Bard Prison Initiative Celebrates 14th Commencement

By Christopher Zoukis

Success of the Bard Prison Initiative was reinforced this year as the 14th commencement was celebrated last month at the medium security Woodbourne Correctional Facility in New York. The men’s prison saw 30 students awarded Associate in Arts Degrees - degrees they earned behind bars!

BPI graduate Lionel J Johnson recently gave an impassioned speech about the achievement: “What we have achieved together, all of us together, is not ordinary. [To] have transformed this environment into a campus for higher learning: that’s not ordinary, that’s extraordinary . . . I leave you all with this thought: be, because you can, extraordinary.” Johnson also spoke about their David-and-Goliath moment winning against the Harvard debate team- surely an adequate representation of many of the challenges these inmates have overcome to complete their educational goals and graduate from college.

Overall, the Bard Prison Initiative will have awarded more than 400 degrees by the end of this year, in an effort to continue to reduce recidivism and enact criminal justice reform. The program focuses on a mix of developmental skills and college study. Over 60 courses are offered each semester.

The Bard initiative began in 2001 after an expansion of a 1999 Bard student led initiative to tutor in prisons. Starting with 15 students, the goal was to provide college opportunities inside the prison system of New York State. From 15 students, the Initiative now enrols 300 men and women inside of six prisons across the state 3 maximum-security and 3 medium -security prisons. Bard College, a four year residential college of the liberal arts and sciences, which spearheads the Initiative, also leads the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison, which helps other colleges and universities across the country establish similar projects in prisons, including Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Goucher College in Maryland, and the University of Notre Dame and Holy Cross College in Indiana.

The Bard Prison Initiative has been very successful in reducing recidivism. Without educational opportunities, as many as half of released inmates will return to prison, with 68% being arrested within 3 years. This rate falls significantly with educational opportunities while incarcerated, with rates of recidivism less than 22%. Formerly incarcerated Bard students see a less than 2% rate of recidivism. Not only are rates of recidivism severely reduced, but costs of running the educational programs are much less than that of continuing or re-incarceration. BPI is also largely dependent on private funding.

Admission to the program is highly competitive, and each inmate undergoes a written exam and personal interview, and must have a high school diploma. Participants are accepted based on these, and their dedication to the program, and it is an achievement to even be accepted into the program, as typically there are 10 applications for each spot.  Courses are taught by Bard faculty and visiting professors, and all courses are taught onsite. All students enrolled are working towards a college degree.

The Initiative, and the Consortium, is another successful example of a comprehensive program working to reduce recidivism and prison costs, while providing educational opportunities to inmates, working to reduce mass incarceration. Continuing to recognize the significant role that educational opportunities play in our society is essential, and more opportunities like this need to be provided and expanded.

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 and

Summer college course sheds light on prison pipeline

By Christopher Zoukis

Evidence continues to mount that the school-to-prison pipeline is a huge issue in our education system, contributing to the mass incarceration across United States.

Yet the vast majority of our educators lack the knowledge and training necessary to implement changes that currently contribute to juvenile justice and recidivism. If we don’t properly equip our teacher, we are in turn setting up our youth to fail.

Thankfully, some educators are taking steps to resolve this lingering problem. One of the best I’ve heard of lately is the New England College Summer Institute for Educators, which this year has a course called A Teachers Role in Breaking the School to Prison Pipeline.

The summer institute has been offered since 2001, and offers courses that are developed in response to current issues, needs, and goals of schools and institutions, and which offer educators accreditation – required hours, graduate program credits, and practical tools and skills to enhance their teaching and improve learning. Other courses offered this year included Dynamics of Educational Reform and Systems Change, Social Problem Solving and Student Centered Learning.

The 4-day course on breaking the school to prison pipeline was offered with a goal of deepening the understanding of issues related to the school to prison pipeline, including inequality, systemic criminalization of youth, discipline policies, structural racism, and the prison industrial complex. The course, taught by Charles Virga, was worth 3 credits and offered at the graduate level.

While the idea of the Summer Institute is great – there are now many articles, online resources, and toolkits to help teachers and other staff realize their role on how to break the school to prison pipeline. But we need these across America if we want to educate teachers about needed reforms as well as new innovations.

Hands-on initiatives and educational opportunities like this are given, and encouraged, to our educators, teachers, and school staff, so that each person who is front of the line in the educational system can develop an awareness of the consequences of certain disciplinary actions, and how the current system embodies systemic, unequal, and racist policies.

