Internet provides more education options for inmates—if they can access them

A new online course is being made available to students across a spectrum of backgrounds that holds great promise for prisoners preparing for re-integration into society. Designed to suit the needs of a broad range of populations. Alison, a company based out of Galway, Ireland, has launched a new set of courses for their Advanced Diploma in Workforce Re-entry Skills , part of their growing massive open online course (MOOC) program.The course is offered free of charge, as part of a growing trend amongst institutions the world over. But what differentiates Alison’s programs is its focus on practical skill acquirement, rather than university-style classes. These courses provide for the development of competence in a wide variety of areas that are valuable in and of themselves, but are also important to those wishing to go on to further studies.

Included in the program are courses that teach digital and computer literacy. Their courses provide the basics of computer knowledge—even explaining the fundamentals of how a mouse works. The programs are also extremely flexible, an important consideration for the incarcerated which many other college programs do not account for. Access to computers/tablets and internet (which are easily monitored) are critical tools for online education that could help make the difference in reducing recidivism.

It continues to be heartening to see how many organizations are dedicated to expanding the access of education globally. Unfortunately, the bulk of American prisons do not share that level of commitment, and are reluctant to provide the infrastructure to make these plans a reality. While, of course, programs like these will be accessible to inmates upon release they would be best served as an option while still incarcerated, to give them a head-start on their reintegration efforts.


Pitfall in path to Pell Grants

The recent announcements of the pilot project restoring Pell Grants to qualified inmates has been greeted almost universally with praise; there is no question that the positive social and economic outcomes of this initiative will be huge.  But while we should certainly applaud these measures, we must remember that there’s an important step that becomes before inmates can even think about accessing college courses, let alone the grant system: the GED.

However, as a recent piece in the Guardian highlights,  tens of thousands of inmates in United States correctional facilities are waiting just to take GED classes. Functional literacy rates among prisoners are astoundingly low when compared to the general population; I cannot count the number of times I have been called on in FCI Petersburg to help inmates read and or draft even the most basic of documents.

As I outline in College for Convicts, within the Federal Bureau of Prisons, it is a requirement that prisoners either earn a GED, or spend an equivalent amount of time in classes. This likely conjures up images of prisons filled with classrooms where inmates spend their days behind desks. But given budgetary restraints and increasing cutbacks to prisons the reality is that in institutions like mine, less than 10% of the population are actually able to access the GED program. Many prisoners will spend their entire time behind bars on a waiting list to get in. New testing methods for obtaining GEDs were enacted in 2014 using computers, which will help streamline efforts, but unless a prisoner has basic computer proficiency, again we’re putting the cart before the horse.

When we have a population of people who are eager and willing to improve their situation, to leave these institutions with the intention of helping others, why wouldn’t we afford them that basic right—and it is a right under Federal Bureau law.

So if we want the recent changes to the Pell Grant system to have real meaning in our criminal justice system, let’s also make sure that we ensure that the building blocks for accessing them are also in place. If we are committed to seeing these programs succeed, to producing the results that lead to decreased recidivism, strong social networks, and healthy communities, we need to give prisoners the tools to make that happen. And to do that, we must keep the pressure on Obama to take a serious look at basic education funding in correctional institutions as well.

As the old adage goes, “celebrate today, but fight tomorrow.”

Pell Grants Extended to Support Prison Education

In the spring of 2015, the Obama administration made the exciting announcement that it would temporarily make state and federal prisoners eligible for Pell grants, extending the federal education grants to also cover college costs for prisoners. 

“America is a nation of second chances," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “Giving people who have made mistakes in their lives a chance to get back on track and become contributing members of society is fundamental to who we are. It can also be a cost-saver for taxpayers."

The Second Chance Pell Pilot program will last 3-5 years and be open to prisoners who are eligible for release, particularly within the next five years. Inmates could be eligible for the money as early as fall 2016.

This is the first time federal funding has become available for prisoners since Congress excluded them from student aid in 1994. Learn more about Prison Education’s Controversial History

The pilot program will have a significant impact on not only prisoners, but also for families of prisoners, communities across the U.S. and for the overall economy. Visit our Prison Education Facts section to learn more about:

How Prison Education Reduces Recidivism

How Prison Education improves Communities and the Economy

How national organizations and well-known businesspeople back prison education

And more! 



