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Crime Blog on the Huffington Post

Tuesday
Aug262014

Entertainment in the Federal Bureau of Prisons

By Christopher Zoukis

The Federal Bureau of Prisons provides inmates with a number of avenues of entertainment.  These avenues include personal FM radios, community televisions, personal MP3 players, and institutional movies.  These forms of entertainment are offered in an effort to reduce inmate idleness and the ills that come along with it.

Radios

Personal FM/AM radios have been a mainstay of prison culture for decades.  Available for purchase through institutional commissaries at a price of around $40, most inmates purchase one.  These radios are of the Walkman-variety, operate on two or three batteries, and are required to listen to the televisions in the inmate housing units.

TVs

Inmates incarcerated within the Federal Bureau of Prisons are not permitted to purchase personal televisions, instead they are allowed to utilize communal TVs in inmate housing units and, at some federal prisons, in recreation departments.  Most of these televisions are usually mounted high up on support beams so that they cannot easily be tampered with, and programming can either be determined by majority vote or by the prison's administration.  The external speakers are removed from these TVs, and FM modulators are connected to them.  Thus, inmates must purchase personal radios and tune these radios into specific FM frequencies in order to hear programming.  There are usually several such communal televisions in each housing unit, and each one is set to a specific type of programming (e.g., movies, news, sports, Spanish stations, etc.).

Click to read more ...

Monday
Aug252014

Support PrisonEducation.com on Huffington Post

By Christopher Zoukis  Image courtesy huffingtonpost.com

As I've previously reported here at Prison Education News, I am now a contributing writer at the Huffington Post.  For the most part, I focus my work there on America's broken criminal justice system.  This I feel helps to expose wrongs that need to be addressed, and by doing so in a very public forum, presents the opportunity for these wrongs to be corrected.

With this in mind, I ask that you take a few minutes and read my latest three articles at the Huffington Post.  You can locate each by clicking on the following links:

If, after reading each article, you find that you support the positions that I've taken in these pieces, I'd appreciate you sharing, liking, and tweeting them from their respective pages on the Huffington Post.  This will help to bring this work, and these issues, to a larger audience who will, hopefully, then act as a catalyst to change.

Thursday
Aug212014

Prison Education Program Wins School of the Year Award: San Francisco's Five Keys Charter School Astoundingly Successful

By Christopher Zoukis  Image courtesy sfgate.com

Teachers from charter schools around California had been waiting with anticipation to hear which of their schools would be awarded the 2014 Hart Vision Award for Charter School of the Year.  At the California Charter School Association's annual conference in San Jose on March 11, 2014, the winner was announced, and it was a good day for prison education.

The Hart Vision Award was created to honor schools that have made "significant contributions to the California Charter School Association's mission to increase student achievement by supporting and expanding California's quality charter public school movement."  The winner of the 2014 Award was the Five Keys Charter School in San Francisco.

What makes the Five Keys Charter School even more remarkable is that the school was established under the auspices of the San Francisco Sheriff's Department to provide education to inmates at the San Francisco jail.  Indeed, it was the first charter school in the United States to be established inside a jail.

The school's executive director, Steve Good, was understandably proud of both his administrators' and his incarcerated students' achievement, and expressed his hope that the award would bring more attention to the importance of education in prisons as a way of reducing recidivism, crime, and victimization.  As a number of studies in the field of correctional education, as reported at http://prisoneducation.com, have revealed, there is a direct correlation between employment and recidivism and educational levels and employment.  Prisoners who receive an education behind bars are able to obtain sustainable employment, and ex-offenders who are employed recidivate at a greatly reduced rate than those who hold no job upon release from custody.  California's prison system is creaking at the seams.  In February, federal judges gave the state two additional years to reduce its chronic and severe overcrowding.  California's state prisons are currently filled to 144% of capacity, a number comparable to that of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  As part of the solution, the state plans to spend $81 million over the next year on improving its rehabilitation programs.