Through continued knowledge and action, as well as sufficient resources, we can continue to move towards a system that is increasingly equal, fair, and provides the best education for youth, while reducing incarceration rates.

And we need to make sure that teachers, who can bear the brunt of new programs and initiatives, know that they have resources and training, and are adequately supported.

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 and

Lawsuit upholds atrocity of forcing inmates to drink tainted water

By Christopher Zoukis

After filing a lawsuit in 2014, 4 prisoners at Wallace Pack Unit, Navasota, Tex., will hopefully be feeling some relief after US District Judge Keith Ellison recently gave the prison 15 days to replace the water supply.

However, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice says it plans to appeal the ruling, with a spokesman saying a new filtration system has been designed, and should be installed in 2017.

The lawsuit was filed in relation to unsafe drinking water, which is laden with unsafe levels of arsenic, up to 4.5 times more than that permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency, and exposure to dangerous heat levels without air conditioning, which are allegedly unsafe and could be considered cruel and unusual punishment.

One of the attorneys for the inmates said that the prison system has unacceptably known about the unsafe arsenic levels since 2006, and inmates have made comments about the extreme conditions, noting that the heat and humidity can cause difficulty breathing, as temperatures routinely exceed 100 degrees.

The inmates have not been seeking monetary damages- they just want to be in a place that is safe, and besides safe drinking water, want the inside temperature to not exceed 88 degrees. It is tragic that this is a lawsuit that even needs to happen, and it is not the first set of complaints – at least 20 prisoners have died in non-air-conditioned Texas prisons from overheating since 1998, including 10 who died in 2011 alone.

As one of the attorneys for the prisoners commented, you have taken away people’s liberty, and they are there to serve their time for the crime committed, but you have to provide certain protections, and inmates do not lose all of their rights.

While the United States does not recognize the human right to water, many other nations, and international bodies such as the United Nations, do, and this would certainly be considered a violation of the right to safe drinking water. The UN considers “The human right to water … indispensable for leading a human life in dignity” and that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential.

“We should be ensuring these rights for all people, including those who are incarcerated. It should not require lawsuits or multiple deaths before safe water is provided,” the UN says.

Unfortunately, these are not the only rights violations seen in the U.S. prison system. Prisoners can spend years, or even decades, in solitary confinement, face excessive violence or even torture, lack of access to medical care, and unfair and extreme sentencing, according to organizations such as Food and Water Watch.

All of this is a continued problem with the current mass incarceration system, which thankfully many lawmakers seem to be increasingly aware of and working to change, but clearly not enough. When we are violating our most basic rights, and denying the most basic of needs, regardless of to whom, we are doing something wrong. Provision of water and adequate shelter should be de facto, not something that needs to be earned or won.

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 and

Juvenile records create major hurdles, says study

By Christopher Zoukis

The United States has no national standard for how juvenile records are dealt with, and no states earned a five-star rating from the Juvenile Law Center, a national public interest law firm that ensures child welfare.

The center scored each state on factors such as confidentiality of records, availability of sealing of records, and expungement of records, and recommends a variety of standards and criteria to ensure fair treatment of youth.

Juvenile records, and what happens to them, can be a huge issue, as youth who have recently left prison face huge barriers for what can be even minor indiscretions, and these barriers can continue throughout their lives. They affect graduation rates, acceptance into colleges, and finding work, since many job applications and college applications will ask about even juvenile records. Those affected may even be barred from living with family in public housing.

Keeping juvenile records, and in some cases leaving them unsealed – meaning anyone can have access to not only criminal records, but even mental health and personal information – ensures that youth are not given second chances, and may continue to be punished. At-risk and disadvantaged youth become even more at risk, and are much more likely to commit another crime, whereas automatic expungement of records sees a much higher rate of juveniles remaining arrest free, and more likely to graduate from college.

But in states like Massachusetts, even a false accusation of crime, or arrest without a charge can mean records will never be expunged, and misdemeanours like disorderly conduct can disqualify the affected person from public service or becoming an adoptive parent. Idaho received a 1/5 rating on the scorecard.

Riya Saha Shah from the Juvenile Law Center sums up the issue: “Retention of juvenile records does little to improve public safety but creates significant barriers to success for youth who are trying to move beyond the mistakes they made as a kid. Permanent, open records are like a ball and chain that prevents youth from becoming productive adults, reducing opportunities for employment, eroding the tax base and can lead to increased recidivism due to reduced job prospects.” 

