheques, other institutions may. In California, for example, you should be able to send money with a personal or cashier cheque via lock box, as well as using an electronic funds transfer, or by post. In Illinois, inmates may receive money via Global Tel*Link, JPAY, Western Union or money order. In Orange County, Fla., you cannot use a personal cheque, but you can deposit money in person at the Video Visitation Center. Clark County, Nev., accepts debit and credit transactions via Touchpay.

Besides MoneyGram and Western Union, there are other electronic services you may be able to use, including JPay, and Access Corrections. Depending on where you and the inmate are, there may be more or less options. It is worth exploring these options to see which have the best delivery times, ease of use, fees for use, and what other services, such as email, may be offered.

There are also other ways to connect with loved ones who are incarcerated. You may be able to send emails or letters, conduct video visitations, visit in person, or send books and supplies to the institution they are located at. Again, it is important to check the specific rules and guidelines of each institution, as they can vary widely across level of facility, and state by state.

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

Cal State to Participate in Second Chance Pell Pilot Program

By Christopher Zoukis

The Department of Education has announced a Second Chance Pell Pilot Program as part of the Obama administration’s goals to have a fairer criminal justice system, reduce recidivism, and reduce the impact of the effects of incarceration on communities. The Second Chance Pell Program will allow incarcerated individuals to receive Pell Grants to pursue further educational opportunities while still in prison.

Source: ICPA

Source: ICPA

The program was eliminated in the 1990s, and the goal of this experimental program, offered at only aa limited number of institutions, is to provide opportunities for prisoners in a system of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and rates of release to match. Educational opportunities allow individuals to work and support their families, as well as to grow and learn personally, and ultimately reduce the rate of recidivism and further incarceration costs. Incarcerated individuals who participate in educational initiatives are 43% less likely to return to prison than those who don’t.  For every dollar spent on educational initiatives, an estimated $4 is saved on further incarceration costs. 

The Pell grants cover tuition, books, and fees for eligible students in need of financial aid. For prisoners to participate, they must be eligible for release within 5 years of first enrolling in coursework. The pilot program for prisoners will not affect any other Pell funding, and the money earmarked for the program is much less than 1% of regular Pell funding. 
Only a limited number of institutions have been chosen for the pilot program.

California State LA launched an education program in 2015 at the state prison in Lancaster, a minimum and maximum security prison for males, and is the only university in California to offer an in-person bachelor’s degree program for incarcerated students. It is an initiative of the university’s Center for Engagement, Service, and the Public Good along with the College of Professional and Global Education and the College of Arts and Letters.

Twenty-five students are currently enrolled, with goals to further increase the program by 2018. These incarcerated students will now be eligible for Pell grants under the new pilot program. The prison also offers a range of other programs to assist with effective re-entry including plumbing, masonry, and computer literacy, as well as the Words Uncaged Lecture Series, also in partnership with Cal State LA, to offer informal educational opportunities to prisoners who are not enrolled in formal programs. 

Cal State LA is not the only school participating in the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program. 67 universities and colleges will partner with 141 federal and state institutions to educate 12,000 students. Other participating institutions include the University of Baltimore, and education will be provided in a range of formats, including prison-based education, online education, or a hybrid.

Like with Cal State LA, for many participating schools, this will be an expansion of existing educational initiatives for prisoners. The Second Chance Pell Program is not the only educational initiative of the Obama administration for incarcerated students. A range of resources has been released, as well as the My Brother’s Keeper Taskforce. 

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