NY State alliance designed to close gaps in prison education system

Cornell's prison education programs encourage the development of critical analysis and intellectual development.

Cornell's prison education programs encourage the development of critical analysis and intellectual development.

For anyone imprisoned, the possibility of a transfer can be very disruptive emotionally; after spending years in the same facility you become accustomed to the same faces and routines. But the impact can be far more serious when an individual is in the process of completing an education program when it happens. A student may find that they’ve lost credits; someone who has nearly completed a degree over many years may suddenly find they’re forced to start all over again. The result for many is that their efforts are completely derailed and some cases, abandoned altogether. Yet it’s a factor that very few (if any) institutions take into account when organizing such moves.

It’s a serious crack in the system that has widespread ramifications for anti-recidivism efforts and one of the reasons that several of the top prison education providers in New York State have formed the New York Consortium for Higher Education in Prison (NYCHEP). Guiding the creation of the alliance was the recognition of precisely the kind of difficulties students in prison face in ensuring the transferability of credits when changing facilities.

One of the members of the new consortium is Cornell’s Prison Education program, a highly respected provider of quality university-level education to New York prisons. Cornell (along with other institutions like NYU) have been at the fore of implementing innovative college instruction programs, providing one of the best examples of effective quality prison education; their prison educators include some of the best thinkers in their respective fields. Unfortunately, because of budgetary constraints (they are donor-funded) the program is limited to accepting but a few students each year (though they hope that the recently announced changes to the Pell Grant system may help improve that situation); only about 10% of those who apply are accepted. And so for this institution it’s particularly important that when a student is transferred out of their program that their efforts are not laid to waste.

But even with the high quality level of the instruction and curriculum provided through Cornell, along with fellow NYCHEP members, they all recognized that these benefits are seriously hindered in the absence of a continuity of standards throughout all organizations that serve the prison community. They have joined with these other groups to work towards “streamlining” the system and achieve a degree of universality and standardization common to them all. Doing so will not only assist students while incarcerated, but also allow them to transition into formalized education programs upon release. It will also allow better measurement and tracking of student needs and outcomes, all of which will assist program developers.

The process has only just begun, but it’s a critical development and the timing could not be more critical. With the impending changes to Pell Grants meaning possible funding shifts to the federal level, it will be more important than ever for organizations to be able to demonstrate continuity in terms of quality and accreditation 


Completing the education circle with financial knowledge

Curtis Carroll, AKA "Wall Street"

Curtis Carroll, AKA "Wall Street"

Zak Williams may not be as well-known as his late father, Robin Williams, but the impact he is having on the lives of others is no less note-worthy. A Columbia MBA, Williams has been working at San Quentin State Prison to provide prisoners with important financial skills to help facilitate their rehabilitation efforts. 

He is working alongside the inmate known as “Wall Street,” Curtis Carroll. Carroll is serving a life sentence, but knows the value of such classes given his own misguided focus on crime for financial gain.  So they’ve developed a popular program at the facility to help inmates avoid many of the pitfalls that can lead to disaster.

Preparing an inmate for re-entry into the working world goes beyond providing them with literacy and job skills, because getting a job is really only the first step towards making a life outside the walls of an institution. Many prisoners will be leaving the facilities with few to no financial resources; they might literally be starting at rock bottom. They will need to learn how to re-establish credit, they may have existing debts, and they may have a history of “high risk” decisions that may actually have played a role in their incarceration.

The banking habits of many of the poor rely on predatory lenders cashing “payday loans” and delving them further and further into debt. And unfortunately for some of those desperate people, it leads them to crime. With little knowledge about financial management, saving, debt reduction, retirement preparations, or investment, many who left that life for one in prison, are bound to return to it. Some facilities currently offer large-scale classes on the subject, but inmates find that without opportunities for in-depth or one-on-one interactions, their scope is too limited to be of help. Williams and Carroll are changing the way these programs are run, and the results so far are promising.

We push for educating inmates because we want them to leave prison with the skills needed to become contributing members of society—so why financial information is so often precluded from curriculum is a mystery. Especially given that one study has identified that there is a much higher likelihood of former inmates working freelance or in an entrepreneurial capacity, where financial knowledge is critical. Financial education is also important for their time while they’re incarcerated; it is all too easy for people to take advantage of the loved ones of those in prison.

