Prisoners in Alabama create their own health radio show

By Christopher Zoukis

alabama radio show

Inmates at an Alabama correctional centre are developing, crowdfunding and taking other necessary steps to launch their own radio about health issues in the prison system.

The program at William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility in Jefferson County, is facilitated by Connie Kohler, professor emeritus at the University of Alabama (UAB) at Birmingham. She was approached by prisoners to help create the show after she presented a lecture about the concept of education through entertainment.

Kohler had previously been honoured for her work on the documentary The Prison’s Professors, which is part of the UAB-Donaldson Lecture Series. The series, which generally takes place twice per month by a variety of UAB staff on topics of their choosing, also led to the creation of a book discussion group and an acting workshop at the maximum security facility.

The radio soap opera Corrections is fictional and scripted, but it is based on very real and serious issues. The series will include eight 15-minute episodes, and is currently in the process of being recorded, after reaching an initial crowd-funding goal of $4,000.

The next phase will see inmates and their supporters seeking financing for post-production work, including credits and sound effects.

The show offers a huge opportunity for participating inmates to learn new skills and contribute to an ongoing project that produces tangible results. They are responsible for all aspects of the program - from scriptwriting, acting, recording and editing to conducting focus groups, research, audience development and even logo design.

Along with fostering the development of new skills, Corrections provides a uniquely creative and constructive outlet for its contributors. It also teaches inmates about health and how to better care for themselves – which is especially crucial because many prisoners suffer chronic health conditions that may be exacerbated by incarceration.

This project is important for many reasons: it’s the type of creative rehabilitation programs that inmates need, educationally and personally. The program doesn’t require a major cash injection, it helps develop new skills for inmates after they are released, and it shares useful information to a wider audience in an entertaining way.

Programs such as these can also help improve behavior within prisons, offering needed creative and productive outlets as well as an incentive to participate in something positive. 

Education, and these types of related programs are the best way to reduce recidivism. With thousands of prisoners released every year into our communities, we need to ensure that they have the tools and skills needed to participate as fully as possible 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 ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com

 

Tribeca film screenings cast restorative light behind prison walls

By Christopher Zoukis

tribeca film institute

When you hear Tribeca, you probably think of the glamorous New York film festival started by actor Robert De Niro in 2002. Recently, though, the Tribeca Film Institute – which “champions storytellers to be catalysts for change in their communities” – also brings screenings to prisoners through the Community Screenings Series, in partnership with the Prison to College Pipeline (PCP) program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

The program helps prisoners connect to the world outside, each other, and offers new educational opportunities. Given its mission statement, above, perhaps that’s not such a surprise. The institute and its namesake festival have also screened many films, including documentaries related to prisons, inmates and the justice system, to detail the reality of incarcerated life.

The institute also runs a collaborative screen-writing program at Otisville medium-security prison, the notorious Rikers Island correctional centre and at Hour Children, a community group that aims to end the cycle of intergenerational incarceration.

The film screenings are an important part of a move to restorative justice and preparing inmates for re-entry into society, by encouraging socializing through discussion. The films often have a poignant and meaningful theme, and the discussions can be serious, leading people to really look at themselves and how they see the world around them and their place in it. This in turn helps them to process their feelings, needs, behaviours and relationships.

The program is led by inmates who have undergone training in prison to become facilitators, which allows them to curate film selections and lead discussions. It offers inmates a wide range of educational opportunities to learn from the films and discussions and to become a facilitator themselves and deliver relevant, tailored programming. These are all skills that will be essential to them upon re-entry.

Former Otisville Prison inmate Devon Simmons, who was incarcerated for 16 years, regularly attended the film screenings and discussions. He says the PCP screenings stood out among ordinary films, allowing inmates to think critically, develop hope, and think outside the box to understand others and solutions to problems. After leaving prison, he immediately started going to school, and is now co-writing a screenplay with a friend who is still behind bars.

Vee Bravo, VP of Education at Tribeca, who leads the program jointly with Baz Dreisinger of the PCP program, previously worked at Rikers, and realized the social impact of bringing opportunities like this to prisoners. He would bring in artists for private concerts, screen documentaries, and teach media literacy workshops. He wanted to connect prisoners to the outside world, and advocated prison education. Bravo also oversees film-related programs for more than 18,000 public school students and teachers. Community screenings also take place at a variety of other community and civic spaces.