Those improvements are certainly needed.  Sixty percent of inmates released from California prisons are back behind bars again within three years (the technical term for this is "recidivism").  The role of educational programs in correctional settings was amply demonstrated by a meta-analysis, which combined the results of many studies, and which was reported by the RAND Corporation in 2013.  Their report showed that participation in educational programs whilst incarcerated reduced inmates' likelihood of recidivating by 43%.  The need for more education in California's jails and prisons is not in dispute; 65% of the state's approximately 150,000 inmates have never earned a high school diploma.

Steve Good believes that education is a right, not a privilege, much as the Supreme Court alluded to in Brown v. Board of Education, which decried the racial inequalities found in many school systems, so many years ago.  If that moral argument is not enough to motivate decision makers, the financial implications certainly should be.  The Pew Research Center estimated that California could save $233 million each year with just a 10% cut in their recidivism rate.  According to http://prisonlawblog.com, this funding could be put to use fixing California's crumbling bridges, or even further reducing recidivism by bolstering existing prison education programs in state prisons and county jails.

Wednesday
Aug202014

MP3 Players in the Federal Bureau of Prisons

By Christopher Zoukis  Image courtesy tigerdirect.com

Federal prison inmates are now allowed to utilize a MP3 player service.  This service, operated through all Federal Bureau of Prisons' institutional commissaries and the use of the Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System (TRULINCS), allows inmates to purchase 8 gigabyte MP3 players for $69 and individual songs for between $0.85 and $1.55 each.

This article explain the various components of the Federal Bureau of Prisons' MP3 player service, how inmates utilize the system, and the various components involved.

Purchasing the MP3 Player

While local policies vary, inmates in the Federal Bureau of Prisons are allowed to shop at the prison's commissary several times a month (most federal prisons allow inmates to shop either once every week or biweekly).  They are allowed to spend $320 per month on foods, drinks, clothing, snacks, candies, shoes, and electronics.  Certain items, such as over-the-counter medications, postage stamps, and copy cards are exempt from this spending limit.

While federal prison inmates have been allowed to purchase walkman-style FM radios for many decades, they are now allowed to purchase 8 gigabyte SanDisk MP3 players for $69.  These players hold around 2,100 songs, which can be purchased through the Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System (TRULINCS).  They also have FM radio functionality.

Once an inmate purchases an MP3 player, they have to wait one hour, then they can connect the device to a TRULINCS computer in their housing unit and activate it.  At that point, they can browse the library of songs available for purchase and make purchases.

Click to read more ...

Tuesday
Aug192014

Crime and Recidivism: A Plague Upon Society

By Christopher Zoukis  Image courtesy hudsonlink.org

When a criminal defendant is charged and convicted of a crime, they are often sentenced to a term of incarceration.  This period of imprisonment is imposed with the expectation that their criminal activities will be stopped and that their time in custody will rehabilitate them so that they will lead a law-abiding life upon release.  The ideal of prisons is that they are designed to help in this rehabilitational process -- to be tools that not only punish past crime, but also deter future crime and prepare offenders for a law-abiding life post-release.

  •  As a deterrent, prisons may be working.  Crime rates are indeed dropping (a positive sign), but recidivism rates remain persistently high (a negative sign).  This can mean a number of things and leads many experts to rate the effectiveness of prisons as a deterrent to crime as inconclusive.
  •  As a punishment, prisons are "working," in the sense that millions of people are serving time in prison, and this time is not a pleasant experience.  Categorically, inmates do not want to return to prison due to the harsh conditions found therein and the damage these correctional facilities incur on those subjected to them.  There is the additional "bonus" of employing more guards and other staff.
  •  As a place for rehabilitation, prisons are failing, and they are failing miserably, with recidivism rates remaining sky high.  The fact is that most released prisoners will return to a life of crime.  This often boils down to them not being employable, but regardless of the reason, they are returning to crime in droves.

Once a person is charged with a crime and sentenced to a term of imprisonment, the assumption is that after their time in prison they will do whatever it takes to avoid going back.  Yet, in the last several decades, there has been an increase in the number of released prisoners that have ended up back in the criminal justice system.  This is known as recidivism.

Click to read more ...