While finally gaining your freedom is clearly a celebratory moment, re-entry can be absolutely terrifying for those who are unprepared for the challenges of day-to-day life in a world that is dramatically different from the one they left. The contributions of the likes of Carroll and Williams are seriously underrated, but ones that we can hope will be expanded to other institutions across the country. Financial acumen is an important element of the education puzzle that’s frequently lost in prison programs, yet it might well be one of the most important.

New prison-oriented tablet released

The new JP5mini from JPay

The new JP5mini from JPay

JPay has just released a new tablet, the JP5mini, an Android-based tablet that’s specifically designed to deal with some of the rigours of use in the prison setting. Its purchase cost to inmates is $69.99, and there are additional per-use fees with it. Its casing is more durable than the typical tablet's,  its firmware is locked and the programs allow prison officials to screen content.

JPay is not a company without controversy, specifically as regards its financial gouging of inmates and their families, not unlike other companies discussed.  But they do seem to be demonstrating some enthusiasm over opening up possibilities for online education with their technology, if their CEO's words are any indication.

But while JPay has been quick to tout the importance of the tablet to improving access to educational resource and online courses, it’s important to note that American Prison Data Systems are also providing inmates with tablets for entertainment and educational purposes, but at no cost to the prisoners themselves. And would seem to me that if JPay is truly committed to reducing recidivism through education—as they suggest on their blog—then they should follow suit in those cases where the tablets are being used for the dedicated purposes of coursework. After all, it's counter-productive to require individuals engaged in online study to pay $70 for the unit and then $0.40 for a digital stamp each time they want to contact an instructor. A system which differentiates between personal use and educational use would hardly be difficult to implement.

The technology offers promise nevertheless, and we look forward to seeing how it develops and hope that appropriate infrastructure that allows access to educational resources is developed alongside it. Because as long as we’re only providing access to these tools to those who have financial means, its potential impact on recidivism will remain unrealized.


UK Justice Secretary calling for improved prison education

Michael Gove, UK Secretary of State for Justice

Michael Gove, UK Secretary of State for Justice

By Christopher Zoukis

In a recent speech, newly-appointed UK Secretary of State for Justice, MP Michael Gove echoed what so many prison reform advocates have been saying for decades: education is key to reducing recidivism. In doing so, he appears to be demonstrating a commitment to making prison education a top priority in his portfolio. Gove has called not only for an overhaul of the prison education system, but also for the possibility of earned early release for those inmates demonstrating commitment to learning.  

He began his tenure as Secretary by removing the previous limits to the number of books prisoners could have in their cells.  Admittedly the 12-book ban was actually deemed unlawful by the high courts, but Gove praised the decision highlighting the importance such decisions have for providing the skills inmates will need upon release in order to succeed.

Some critics have pointed out, however, that while Gove is eager to ease the burden on over-crowded prisons through early release and education-based programming, the same emphasis has yet to be placed on reducing the number of individuals incarcerated in the first place. Because education does not only reduce recidivism, it reduces crime itself by tackling one of its root causes: poverty. 

Many in England and Wales have been fearful of announcements to come from the Conservative minister may fall in line with Thatcher-esque focus on efficiency and cost-containment, so the recent announcement comes as some relief to prison advocates and opposition party members. The supposed vision for a “Rehabilitation Revolution” was first expressed by Gove’s predecessor in 2010, and has yet to produce any solution to the problems of over-crowding, cuts to legal aid, violence, and recidivism.  But for the moment, at least, prisoners in the UK may have reason to be hopeful.

Opening up a world of reading opportunities for youth offenders

By Christopher Zoukis

Recently librarian and literacy advocate Amy Cheney recounted an experience of teaching young offenders in a max unit how they could read to their children and/or younger siblings. One of the most poignant moments in her account, is her recollection that of the six girls in her group, just one of them had been read to as a child. She posited further that the lack of reflective characters in books generally must have had a significant impact on their young minds. The piece goes on to list several titles—both chidren’s and YA—that embrace the type of diversity Cheney sees as being critical to young minds from marginalized backgrounds. 