This is another example of a great program to spread education, and provide some of the tools necessary for re-entry such as critical thinking, empathy, discussion, planning, facilitating, and addressing complex issues. Since the screenings began at Otisville, more than 500 men have participated. It can only be hoped that this program will spread to other institutions, providing a creative and mental outlet that prepares those who are incarcerated for the future. The Tribeca Film Institute has created guidelines and curriculum for its three prison programs to help others establish similar programs, and three of the facilitators at Otisville have completed study guides for a PBS broadcast film. The resources are there for the taking.

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 ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com

Dire straits, charges leave Detroit schools worse off than prison

By Christopher Zoukis

Gymnasium, Courtesy of Go Fund Me page.

Gymnasium, Courtesy of Go Fund Me page.

It’s heart-breaking to hear about the atrocious conditions facing students at Detroit-area schools in recent months and even years. These learning centres are literally crumbling around their staff and students – and the situation continues to get worse.

Spain Elementary and Middle School, one of the worst-off Detroit schools, was recently featured on The Ellen Show because of its high number of poor and even homeless students. The school gym is unusable, the roof is falling apart and even computers and other technology is unusable.

Students must wear coats indoors in winter because there is no heat. Parents and even teachers are so financially strapped they are forced to photocopy textbooks because they can’t afford to buy them. Teachers sometimes lead classes on their own time, because there is not enough funding.

During The Ellen Show, $500,000 was donated to Spain Elementary to help fix some of its problems, and DeGeneres also threw her support behind a GoFundMe campaign for the school. This is incredibly generous, but unfortunately, it’s only a drop in the bucket.

How can we send our children to school – and expect them to learn – when their infrastructure is sometimes in worse shape than that the local prisons?

The Detroit Public School System is heavily in debt, and would not have been able to pay teachers or keep schools open after April 8 if emergency funding hadn’t been approved. This situation has been made worse by corruption charges alleged in a lawsuit filed earlier this month to the tune of $2.7 million against Michigan Governor Rick Snyder over the way the district has been run. (He also faces unrelated charges in the Flint tainted water scandal early this year.)

Even worse is the fact that on Tuesday this week, police officials announced the school’s elementary principal is also facing bribery allegations and was due to answer to these new charges April 12 in court.

It’s no secret that Detroit schools have the lowest test scores in the nation, lagging far behind other large districts in reading and math. Just 3% of 8th graders are proficient in math. Fewer than seven of 10 students even graduate.

Education and a positive learning environment need to be a priority. Schools should not have to rely on emergency funding or online fundraising campaigns to stay open. We need to make sure that schools stay open, funded and offer a high-quality and safe learning environment that go beyond bricks and mortar address a side range of learning, health and behavioural issues.

The plight of these schools is inexcusable and it provides a perfect storm for pushing our children toward prison, if only to escape school. Our children are worth so much more than this, and it’s time political leaders stand up to these atrocities and fighting for better infrastructure, funding and resources.

We can do better, and we need to do better.

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 ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com

 

Breaking the school to prison pipeline: Officers outnumber counselors in large school districts

By Christopher Zoukis

In a time when we need to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline, I’m concerned to hear that four of the country’s largest school districts have more police or security officers than counselors – a troubling ratio that speaks to a police-state mentality that apparently continues to thrive in America.

In New York City, the country’s largest school district, there are six security officers for every 1,000 students, but only three counselors. In Houston, there are 1.16 officers and only .78 counselors for every 100 students. Chicago and Miami also fall into these ranges, according to new data cited in numerous media reports last month.

With these numbers it mind, we’re not surprised that efforts to thwart the school to prison pipeline are failing – after all, we are surrounding students with an environment that sets them up for prisons. Right from the start, we are treating them more like prisoners and less like students. Ensuring that they are more likely to see an officer than a counselor must make an impression on these students’ minds and is likely increase any already-existing tensions.

How can students help but wonder: is their environment safe? Or is a culture of fear created? 

This unacceptable ratio also means an increased likelihood that minor infractions will be dealt with in a more serious way – we hear of students being charged, arrested or expelled as consequences for minor actions.  The data clearly indicates that when Student Resources Officers are present, students are five times more likely to be arrested for disorderly conduct, which can have a lasting effect on their lives. This is another example of how we may be setting up students to have negative encounters with law enforcement and the justice system at an earlier age, funnelling them into the prison pipeline rather than diverting them from it. 

There are two easy solutions to help divert from the school to prison pipeline. One is to correct the ratio of officers to counseling staff, so that students are treated more like students, and have greater opportunity to seek guidance and to deal with underlying issues. Research clearly demonstrates how effective counseling is in reducing classroom disturbances, anxiety and risk of drop-out rates. It also leads to higher academic achievement and increased preparedness for the future.

