Providing College To Prison Inmates Series (Part 1)

Recently I have been enjoying a tremendous book titled Providing College To Prison Inmates, by Jeanne Bayer Contardo. This is a wonderful book which examines the North Carolina Prison System's partnership with the North Carolina Community College System, a very fruitful 20-year-old partnership. On pages 154 through 156 of this text, Contardo suggests seven "Recommendations for Policy and Practice." I liked her suggestions so much that I've decided to base a seven-part blog series upon them.

Each of the seven blogs will focus upon one of Contardo's suggestions. The blog will start with a short quote, then I will expound upon her thoughts with my own. My goal is to provide the voice of one who both understands the issues and lives them on a daily basis. While the credit for the idea of each blog post – and the initial quote – rest with Contardo, the substance of each blog rests with me.

As always, I invite your comments and suggestions on everything I write. Without further ado, here is the first blog post in this series:

"Use available resources, including educational, financial, and political, when developing correctional education programming" – Contardo (pg. 154)

A huge barrier to implementing educational programming for prisoners is in having to create new programs and policy, both of which are very expensive. Instead of crafting a whole new program – and policy to go along with it – prison systems could utilize what they already have. This way, resources are already in place and programs have already been proven to work and be efficient. All that would be required is a modification of the program to allow students in correctional settings to participate.

The American Community College System is a prime example of a program which every state in the country already possesses. Community colleges focus upon providing an education to everyone in their communities, particularly those of a lower socioeconomic status. Hence, they are adept at finding funding, managing program costs, and providing a college-level education to their surrounding community.

The idea of utilizing community colleges for correctional education needs is not a new one. Prior to 1994 -- when prisoners were still eligible for Pell Grants – many community colleges allowed prisoners to participate in their educational programming. I suggest that the same programs that were implemented then be implemented now. Since the program and partnership had been proven to work before, it can work now, too.

Another benefit of utilizing existing educational programming is that the people who already facilitate such programs are capable of supporting a new demographic in their programs. By allowing prisoners to take the same courses as their regular students, effectively nothing changes in terms of instruction. The only differences are of workload per course and the method of instruction. To alleviate these issues, the community college system could easily provide a video feed or a recording of the particular instructor's lectures for the incarcerated students to utilize at their facility. An extra teaching assistant – or a person at the prison – could grade all lessons and examinations. The cost would be much the same as a regular college class. Admittedly, in-person instruction is always the best answer, albeit not the most cost-effective solution.

As always, the issue of funding is of paramount concern. Education administrators, policy makers, and the general public want to see their hard-earned tax dollars and budgets put to good use. The idea of providing college-level education to incarcerated students via local community colleges does just this. When each prison purchases the required texts for a particular course – say 5 textbooks per course – they can allow their prisoner participants to utilize these time and time again. Hence, the same investment in books can allow hundreds of students to obtain a higher education. The same is true with any other form of required materials. Even better, the community colleges could donate old editions of the textbooks for the prisons to utilize. This way it is a win-win situation. The community colleges donate the old textbooks they no longer need and the incarcerated students can utilize them to gain a higher education. Other methods of instruction have completely removed the textbook costs by utilizing computers with a secured connection to the community college to deliver the coursework and instruction.

Last, but still very important, a detailed analysis must be made by both the local community college administration and the local prison administration. This analysis must answer questions of cost, security, implementation, feasibility, and the potential utilization of existing networks. No program should be implemented without detailed planning, a limited pilot program, and a strong focus upon research and results. As such, a mechanism must be in place to measure the successes of any implemented program, to record student progress, and to gauge the effectiveness of the various parts of the program. This way, as researchers and administrators reflect back upon the program, they can measure its effectiveness and isolate areas where improvement is needed. Then, other prisons and prison systems can follow suit and base their programs upon the research and experience recorded by the various pilot programs.

Too often, when discussing college programming in prison, the focus is shifted toward the cost of implementing new programs or dealing with potential political backlash. By utilizing existing resources much can be accomplished. After all, the existing networks are already proven and somewhat current, hence feasible. When we combine what is already there with what is feasible, we can go much further than previously believed. Then, when the truth of the issue is placed on the table – that we aren't really dealing with numbers, but lives – the costs and energy required to implement such programs seems that much less important. The benefit outweighs the cost by a factor of five!