It’s an important piece we want to share, one that highlights how critical reading is to breaking the cycles of poverty and crime. It is not simply a question of literacy—although literacy skills are clearly imperative when it comes to rehabilitating prisoners—but also one of broadening a young mind’s understanding of the world at large, allowing them to see themselves as part of that greater whole, reflecting the realities of their environments and situations, and affirming their value as human beings.

When Britain’s ban on sending books to prison (which was ultimately overturned) passed last year, a former youth offender had this to say when speaking of the impact of reading on turning his own life around:

“We should know from history…that we become a little less human when books are attacked. We should support any creative alternative to the dominant prison culture: boredom, hopelessness, violence, self-centred pettiness. Books cannot take the blame for the prevalence of drugs or religious extremism in our prisons; they can help create empathy, encourage thoughtfulness and reflection and represent the possibility of change.”

And this is what having books in prison fundamentally boils down to: it opens a prisoner’s eyes to the possibility of another future.

I urge anyone who a loved one in juvenile detention to head to Cheney’s site for a list of titles chosen specifically for their relevance to marginalized and imprisoned readers. 

The surprising new source of prison education advocacy

Prison education advocacy is coming from an unlikely country: Lebanon.

Minister of Education and Higher Learning Elias Bou-Saab

The country is generally only on America’s radar for its assistance in the conflict against ISIL and a fractured and complex internal political state. But despite the beleaguered state of the nation at the moment, the Minister has seen fit to prioritize the rehabilitation of prison populations.

This past week, Education Minister Elias Bou Saab announced his desire to see complete educational facilities integrated into the nation’s prisons. His comments came on the heels of a recent visit to a woman’s prison where he met women with women in the process of taking the first ever Life Sciences Baccalaureate exam hosted inside a prison. The visit formed part of a widespread initiative by the Minister to examine the state of education across the country.

Like so many of us involved in prison education, Bou Saab has realized how important education is to providing hope to inmates, and fostering their will to make a better life for themselves and their communities upon release. He noted that he would be discussing the building of education facilities within Lebanese prisons with the Minister of the Interior.

If a country as mired in conflict and political gridlock, with one of the most infamous prison systems in the world, can appreciate the role that prison education plays in contributing to a strong social and economic fabric, and prioritize it accordingly, what’s our excuse?

New Zealand Prisoners in the Information Age: NZ's Newest Prison Permits Inmates to Use Cell Phones, Computers, and Tablets

By Christopher Zoukis

NZ's Newest Prison Permits Inmates to Use Cell Phones, Computers, and Tablets.

NZ's Newest Prison Permits Inmates to Use Cell Phones, Computers, and Tablets.

Excerpt from original article published in The Huffington Post on May 27, 2015.

In an era where American prison administrators are losing the battle against illicit cell phone usage in our nation's prisons and lawmakers are creating draconian criminal statues to punish offenders, New Zealand's newest prison, the high-security Auckland South Corrections Facility in Wiri (which is also known as Kohuora), is permitting inmates to use both cell phones and computers, plus some to use tablet computers, in their cells.

The new $300 million, 960-bed prison, which is operated by private prison provider Serco(1), opened May 8, 2015, but prisoners didn't start arriving until May 18. Between 60 and 70 inmates will arrive weekly at the prison through August. The complex consists of 30 buildings, including inmate housing units, recreational facilities, a school, and buildings designed for inmate industry activities. At maximum capacity it will house a quarter of the country's prisoners.

Serco also operates the same "responsible prisoner model" in its prisons in the United Kingdom. Both there and in Wiri inmates have access to cell phones, through which they can call pre-approved numbers, and televisions, which have a keyboard and mouse attached to aid in educational programming. All telephone calls are monitored and prisoners can't call one another. The televisions, which have computer functionality, do not allow for internet access.

You can read the full article on The Huffington Post.

Incarcerated Writer Christopher Zoukis Vindicated!

All Incident Reports Overturned and Expunged

After being issues three incident reports for allegedly conducting a business, Christopher Zoukis was recently vindicated once again.

After being issues three incident reports for allegedly conducting a business, Christopher Zoukis was recently vindicated once again.