In these larger school districts, the number of counselors is well under the recommended ratio by the American School Counselor Association of 250-one. None of the top 10 districts come close to meeting this number.

The other solution is to offer increased training for Security Resource Officers. It’s well known that teenagers and students behave and make decisions differently than adults, and this needs to be more widely understood. Resource officers can also be trained to act more like mentors than disciplinarians, which can have a positive impact, such as at Furr High School in Houston. Before re-training officers, the school would suspend 30 students a day for minor infractions like dress code violations; this number has since dropped.

Whatever the solution is, it is clear that this situation needs to be rectified, placing a larger emphasis on preventive measures, counselling, and education, and less emphasis on strict security measures and punitive justice for minor infractions. Schools need to be safe places for education, not fostering a sense of fear, or further contributing to 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 ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com

 

School to Prison Pipeline: The Criminalization of Black Female Students

When it comes to the school-to-prison pipeline in America, a thought-provoking book by a prominent U.S. author and justice advocate sheds startling insights into an often-overlooked segment of our broken justice system – the discrimination against black girls.

pushout

Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique W. Morris spotlights a group that is widely overlooked in discussions about the failings of our social, justice and education systems. The co-founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute (NBWJI) – which focuses on the reduction of racial and gender disparities in the justice system – says young African-American females are rendered particularly invisible due to a range of stigmas and other factors.

Colliding cultural and social biases such as gender, race and poverty lead to multiple oppressions that cause disadvantage and discrimination on more than one front, says Morris, who spent four years researching her powerful book.

Pushout chronicles in careful detail how black girls are the only group of females overrepresented in all discipline categories for which data is collected by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. Black girls receive more severe sentences when they enter the juvenile justice system, and comprise 16% of the total number of girls in school. African-American girls in elementary and secondary schools are suspended at the rate of 12%, compared to only 2% for white girls. Girls with the darkest skin tones are three times more likely to be suspended than with lighter skin tones.

Compared to other young women, black girls also comprise:

-          42% of those who receive corporal punishment

-          42% of girls expelled

-          45% of girls with at least one out of school suspension

-          31% of girls referred to law enforcement

-          34% of girls arrested on campus

The author notes that discussions about the justice system generally focus on the plight of black men and boys. While this group is indeed overrepresented in the prison system, these discussions by their nature exclude conversations about other marginalized groups of people, who may have their own unique needs.

While many cases never even make the news headlines, Pushout details many examples of black girls being punished for comparatively minor infractions or offenses. There’s the case of seven-year-old Tiana Parker, a high achieving, non-disruptive student who was pulled out of school because her dreadlocks, tied back with a bow, were deemed unacceptable to school policy. And that of six-year-old Salecia Johnson, who was arrested by police for allegedly assaulting a principal and charged with battery and criminal damage to property. While charges were later dropped, she was suspended for the rest of the school year.

Or, this offensive incident involving student Shaniaya Hunter, who asked a question in class and was met with the response: “I have been around 37 years, and clearly you are the dumbest girl I have ever met … You know what your purpose is going to be? To have sex and have children because you ain’t gonna never be smart.”

Kiera Wilmot was conducting a science experiment on school property, when an accident resulted in a small explosion, with no damage. There was a perception that she was trying to make a bomb, despite her statement otherwise. Her school’s zero-tolerance policy resulted in her being arrested, handcuffed, and charged, taken to a juvenile assessment facility. At Bill Duncan Opportunity Center, she said she is teased, is not getting the challenge she used to get at school, and is offered less opportunities. These types of punishments and inappropriate responses will only serve to isolate students, and present disadvantages for their learning and personal development.

It is clear that going forward in discussions of the school to prison pipeline system that more attention needs to be given to groups that may immediately be invisible, and to include a broader range of solutions. Focusing on restorative justice or positive behavioural intervention, instead of punitive and exclusionary measures are two ways to begin to achieve this, as outlined in Morris’ appendix to Pushout. There also needs to be specific responses in addressing needs, such as training teachers how to work with students who have experienced trauma such as violence and sexual assault, and training specific to gender based violence and implicit bias.

Ensuring there is funding available for educational opportunities for females of colour is important, too- while more than $100 million philanthropic dollars have been spent in the last decade on creating educational initiatives for boys of colour, less than a million dollars has been given for girls. In trying to keep students in the classroom and out of the prison system, there cannot be blanket solutions for all students.