Not only should expungement of records be available to all juveniles, it needs to be automatic, as well as straightforward, with Alaska serving as an exemplary model. Expungement that requires a petition by the youth sees no reduction in recidivism, and complicated court proceedings, as well as high costs, can deter many in some states from seeking sealed records or expungement, if they are even aware of their eligibility.

In order to continue to reduce mass incarceration, and give youth offenders – 95%of whom were arrested for non-violent offenses – a second chance, we need to continue to reduce the barriers they face before, during, and after incarceration.

Currently, harsh policies in many states are preventing youth from successfully reintegrating into their communities, and this needs to change. Ensuring confidentiality of records, and then automatic expungement, is one way to ensure that some of these barriers to success are broken down.

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 and

White House Pledges to Invest Millions in Prison Reform

By Christopher Zoukis

The Obama administration has announced plans to spend millions to address many of the facets of a life of incarceration, from mentoring at risk youth, helping families with incarcerated parents, to addressing employment and re-entry issues.

Referencing several studies which demonstrate the effectiveness of education and re-entry programs at reducing recidivism, the President noted the programs are a much-needed start at reforming our failed prison system, ensuring that at risk and previously incarcerated individuals can become functional members of society and removing unnecessary barriers.

This announcement comes at a time when more than 2.2 million are incarcerated – more than any other country, more than 4 times the world average. The incarceration rate has grown by more than 220 percent since 1980, and sentences are longer. Incarceration rates are disproportionally high for minority groups, and many who face prison time come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and as many as 50% suffer from mental illness.

Mass incarceration is failing, particularly those who need support the most, and these programs are a step in adjusting our current prison system- ensuring we provide support to divert from the system in the first place, and give support to those leaving prison, who can become productive members of society if the right structures are in place. The programs will also be in line with current research, which suggest that every dollar spent on education is 4-5 dollars saved on future re-incarceration costs, and that a 10% increase in high school graduation rates means a 9% reduction in arrest rates.

The statistics don’t lie –  education is proven to reduce crime and recidivism.

Besides opening access to federal Pell Grants, which will see 12,000 students from 141 correctional facilities enrolled in educational programs from 67 colleges and universities, millions in grants are being awarded to multiple organizations to develop solutions to other issues. Some $31 million will be given to design programs for young adults to provide job training, as well as mentoring, focusing on apprenticeships and occupational training and $21 million will be given to organizations to serve individuals in high poverty and high crime areas.

Another $5 million will be given to specialized American Job centers inside correctional facilities, to assist soon to be released inmates with the transition to life in their communities and prepare them for employment. About $6.5 million will provide mentorship to youth at risk of dropping out of high school or entering the justice system, including mentorship by justice and emergency services personnel; $8.7 million will also go toward addressing the cycle between the justice system and homeless services, as well as funding supportive housing.

These welcome programs build on previous work by the administration, including initiatives such as establishing the My Brother’s Keeper Taskforce and the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, encouraging the private sector to create jobs for previously incarcerated individuals, and ‘Banning the Box’ for federal employment opportunities to ensure greater access to jobs. In January President Obama also announced banning solitary confinement for juveniles and for low level infractions, increasing the amount of time those in solitary are allowed outside of cells, and broadening treatment for the mentally ill.

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 and


Former Youth Inmates Proof Juvenile Reforms Work

By Christopher Zoukis

Sang Dao and Noah Schultz, who turned their lives around while in prison, are now advocates for juvenile justice reform, May 20, 2016 (Source: KOIN)

Sang Dao and Noah Schultz, who turned their lives around while in prison, are now advocates for juvenile justice reform, May 20, 2016 (Source: KOIN)

Sang Dao and Noah Schultz were both sentenced to years in prison at 17 years old, under mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. Fortunately for them, both had access to mentors, role models and educational opportunities – and were inspired to turn their life around and make the most of the opportunities many others don’t have.

Sentenced to serve time at Oregon Youth Authority Maclaren Youth Correctional Facility, Dao took the opportunities offered by mentors and supportive staff to participate in vocational programs, as well as a research internship focused on youth rehabilitation. He also completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Portland State University. While incarcerated, Dao acted as a mentor, including to Schultz, who was sentenced to the same facility a year later.