By Middle Street Publishing

It is with great pride and joy that we at Middle Street Publishing share the terrific news that embattled prison writer Christopher Zoukis has been vindicated once again! He's now back available via email and can again make telephone calls from Federal Correctional Institution Petersburg following his victorious fight with the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The History: The 2012 Incident Reports

In 2012, Chris was issued three incident reports for allegedly conducting a business. The alleged business was the free "Education Behind Bars Newsletter" (EBBN). Prison staff, led by Special Investigation Supervisor (SIS) Department agents, decided that the free EBBN was a business because the publisher accepted donations and advertisements to help defray her costs. Rather unsurprisingly, those involved with the publication disagreed.

As a result of the incident reports, Chris was confined to the FCI Petersburg Special Housing Unit (SHU) for five months and had his email and telephone restricted for over a year. While in the hole he managed to dodge a retaliatory transfer to USP Lee, a maximum-security federal prison. As a result of the ongoing harassment and retaliatory actions by FCI Petersburg staff, Chris and his family retained the services of renowned criminal defense attorneys Alan Ellis and Todd Bussert. Together they fought the BOP back into their corner. While it took some time, all three of the incident reports were eventually overturned on appeal and Chris' record was expunged.

Recent Events: The 2014 Incident Reports

In late 2014 Chris was again subjected to a series of retaliatory incident reports for his writing endeavors. This time SIS agents issued him four incident reports for allegedly conducting a business. The business this time included writing articles for "The Huffington Post," inquiring about the number of Facebook likes and Twitter tweets that his articles receive, asking a friend to start printing and mailing him his "Prison Legal News" writing assignments, offering to help a fellow prisoners' rights activist update his prison survival guide, and obtaining his own personal credit reports. For this he was sanctioned to nine months loss of email, six months loss of telephone, and three months loss of commissary and visitation.

As in 2012, Chris again retained the services of attorneys Alan Ellis and Todd Bussert. This time he also retained noted First Amendment attorneys Steve Rosenfield and Jeff Fogel. After seven months of fighting the Federal Bureau of Prisons, all of the adverse findings were overturned on appeal and Chris' record once again cleared.

The Path From Here

With Chris back in daily communications with us we proceed forward with our prison education and prisoners' rights advocacy. While we had to slow down somewhat due to communications being delayed, we can now push forward and make 2015 the year that it is meant to be. For this means a new series of research papers and possibly a more robust section on in-prison and correspondence education programs for prisoners. For this means a new, online directory of federal prisons which will provide information on every federal prison, along with a new design by the team at MKT Communications. And for this means regular postings profiling Chris' reform and publication efforts.

As for Chris, while he's still under many levels of monitoring (after all, all of his emails, postal mail, and telephone calls are now monitored by SIS staff), he's looking forward to June when his next book, "Correspondence Courses for Prisoners," will be released by Prison Legal News Publishing. He's also looking forward to getting back into the swing of things and preparing for a series of interviews with CBS, NBC, and several websites and podcasts. In his words, "It's time to do what we do best: push forward and raise our voices for our brothers and sisters behind bars who don't have a voice loud enough to raise above the din of prison censorship."

We couldn't agree more.

College for Convicts Book Receives Award

Incarcerated writer Christopher Zoukis 
proves the case for Prisoner Education

Petersburg, VA - Eric Hoffer was a moral and social philosopher who was lauded as one of America’s free thinking writers and a champion for the underclass of working men. It’s interesting that a writer who is currently behind bars in FCI Petersburg has won an Eric Hoffer award - since his free thinking thoughts can be tough to get out of the prison system.

College for Convicts - The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons, published by McFarland & Company, has been awarded the Montaigne Medal for most thought-provoking book. His book advocates that while it may seem expensive to educate prisoners, the resulting drop in recidivism is worthwhile.

“It’s quite an honor for my book to receive the Montaigne Medal - given that it was named after Michel De Montaigne, who was passionate about education and the way it was taught. He believed in individualized learning so that everyone could benefit. That’s exactly what I hope to convey in my book,” says Zoukis.

"Incarcerated author Zoukis gives excellent examples to demonstrate that the US would benefit from higher education for inmates by preparing them for life after prison. The author cites statistics showing prisoners with higher education have a much lower recidivism rate, reducing prison overcrowding and saving society billions. The book ends with important appendices on the FBP's position, on becoming pen pals with prisoners, funding, free book, & more. A strongly suggested purchase. Highly recommended. All public & academic levels/libraries." - M. G. Meacham of Valdosta State University

Zoukis is a prison rights advocate who won the 2011 PEN American Center Prison Writing Award for two works, and is a member of the American Bar Association, National Writers Union and the American Civil Liberties Union. He contributes to the Huffington Post, Prison Legal News, and Blog Critics. For more information, visit his blog at


To book an interview contact:
Rachel Sentes, Publicist, 604-366-7846

What The U.S. Can Learn From Prison Reform Efforts Throughout The World

Image courtesy

Image courtesy

By Joseph Erbentraut

It should come as no surprise that with the worst incarceration rate in the world, the United States has a massive problem on its hands.