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 ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com

 

Virginia offers state prisoners college credit

By Christopher Zoukis

In a welcome move, Governor Terry McAuliffe is making Virginia the only state to offer state prisoners college credit for five career and technical education courses recommended by ACE CREDIT­ – the American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendation Service.

Founded in 1918, ACE is the major co-ordinating body for all of the nation’s higher education institutions. The CREDIT program was established in 1974 to connect workplace learning and formal training taken outside of degree programs with colleges and universities by helping students gain access to academic credit for their efforts. The program helps align professional education with college courses, and can accelerate degree completion times.

Gov. McAuliffe’s announcement March 17 will hopefully pave the way for other states to move in the same direction and create meaningful change for prison education in the United States.

Students completing ACE courses submit an ACE transcript to their college or university for evaluation as potential transfer credit, with the higher education institution making a decision on whether to accept the credit or not. The process would be the same as when transferring credits from another higher learning institution.

The Virginia Department of Corrections already offers a wide range of educational opportunities, as demonstrated in 2012-2013 in which 1070 adult students completed vocational programs, 1,769 earned industry credentials, 101 completed apprenticeships, 1,093 earned GEDs and 1,727 earned Career Readiness Certificates.

Adding the ability to earn ACE CREDIT for five courses is another progressive step in meeting their mission to “provide high quality education programs that meet the individual needs of offenders and increase their success during incarceration and re-entry,” officials said in a statement.

The courses – Business Software Applications, Communicating Arts and Design, Drafting and CAD, Graphic Communication and Digital Print Production and Introduction to Computers – are designed to provide students with skills expected and desired by employers, increasing employability upon prisoner release, and reduce recidivism by ensuring offenders have the skills to gain meaningful employment and are able to support themselves and their families.  Each of the five courses are existing classes that have been offered for the past two years, and have now been assessed by ACE, offering additional opportunities at minimal cost.

Offering the opportunity for further credit ensures that inmates are not just focusing on gaining immediate skills, but also focusing on a longer-term plan, considering further higher education and professional development, a sentiment echoed by the governor. “This new program will build on that success by helping inmates prepare for successful futures by getting a start on college education while they serve their time.”

Dr. Christofer Colville, education superintendent, said the five credentials will help offenders who attempt to re-enter society, and also that ‘we know from research that offenders who complete programs within our system are less likely to come back into the system.’ This approach to offering additional educational opportunities will continue to benefit everyone, as not only will offenders be able to support themselves through gainful employment, and acquire new and fulfilling skills, but also the wider community.

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 ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com

 

Gov. Terry Mcauliffe

Gov. Terry Mcauliffe

Shifting to restorative justice in Los Angeles schools

By Christopher Zoukis

school to prison pipeline

As the school-to-prison pipeline system continues to be under scrutiny, schools in the Los Angeles area are working to reduce this, armed with mounting evidence that harsh punishment for small offenses at an early age does not reduce crime rates, but makes it more likely that offenders to go to prison than to college.

Realizing this, school districts, such as Long Beach Unified, are moving towards restorative justice systems, reducing punishments such as suspensions and citations for truancy.

These more traditional punishments, including suspensions and informal removal from classrooms, further disadvantage these children and teens. These punishments cause them to miss additional education and support, as well as physically isolating them from their peers, increasing chances that a student will fail or drop out. Many of these truant children also come from dysfunctional homes and may be dealing with substance abuse, mental illness, and domestic violence, and suspensions do nothing to address the underlying issues for truancy or disruptive behavior.  

These zero-tolerance policies only served to criminalize students for non-violent behaviors. Maria Hernandez, Orange County Superior Court Judge, contends that the truancy program was not serving its purpose, was unfairly punishing children and families, and was wasting the time of the courts. Punishing children in this way did not lower further truancy filings. There is also some evidence that a high level of suspensions also has a harmful impact on the students who are not suspended.

Restorative justice programs, such as responding to truancy with a team of social workers, probation officers, and help for families, was more effective at lowering truancy rates. These programs include addressing mental health issues, as well as conducting parent outreach, and speaking with families about the consequences of chronic absences, such as how quickly a child may start reading well below-grade level. They work to address the underlying causes for behavioral and truancy issues, and seek to help students learn from their mistakes. Working towards prevention is much more effective than punishment, reducing truancy, building community, and increasing reading levels and graduation rates.

Suspensions have fallen state-wide by 33.6% since 2011-2012, when the truancy program was overhauled, which particularly banned punishments for wilful defiance. Truancy filings have dropped from 256 to 56 in the same time period. Chronic absence rates have also dropped such as at LBUSD where they dropped from 26.18% in 2013-2014 to 9.6% in 2014-2015. 