Schultz earned not only his high school diploma, but a Bachelor of Science in Human Development and Family Sciences, and a B.S. in Sustainability. Both men are now free after serving their sentences, Dao having been issued clemency because of his many accomplishments, and both are now working toward juvenile justice reform.

Dao has been a program aide and Juvenile Court Counsellor Assistant for the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice Juvenile Services Division, and  Schultz has been involved with the Community Peace Collaborative Forum, and is also a spoken word poet, dealing with issues around violence and prison. The Community Peace Collaborative Forum holds biweekly meetings to develop solutions, interventions, and prevention strategies to reduce violence and crime in Oregon’s Multnomah County.

Both Dao and Schultz advocate for justice reform because keeping teens locked up isn’t the solution, nor is the branding of teen offenders, which can be detrimental to rehabilitation, and reduction of recidivism. Juvenile offenders need mentors and educational and occupational opportunities inside corrections facilities. Schultz also outlines how juveniles need to be treated as such – not as adult offenders being pushed through the system.

Dao and Schultz are great examples of not only the factors than can lead to youth ending up in the system – difficulties at school, cultural barriers, exposure to gangs and violence – but also of how important rehabilitation and educational opportunities for incarcerated individuals are.

Currently, not all youth have the same opportunities offered to Dao and Schultz – Maclaren Youth Correctional Facility not only offers high school education, workshops, mentorship, vocational programs such as welding and woodcrafting, but also participated in Project Pooch, which sees incarcerated youths paired with a shelter dog, training them and finding them new homes.

Through such programs the Oregon Youth Authority not only gives opportunities and builds skills, but reduces recidivism and sees a return on investment. For each $1 spent on treatment in life skills training, $25 in returns is seen, and the more education a youth receives, the less likely they are to reoffend. It only makes sense, from all angles, that these programs, and other forms of support, are established. And as Dao and Schultz have shown, give the opportunities, and they will be taken.

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 and


Compensation Statutes Fail Those Wrongly Convicted

The Innocence project is a national litigation and public policy organization that is fighting injustice such as compensation for exonerated prisoners.

The Innocence project is a national litigation and public policy organization that is fighting injustice such as compensation for exonerated prisoners.

By Christopher Zoukis

Imagine serving a decade or more for a crime you didn’t commit. Maybe even on death row. By what seems a miracle, you find yourself exonerated on DNA evidence, and you are released. Euphoria; freedom! But now imagine what comes next – you’re thrown into a world you no longer understand, depending on when you were first put away you may never have had a job before, or finished school; maybe your friends and family are estranged, thinking you did that terrible crime.

And on top of the difficulties you face, you receive no compensation whatsoever. 

Unfortunately, that is reality for many wrongfully convicted individuals. Twenty states still do not have any form of compensation statutes, so the only chance for compensation is to bring a lawsuit, and those that do have them are all over the place in the compensation they provide, or who is eligible. 

Louisiana law provides up to $330,000 in compensation, but the burden of proof of innocence, despite the fact they were released, is placed on the wrongly convicted. This is similar in states with no compensation statutes, if someone chooses to bring a lawsuit, in that they must prove official misconduct- suits often fail because of this burden, if they are even undertaken due to the financial burden. In other states a burden of proof may not be required, but any previous felony convictions makes a person ineligible for compensation, as may any thought that the person may have contributed to their own conviction, such as a false or coerced confession. In other states, the compensation is woefully low. New Hampshire provides a flat fee of $20,000, no matter how long the person was imprisoned. 

Perhaps surprisingly, Texas is the state that provides the most compensation, providing $80,000 per year spent imprisoned in a lump sum, plus an additional annuity, and help reintegrating. But you are barred from filing a civil suit later. This is possibly most in line with the recommendations of the Innocence Project, a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.  

They recommend $50,000 for each year in prison, with no restrictions on previous convictions or false confessions, reimbursement of attorney fees and access to social programs which would greatly ease the transition back into normal life, and clearing records- which is a surprising issue, leading to some exonerees carrying newspaper clippings to prove their innocence.   

It’s astonishing that compensation statutes are still so inadequate, and vary so widely. There should be no debate that those who are wrongfully convicted are compensated for their lost time, and that they receive help transitioning back into normal life, which even most compensation statutes do not provide for. Every person wrongfully committed should receive help transitioning, with mental and physical health, receive financial compensation for their lost time and inability to work, and should have their records cleared. This also doesn’t always happen, and can be hugely damaging, as is the stigma of having been in prison- guilty or not. 

