Providing College To Prison Inmates Series (Part 5)

This is the fifth blog post in the ‘Providing College To Prison Inmates Series.’ This series is based upon seven ‘Recommendations for Policy and Practice’ presented by Contardo on pages 154 through 156 of her text Providing College To Prison Inmates.

"Borrow lessons learned from other states and adapt them to fit circumstances." --Contardo (pg. 155)

Creating effective correctional educational programming is challenging. The same is true of creating anything new. But within the prison setting, many more challenges present themselves challenges like the ones addressed in the fourth blog post of this series.

Three of the premier challenges are in planning, implementation, and politics. Planning, because this is a relatively uncharted field, as compared to normal education, which causes planning to be less precise and placed under greater scrutiny. Implementation is a challenge because many complex components need to mesh and run smoothly. This is because in an institution where security is the primary objective, every contingency must be identified, nothing left to chance. And politics, because educating those convicted of crimes is a very touchy issue, especially in this economically tumultuous time.

Even with these vast challenges, the end goal – rehabilitating prisoners – has been achieved in a handful of states through a handful of educational programs. What these programs show us is that it is possible to educate prisoners even at the highest academic levels. This is quite a refreshing thought when one thinks of all of the restrictions in place in the prison setting. These programs show us a roadmap for what has been done and what can be done. While not every policy or practice will work in every institution, many of the policies and practices can be successfully implemented. They can, at the very least, point us in the right direction.

With this being said, two correctional education programs come to mind. Please consider these to be just topical summaries of these programs, volumes have been written upon each. These are merely to start you on your research and/or to point you in the right direction, to stimulate thought, not to fully analyze.

The North Carolina Prison System offers one of the best examples of what prison systems across the country can implement in their prisons. Since the 1980s, the North Carolina Prison System has partnered with the North Carolina Community College System to provide both adult basic education and college-level education to prisoners in North Carolina State Prisons. These courses are offered in a variety of formats (e.g. in person, correspondence, video conferencing, etc.) and in all 79 prisons in the system. The foundation of this correctional educational program is in the vital partnership between prison system and community college system. Since community colleges exist in every state of the country, this could be a viable option to any prison system.

The New Mexico Prison System is another of note. Recently – in 2008 I believe – they have implemented a program of college-level study which utilizes secured internet connections to facilitate learning. Prisoners at a number of prisons in New Mexico can log on to a computer at their facility, connect with the sponsoring college, and do their coursework. The ingenious aspect of this program is that it is expanding and will soon be available in every prison in the New Mexico State Prison System. Hence, regardless of where the prisoner might be transferred to, their studies will not be interrupted. While still a pilot program, it has immense potential for not only New Mexico State Prisons, but prisons across the country, as a very cost-effective and easy-to-implement educational program.

Naturally, more research is needed than just reading these two paragraphs. But they do present two very different methods of providing an education to prisoners in two vastly different prison systems. Perhaps one of these two methods would work for the incarcerated students in your prison system? And do remember that modifications are expected. These programs won't work elsewhere without tweaking them for the specifics of your prison system.

Whether you decide to create a completely new program or to follow in the footsteps of one already in existence, don't hesitate to contact those who have already successfully implemented or currently manage such programs. These people can be huge sources of help and inspiration for your own efforts. They can act as a consultant, but instead of a paid consultant, someone who deeply cares about educating prisoners and wants to see the new programs adopted. They are your best source of experience and knowledge in the area.

As you've seen, there is no single correct way to educate prisoners. Neither is there a secret formula which always works. The only answer is to see what has worked in the past – and what is doing so in the present – and adopt the features that can work for your prison system. It's a very complex topic, but at the same time very ordinary. Learn from observing, then attempt to mimic what works for you. Think of these programs as your instructor and you'll save time in the planning and implementation stages of the program which you are attempting to facilitate. Good luck!

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I recommend reading Providing College To Prison Inmates by Jeanne Bayer Contardo for more information on the North Carolina Prison System and their partnership with the North Carolina Community College System. As for further reading about New Mexico's innovative correctional education program, I recommend picking up a copy of my book, Education Behind Bars: A Win-Win Strategy for Maximum Security by Christopher Zoukis. It will be available in December of this year from Sunbury Press.