Of course, there is still work to go. There are concerns that, while reducing suspensions is applauded, that the alternatives in certain districts are sometimes undefined, resulting in unrulier classrooms, and sometimes more frequent calls to police. There are concerns that the program was not fully realized before being launched, although there are good examples of more fully developed programs in the state, such as in Oakland, which has seen very positive results. Additional resources, such as teachers and counselors, may often be needed, as well as smaller class sizes and additional training in restorative justice for teachers.

There is also a great need to address racial biases, as there is currently a huge disparity remaining in the percentage of African-American students who are affected by suspensions. In California, while African-Americans make up 6% of students, more than 14% of students suspended are black. One suggestion is training to identify these biases and to look at issues through a racial lens.

Overall, despite drawbacks, it is clear that moving towards restorative justice is positive, and the way to best get students out of the prison pipeline, keeping them out of the system, and keeping them in school.

 

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 ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com

The Argument for College in Prison

By Christopher Zoukis

educationinjail

The concept of providing a college education to American prisoners is nothing new. As  early as 1953, a few select prisons permitted such educational programming. But it wasn't until 1965, and Title IV of the Higher Education Act, that prisoners were permitted to obtain the funding of Pell Grants for their college studies. It was in the years that followed that an oasis of correctional education was achieved.

By 1973 there were 182 correctional education programs in U.S. prisons. By 1982, that number had jumped to 350 such in-prison college programs. The movement to offer prisoners the opportunity to learn and gain the skills required to leave a life of crime behind was at its height, but a sea change was in the midst.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act and the Higher Education Reauthorization Act. Collectively, these pieces of legislation barred prisoners from higher education by eliminating their eligibility for federal student financial aid. Most states soon followed suit. Some states, such as New York, entirely barred prisoners from higher education, even correspondence program that the prisoner or their family funded.

The correctional landscape was bleak, and has remained so for quite some time.

From that day on, those acts have decimated correctional education. In the 1960s, 1970s and even 1980s, prisons turned into centers for reform and education. By the 1990s, they were being filled with those caught in the web of the government’s ill-fated War on Drugs. And between 2000 and 2010, the Warehousing Era had begun. Corrections was no longer about correcting prisoners or helping them to reform their criminal ways, it was about housing prisoners as densely and cheaply as possible.

The argument against prison education is simple. Prisoners don't deserve an education. For some this argument holds water. After all, prisoners elected to break the law and be removed from society. So why should they receive a free taxpayer college education while behind bars?

Such thinking is absurd at best.

But the real issue isn't about what prisoners deserve. It's not about just desserts or retribution, although both should enter the equation. Prisons should be about public safety, about protecting the public and reducing crime, but they do neither. Instead, they have become a political tool for lawmakers to show how tough they are on crime and supportive of victims' rights. In a rather insidious turn, the lock-them-up political agenda has turned into a mechanism to support repeat crime, not reduce it.

The United States incarcerates 25 percent of the world's prisoners, even though we only house five percent of the world's population. This amounts to around 2.2 million people in prison and jail. Of those in prison, 95 to 97 percent will one day be released; around 600,000 prisoners released per year. Of those released, 70 to 85 percent will recidivate within three to five years of release. Virtually everyone fails. This is not success, and certainly not a fair exchange for the $80 billion spent on corrections annually. Clearly the current warehousing model is a failure.

The research on prison education is also clear. While it costs, on average $32,000 a year to incarcerate a single prisoner, it only costs $1,400 per year to provide that same prisoner with a college education while behind bars. Unlike the traditional recidivism rate of 70 to 85 percent within three to five years of release, prisoners who participate in correctional education programs at the college level realize significant reductions in recidivism:

      Prisoners who earn an associate degree: 13.7%

      Prisoners who earn a bachelor’s degree: 5.6%

      Prisoners who earn a master’s degree: 0%.

But recidivism rates don't tell the full story – not of the 2 million prisoners who have minor children, who are prone to follow in their incarcerated parent's footsteps. These numbers also don't tell the story about broken communities that foster crime and broken families. Or how the American dream is effectively out of reach of whole swaths of, well, Americans.

These are the tragedies of America's broken criminal justice system.

The long and short of the argument for college in prison is simple: prison education is both more effective and efficient than incarceration, not to mention a fraction of the annual cost of imprisonment, and its results are proven.