Monday
Aug182014

Book News: College for Convicts Available for Pre-Order

By Christopher Zoukis

After many hard months of work, I'm proud to announce that my latest book, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons, is now available for pre-order through my publisher McFarland and Company.  This book presents the arguments for expanding educational offerings to prison inmates in the U.S. and abroad, explores successful prison education programs across the nation and the world, analyzes the current state of education in American prisons, and provides a roadmap to expanding educational offerings to prisoners.  To order your own copy, please click on the following link:

College for Convicts has been a project long in the works.  Researched and penned from a federal prison, the medium security FCI Petersburg, it was not an easy task to fulfill.  Finding a publisher was even more challenging, considering that I lack access to regular email and can't participate in any trade shows or meet-and-greets.  But with the help of my team outside of prison, we've managed to jump through all of these hoops, and are now excited to advocate for enhanced educational opportunities for America's prisoners on a national stage.  We're particularly excited to be advocating for college programs in our nation's prisons.  This book has the power to open our political leaders’ and the American public's eyes and minds to the concept of education being the most cost-effective, proven method of reducing recidivism that the world currently knows.  All profits from the sale of this text go directly to our advocacy efforts.

Please show your support for this project by pre-ordering your own copy of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons, which will be released either late this year or early next year.  By doing so, you will be showing the publisher that there is a dedicated and active force behind this book, which will help to raise our marketing budget and help us to advocate more effectively for higher education in America's prisons on a national stage.

Thursday
Aug142014

Prison Education: The Sunshine State Takes Education Online

By Christopher Zoukis

In 2012, Florida established the first online high school within a correctional facility.  In 2014, it has celebrated the success of that pilot program by extending it to a total of seven prisons across the state.  Still the only program of its kind, Florida's experiment demonstrates one potential strategy for improving the educational opportunities available to America's incarcerated masses.

The Florida Department of Corrections Online Campus was established two years ago in partnership with Smart Horizon's Career Online Education, itself the world's first Southern Association of Colleges Schools (SACS)-accredited online school district.  Incarcerated students attend a computer lab in each prison, and use secure workstations to access the high school diploma program.  The prison inmates can advance through the courses at their own pace, and their proficiency is assessed as they progress.

One original feature of the Online Campus is that it allows inmates to combine general high school learning with vocational training.  Incarcerated students are able to graduate with both their GED and a certificate of accredited vocational training.  Indeed this was an important factor considered by the Florida Department of Corrections when selecting and developing the program.  Staff hope that providing this dual training will significantly increase the likelihood that inmates will secure a job when they are released, and that this will help them in avoiding a return to prison.

According to http://prisoneducation.com, employment is one of the most important factors determining whether a released prisoner will make a successful, law-abiding life back in the community.  Of those who are re-incarcerated, 89% are unemployed.  Unemployment leads to poverty, and often to further crime.  In a highly influential report issued by the RAND Corporation in 2013, data from multiple studies demonstrated that amongst prisoners who participate in educational programs there is a 43% lower rate of recidivism compared to those who do not.  The report also shows a 13% higher rate of post-release employment.

Despite its proven benefits, prison education is an easy target for cuts.  To many it is seen as an indulgence for prisoners rather than a necessity.  Spending on prison education nationwide fell 6% between 2009 and 2012.

Florida has already saved $65 million over two years by cutting the recidivism rate by just 4%.  With the third largest state prison population in the nation, at around 103,000 inmates, Florida needs to do more.  From its modest beginnings, the Online Campus has already had 324 incarcerated students enrolled, 100 of whom have graduated.  Together they have earned 4,135 high school credits, all from behind bars.  Their success has encouraged the recent expansion.

States look to reduce their ruinous expenditure on corrections.  According to http://prisonlawblog.com, education is by far the most cost-effective tool to reduce recidivism and thus prison costs.  The Online Campus is certainly a program to watch, but further data will be required to ensure that the early success does lead to the falls in recidivism seen with other educational programs.  There is also a risk that similar programs may simply be instituted as a way of reducing short-term costs by laying off prison teaching staff.  In the meantime, the Florida Department of Corrections is to be commended for taking this innovative step.

Dr. Howard Liebman discusses a few of the innovative educational concepts provided by Smart Horizons Career Online Education.  Smart Horizons Career Online Education is not only accredited but has now hooked up with the Florida Department of Corrections to give prison inmates access to high school degree programs.