With roughly 716 of every 100,000 U.S. residents behind bars, the U.S. locks up nearly one-quarter of the entire world’s prison population. Worse yet, when American inmates are released, they are extremely likely to return. The most recent recidivism data for state prisoners, reported by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, shows 68 percent are back behind bars within three years.

Efforts to reduce the American prison population that are already underway, including a push for drug-sentencing reform and some new investments in rehabilitation programs, have had some success. Last year, the federal prison population declined for the first time in over a decade.

Still, there’s still a long way to go -- and a lot American policymakers could learn from progress made in other parts of the world. Here are some unexpected places where prison reform efforts are having an impact.

Norway: “Nature is a rehabilitation thing now”

In Norway, many prisons are “open,” allowing inmates to take part in recreational activities like swimming and tennis and to work in the facility’s farm or to repair bicycles, just to name a few examples. Inmates are housed in private cells in wooden cottages equipped with a flat-screen TV, a mini-refrigerator and a private bathroom.

One example of an open prison is Norway’s Halden facility, a 75-acre maximum-security prison surrounded by blueberry woods, just across the border from Sweden. It has been described as the “most humane” prison in the world. According to the New York Times, the modern facility is focused entirely on rehabilitation, as reflected by the Norwegian Correctional Service’s motto: “Better out than in.” The country has focused on job training, therapy and education since its corrections program was overhauled in 1998.

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Prisoners Train Shelter Dogs for Adoption

By Claudia Kawczynska

Seven years ago, in May of 2008, Monty’s Home in Southeastern North Carolina, received state approval to start its first Pawsitive Partners Prison Program (PPPP), in conjunction with the Pender Correctional Institution, in nearby Burgaw, NC. President and co-founder Barbara Rabb was on an educational mission to use her dog training skills to shelter dogs to make them more adoptable. Bringing her organizational skills to the task, she enlisted the services of other dog trainers and convinced the local correction facility to establish a prison pup program to provide basic companion dog training for pet dogs. Monty’s Home’s volunteers help train the inmate-trainers, and they select dogs who had met basic temperament evaluations from local shelters; they also assume costs such as vet bills, grooming supplies, food, toys, bedding, etc, all expenses associated with proper canine care and training.

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You'll have to break the law to use this unbreakable, unhackable Android tablet

Image courtesy Cheryl Hurd / NBC

Image courtesy Cheryl Hurd / NBC

By Andy Boxall

How would you like to use a specially modified, 7-inch Samsung Galaxy tablet, that’s not only almost unbreakable, but also extremely secure, after having been tinkered with by security experts to make it practically unhackable? Sound tempting? Well, it’s within most people’s grasp, but there is a caveat — you’re going to have to go to prison.

This is the APDS tablet, and it’s being sold to prisons for use by inmates. The prices vary between $600 and $1,000, which isn’t paid by the prisoner, but by the prison itself. Why would prisons spend so much money on an entertainment device for people who have broken the law, and given up their freedom?

It’s all about education. Statistics show that inmates who learn while incarcerated are far less likely to offend again when released. The tablet is designed as a supplement to prison educational programs, and paying out $1,000 for a tablet to enhance these programs is far more cost effective than the estimated $30,000 per year it costs to keep a prisoner locked up.

The approach is different to other technology companies working alongside for-profit prison systems, according to Christopher Grewe, CEO of APDS, who spoke to the International Business Times recently. He said rather than “selling pacification” by providing entertainment services on the tablet, APDS is about “selling education.” When the company was in its infancy back in 2013, APDS’s COO Adam Smith said its aim was to “supply education, rehabilitation, job training, and placement” to prisoners.