It's time we stop focusing on just deserts and punishments and start focusing on fixing people and improving public safety. After all, if incarceration isn't about public safety, why are we siphoning funds away from our institutions of higher education in order to support 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 ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com


New Book the Ultimate Resource for Breaking Recidivism Cycle in U.S.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Click the above image for more information.

Click the above image for more information.

Petersburg, Virginia — A new book by prison rights advocate Christopher Zoukis is making headlines as a growing number of North Americans – including leading U.S. presidential election candidates and governors of several states – are acknowledging education is the only way to fix the broken penal system.

Released March 1, Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016) provides concrete evidence that substantive change is urgently needed to halt the school-to-prison pipeline and reduce rampant recidivism rates across the United States. Tailored to prisoners who have no Internet access or the ability to attend class in person, the guide includes a detailed analysis of the quality, cost, and course offerings of more than 160 college correspondence programs available to prisoners.

“A college degree today is yesterday's high school diploma,” says Zoukis, an outspoken prison education activist housed at FCI Petersburg (medium) in Virginia. “If prisoners aren't provided with the tools they need to succeed, they are sure to fail after they are released because they have no money, have broken family ties, nowhere to live or no way to make a living.”

“We continue to put people in jail without thinking about what happens when it’s time for them to leave. And that is exactly what contributes to today's sky-high recidivism rates.”

A comprehensive guide to correspondence programs for prisoners, Prison Education Guide is a followup to his award-winning 2014 College for Convicts, which examines numerous studies by researchers, correctional professionals and educators that prove education definitively reduces recidivism.

Zoukis notes it costs $1,400-$3,200 per year to provide a college education to an American prisoner, whereas it costs an average of $32,000 a year to incarcerate that same prisoner. In recent months, politicians including U.S. President Barack Obama, presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, as well as New York Gov. Gary Cuomo, have all spoken out about the steep costs of incarceration versus education and how improved access to education for inmates is needed to reduce recidivism.

About Christopher Zoukis
Christopher Zoukis is an outspoken prison rights and correctional education advocate who is incarcerated at FCI Petersburg in Virginia. He is an award-winning writer whose work has been published widely in major publications such as Huffington Post, Prison Legal News and various websites and blogs. More information is available at prisoneducation.com (This website) and christopherzoukis.com

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

New York Governor’s Plan for Prison Education Might Make It This Time

By Christopher Zoukis

prison education new york

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) is continuing his call for college courses to be offered to inmates in New York prisons. Part of the governor’s ‘Right Priorities’ criminal justice initiatives, the proposal for college classes for inmates resembles a plan Cuomo proposed in 2014, only to abandon six weeks later in the face of opposition from state Senate budgeteers.

During that ill-fated effort, opponents ridiculed the governor’s plan as designed to set up a so-called ‘Attica University’ and in response drafted bills with short titles like ‘Kids before Cons’. But the governor has revived and revised his proposal this year, and included it in his annual “State of the State” address, delivered earlier this year.

Despite his short-lived proposal two years ago, there are reasons to think that this time his educational plan might advance, and other reforms of the state’s corrections system may make it into the budget the governor and the legislature will have to hammer out over the next couple months.

One considerable factor is the increasing financial burden that steadily-growing prison populations place on state budgets. That’s a major part of why states as disparate as Alaska, California, Georgia and Nebraska are pushing various ways – among them, drug rehabilitation programs, de-criminalizing relatively minor offenses or diverting them into drug courts, probation and other alternatives, and putting new emphasis on education and training – to hold down corrections spending.

There’s also an increasing recognition of education’s role in reducing recidivism, which can not only help rebuild lives, but also reduce outlays for jails and prisons. According to Cuomo’s figures, prisoners who participate in higher education are about half as likely to re-offend within a three-year period, as are prisoners who do not get such education.

Another potential difference this year vs. 2014, the New York governor was previously asking for state legislators to increase state spending, although modestly, for educational programs for prisoners. That opened his proposal to objections by opponents that state funds ought to be used to benefit ordinary, law-biding citizens, rather than convicts.

This time, however, Cuomo will rely on executive action, and get his new educational plan off the ground without having to draw on state funds. That’s because he’ll be able to use millions from accumulated penalties the Manhattan district attorney’s office has collected, especially from financial firms facing charges of wrongdoing, and to match it with an equal amount donated by non-profits, primarily foundations.

The obvious, and likely correct, political calculation here appears to be that New York’s taxpayers are more likely to object to free education for prisoners while they scrape and save to pay for their own kids' tuition bills.

So while legislators will still have to approve Cuomo’s plans for higher education for prisoners for that praiseworthy initiative to take effect, there’s far more reason to be optimistic this year that will actually happen.

This blog is part two of a series on Gov. Cuomo’s education initiatives. You can read part one here.

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 ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com

Hillary Clinton Offers $2 Billion Plan to Attack “School-to-Prison Pipeline”

prison education pipeline

In a February 16 speech delivered in the Harlem section of northern Manhattan, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton proposed a $2 billion plan to address what she described as a national problem of too many African-American students being diverted into the criminal justice system.

Speaking in the auditorium of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on Malcolm X Avenue, the Secretary of State and former Senator from New York told her audience – which included Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, Rep. Charles Rangel, and former U.S. Attorney-General Eric Holder -- of her plan to devote $2 billion to pay for more social workers, behavioral specialists and school district staffers to create “school climate support teams” nationwide. The teams would work with students, parents and schools to reduce the disproportionately high rates of school suspensions, expulsions and other discipline for black and Latino students.

Statistics show that 40% of students expelled from U.S. schools are blacks, and are more than three times more likely than white students to be suspended. Black and Latino students high school students are not only drop out before graduating at twice the rate of their white counterparts, but also account for 70% of in-school arrests and school referrals to law enforcement.

Decrying increasing police involvement in school discipline, particularly in schools with a majority of black students. Mrs. Clinton called for a greater emphasis on methods to resolve problems through school staff, rather than calling in police to address run-of-the-mill disciplinary issues. These initiatives, she declared, would help replace the current “school-to-prison pipeline” with one running from “cradle to college.” She also branded the problem not just an educational issue, but also one of civil rights.

Her speech also touched briefly and without details on the role her husband’s administration had played in increasing prison populations, saying that the nation needed to heed “past lessons” of “what doesn’t work” in dealing with crime, including the fact that some past policies “didn’t resolve problems” or even “ended up creating new ones.” Clinton’s critics, including some in the black community, point to the Clinton administration’s support for making federal sentences for crack cocaine a hundred times greater than those applying to powdered forms of the drug, and its support for a “three strikes” law bringing life imprisonment sentences for third-time offenders.

The proposal to help minority students succeed academically and in avoiding being caught up in the criminal justice system was only the newest feature of a much broader program that the presidential candidate outlined in the speech in Harlem. Her overall program to overcome what she described as the nation’s “reality of systemic racism” carries a price tag she estimates at $125 billion, and includes a $20 billion for job training programs for minority youth, $25 billion in incentives for businesses in underserved areas, and $5 billion for programs designed to help ex-offenders re-enter society after they are released from 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 ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com

Stop Sending Juvenile Offenders to Adult Prisons

By Jean Trounstine and Christopher Zoukis

In a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision is a deceptively simple line that should affect, and in many cases, transform the way Americans think about juveniles who kill.

At the heart of the 2012 groundbreaking case, Miller v. Alabama, said the Court, is the idea, proven by neuroscience and behavioral research, that "children who commit even heinous crimes are capable of change." In other words, when we think about kids convicted of murder, this is the truth: a 16-year-old who kills is still a 16-year-old.

On January 25, 2016, that truth became evident again when the Court, writing in the 6-3 Montgomery v. Louisiana decision, stated that the ban on mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children 17 or younger must now be applied retroactively. That means, the Supreme Court took Miller one step further.  Once sentenced as youth to death in prison, some 2500 prisoners will now have the opportunity to seek parole or in some cases, new sentencing hearings.

But wander into any coffee shop and try to strike up a conversation about what the fate should be of kids who have committed heinous crimes. In Massachusetts, where Philip Chism, who at 14 murdered and raped his high school teacher, Colleen Ritzer, the conversation would most likely be about the brutality of the crime, not about the youth's ability to change.

But here's the rub. Kids can and in fact do grow up; and as they develop, they change. None of us are the same at 40 as we were at 16. Research has shown us that most violent crime occurs before age 30, and that youth age out of crime . These youth most often have the qualities that make them exactly what they are ­– kids. The MacArthur Research Network on Adolescent Development & Juvenile Justice puts it this way, stating they manifest: "poor impulse control, lack of foresight, inadequate assessment of risk, and vulnerability to peer pressure."

Every day we hear stories of people who turn their lives around behind bars, in spite of the obstacle of incarceration. They get GEDs, create better family relationships, and if they are given the opportunity, choose to do programs that benefit their development.