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Former Inmate Gives Back By Encouraging Others to Pursue Education

Gina McConnell-Otten / Image courtesy

Gina McConnell-Otten / Image courtesy

Shira Moskowitz

Gina McConnell-Otten turned 12 the day she ran away to escape her abusive home in Lake Stevens. She was 15 when she got addicted to cocaine and 29 when she served her first sentence in a Washington state corrections center on 17 felony counts for drugs, forgery, possession of stolen property and identity theft.

She later served another seven years on similar charges.

That was then. Now, the 45-year-old AmeriCorps volunteer has turned her life around by giving back to her community, staying free of drugs and setting an example for others that there is a chance at a productive life after prison.

“It doesn’t matter what prison you walk into in the state of Washington, they all smell the same and that’s the smell of a lack of hope,” said McConnell-Otten of Kalama.

She’s currently a teacher in Longview’s Goodwill Industries’ job and education training program and has spent the past three years stepping back into jail — this time, as an volunteer advocate who encourages female inmates to pursue a college education after they serve their time behind bars.

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Taking the Charter School Approach to Prison

By Andra Ghent

America spends a lot of money locking up a lot of people. Understandably, legislators are trying to find ways of cutting prison costs without increasing crime rates. One tactic legislators increasingly rely on to manage costs is private prisons. Research from the Sentencing Project shows that, between 1999 and 2010, the share of U.S. prisoners housed in private prisons grew by more than 50%. What those prisons need, however, is an incentive to do better than public institutions—and a hint from a successful part of the U.S. education system.

Legislators are right to harness the power of market incentives to reduce costs. Given the right economic incentives, the private sector can be more efficient and creative than government.

Yet private prisons are failing to do the two things they should do best: reducing costs and recidivism rates. Research from Yale University has shown that, after controlling for demographics and the type of crime committed, private prisons have higher recidivism rates than government-run prisons. Research from the University of Wisconsin has also shown that, compared with publicly operated prisons, private-prison inmates serve a larger fraction of their sentences and are more likely to receive an infraction for poor behavior that can prolong their prison stay.

While the Wisconsin research didn’t pinpoint the source of the increased infractions, there are two reasons private prisons have higher infractions. First, private prisons earn more revenue when inmates serve more of their sentence. Second, private prisons’ cost-cutting measures—such as reduced staffing and more cramped quarters—lead to more violence among inmates.

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The Uphill Battle to Make Prison Safer for Trans Women

Christopher Zoukis is a huge supporter of the struggles of trans gender people in prison, especially after a recent incident with a prisoner in Virginia. 

That's why I was so happy to contribute this article in Vice:

If you have a chance to read it we highly recommend it.

Photo of Ashley Jean Arnold by author.

Photo of Ashley Jean Arnold by author.

New documentary showcases life inside nation's first prison high school is excited to share news about an upcoming feature-length documentary that delves inside the first-ever high school built inside an adult prison in the United States.

Filmmakers Richard O’Connell and Annelise Wunderlich have just completed principal photography on The Corridor, a true-to-life depiction of the world inside Five Keys charter school at San Francisco County Jail. The film follows students, teachers and deputized staff at the 10-year-old school along their journey to graduation.

The film also shares our message at that education is key to reducing recidivism and is in the best interests of our society.

“Our goal is not to make the case for a restorative approach to criminal justice, nor is the film a promotion of any particular strategy,” explains Wunderlich.

“But we do hope that it will provide insight into the potential for jail-based education to reduce recidivism, while allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions about some of the larger issues like mass incarceration, the ‘School to Jail’ pipeline, and the legacy of the ‘War on Drugs’.

With support from the San Francisco Foundation and BAVC (Bay Area Video Coalition), the film was created with the aim of being broadcast nationally on PBS along with acclaimed documentary series P.O.V. 

Five Keys was started over 10 years ago by then San Francisco County sheriff Michael Hennessey. Aware that 70 percent of inmates in U.S. jails never finish high school, he persuaded the San Francisco Unified School District to support a high school inside the jail.

We're not surprised it was an overwhelming success.

“Five Keys Charter School opened with over 200 students,” says O’Connell. “Within three years, it was already apparent that graduates were far less likely to return to jail, and by 2006 the county decided to rebuild its jail with the school at its physical and figurative centre — we think that is an astonishing story.”

The filmmakers still need funding to make their documentary a reality, you can help them out via their trailer on Kickstarter:

For more information about the project, see website