Karter Kane Reed is proof of this. At 16, he killed a boy in a Massachusetts high school classroom. It was a horrible tragedy and devastated two families, the family of his victim, Jason Robinson, and his own. It shattered a community as well, and no one was more aware of that than Reed himself. Jean Trounstine, one of the co-authors of this article, met Karter Reed when he was 32, on a trip with her students to the prison in Shirley, Massachusetts, where he was then housed, to hear him and others convicted of murder speak about their crimes and growing transformation. She saw the difference between the boy condemned in news articles and the man thriving in spite of prison.

Reed was unfortunately sentenced at the height of the racially-coded super-predator fear that hit the country. He was called "a monster." Experts such as William J. Bennett, John J. Dilulio, and John P. Walters incorrectly warned at – this time that teen-age boys would be flooding our streets–joining gangs, dealing drugs, assaulting, raping and murdering ­– as if there was no end to their viciousness.

Reed was not surprisingly tried for first-degree murder. He had stabbed a boy in a school, an inviolate space, something we now know too much of; and he was a poor kid committing a brutal crime in a relatively well-to-do neighborhood. He ultimately received a life sentence with eligibility to seek parole. The idea that he could be a productive citizen and would intend to make meaning out of the tragedy of his youth was not on the table. But he defied the predictions, and after 20 years, a free man, he found a decent job, fell in love, graduated from a community college with a 4.0 average, and bought a house.

If the Court had known what we know now about adolescent development or brain research, would Reed have been treated differently? Would the idea be on the table that those who commit horrific crimes are indeed capable of change? 

Sadly, no. His case still would not have been sent to juvenile court. In Massachusetts, any child age 14 or older who is charged with murder is automatically tried as an adult. Children as young as 8, 10, 12, or 13 have been tried as adults, and 14 states have no minimum age for sending a child to adult court.

Reed was a template for a kid in trouble. He had "poor impulse control, lack of foresight, inadequate assessment of risk, and vulnerability to peer pressure." If he had been adjudicated guilty in juvenile court, he could have served time until he was 21 in a Department of Youth Services secure facility--and then be transferred to finish his sentence with adults. He might have received therapy and more education, and while Reed did not fear rape or being pummeled by older prisoners, many young people sent to adult prisons and jails do.  While adjudication in the juvenile court would have not led to the "easy time" bandied about in coffee shop conversation, it would have honored the spirit of Miller.

As Boston Review managing editor, Simon Waxman, wrote, "If there are good reasons to treat adult and youth offenders differently, why are those reasons discarded according to the severity of the crime?" Sending a juvenile to an adult prison under any circumstances does not make sense. If kids can change, the way we deal with them must also change.

This post is co-authored by Jean Trounstine, author of the forthcoming 6th book, 'Boy With A Knife: A Story of Murder', 'Remorse' and a 'Prisoner's Fight for Justice'. She is Professor Emerita of Humanities at Middlesex Community College in Lowell, MA. Find her on Twitter @justicewithjean

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 ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com

UK Prison Reform a Step Toward Reducing Recidivism

By Christopher Zoukis

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

prison recidivism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com

 

Books a Gateway to Greater Literacy for Prison Inmates

By Christopher Zoukis

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

prison literacy

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

Six reasons why we should give books to prisoners:

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

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

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

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

3. Reading promotes empathy:

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

4. Promoting community:

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

5. Fostering learning:

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

6. Accessible literacy should be a basic human right:

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

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com

Georgia Governor Seeks More Funds for Prison Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com

 

Real reform only possible through prison education

PRISON EDUCATION IS THE ONLY REAL SOLUTION FOR OUR BROKEN CORRECTIONAL SYSTEM.

PRISON EDUCATION IS THE ONLY REAL SOLUTION FOR OUR BROKEN CORRECTIONAL SYSTEM.

By Christopher Zoukis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com, and PrisonLawBlog.com

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

By Christopher Zoukis

Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Gov. Andrew Cuomo

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

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

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

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

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

His wise proposals include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read more about the statistics we've compiled, too, at www.prisoneducation.com/resources/prisoner-facts. Or, check out our in our Prison Research Papers for more insights.

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

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com, and PrisonLawBlog.com

Prison Reform from a Prisoners’ Perspective

By Christopher Zoukis

prison survey

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

Then there are the inmates themselves.

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

While some responses I anticipated, many others surprised me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Zoukis is the author of <College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons> (McFarland & Co., 2014) and <Prison Education Guide> (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com

 

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

By Christopher Zoukis

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

Rand Corporation logo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Zoukis is the author of <College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons> (McFarland & Co., 2014) and <Prison Education Guide> (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com, and PrisonLawBlog.com

What Saudi Arabia has done right in their penal system

By Christopher Zoukis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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