Not only would higher, and more equitable, compensation payments provide better for those whose lives have suffered, but it is also suggested that this may help deter prosecutorial misconduct, which has led to so many wrongful convictions- important when 1281 exonerations were recorded from 1989 to 2013, representing 12,500 years in prison - and when our prison system is already vastly overburdened. 

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 and

Re-Entry Programs Ease Transition From Prison

By Christopher Zoukis

More than 650,000 prisoners are released every year in the United States, and so it’s in everyone’s best interests that they are prepared as possible to reintegrate into society. Especially if they have been incarcerated for years, or even decades.

Effective inmate re-entry programs go a long way to ease the transition.

An example of this can be found in Kristopher Larsen, who recounts an incident in a supermarket after his release from prison. He recalls how the man behind him in line kept accidentally grazing his back. While Larsen kept inching forward taking this as an invasion of personal space the man thought the line was moving forward, and kept inching forward with him.

Eventually, Larsen turned around and snapped at the man, asking what his problem was. After 10 years in prison, Larsen admits he was ill-equipped to deal with this sort of every day scenario he described it as a sort of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), not unlike a culture shock. It’s an example of the psychological and behavioral issues that many release prisoners face, and the effects can be severe. So severe, in fact, that some former inmates may actually wish to go back to the security of their old prison routine.

The adjustment period can be so intense, that in the first two weeks after release, rates of suicide can be more than 12 times higher than the general population, as demonstrated by a report looking at released prisoners from Washington State. And it’s why comprehensive re-entry programs are so needed.

Effective re-entry programs can help previously incarcerated individuals adjust to their new lives and routines, helping with psychological and behavioral issues, as well as connecting prisoners with needed resources, including employment training, new skills, and educational opportunities. These programs not only help prisoners adjust and reintegrate as productive members of society, but also help ensure that rates of recidivism are less.

Larsen is now working to help others, including recently released individuals reintegrate more effectively. He is an instructor for the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, whose mission is to “provide high quality services and support for African American and other underrepresented communities in Metropolitan Seattle and throughout the Puget Sound Region,” helping people to achieve their greatest potential, focusing on education, employment, health and housing.

Larsen also works with FIGHT Formerly Incarcerated Group Healing Together, which assists incarcerated or recently released Asian Pacific Islanders, and is also involved in advocacy. Their services include vocational training, transitional housing, counselling, and in-prison support groups, and also focuses on issues that might be specific to Asian Pacific Islanders, such as the threat of deportation.

Another program, at South Seattle College, consists of five weeks of training, including mental wellness and family health, as well as learning how to navigate the job market, write resumes, and find housing.

These are only a few of many successful examples of re-entry programs and support groups, but we need to ensure that all prisoners and recently released individuals have access to such programs, which include not only hard skills, such as vocational training, but other transition services as well, including mental health. Without these programs, it is difficult to adjust, with little support, and few opportunities.  

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 and


Prisoner Art Takes Public Spotlight

Raising awareness and finding allies towards prison reform during HOPE Hoopla. L-to-R:Vanessa Lim, Lia Musumeci, Taylor DeMotta, Dashni Amin, and Gavin White. Photo credit: May Lim.  

Raising awareness and finding allies towards prison reform during HOPE Hoopla. L-to-R:Vanessa Lim, Lia Musumeci, Taylor DeMotta, Dashni Amin, and Gavin White. Photo credit: May Lim.


By Christopher Zoukis

At the University of Washington in Seattle, the Quad recently featured its second annual art exhibition of prisoner’s artwork. Organized by Huskies for Opportunities in Prison Education (HOPE) in partnership with University Beyond Bars and the Monroe Correctional Complex, the exhibition featured visual arts and written pieces, as well as a 6 by 9 foot representation of a prison cell for two inmates. 

The purpose of the art exhibit was to demonstrate the humanity, creativity, and intellect of incarcerated people, by exhibiting tangible evidence of the raw talent that exists in perhaps unexpected places. The exhibit also demonstrated HOPE’s mission, and that education is a human right, regardless of what an individual as previously done in their life. HOPE is trying to break down barriers and destigmatize incarcerated people. 

HOPE is a student group at the University of Washington that promotes and increases postsecondary education programs, recognizing that prison education reduces recidivism and increases successful reintegration into society. Besides the annual art exhibition, HOPE also collects textbooks for prisoners at Monroe Correctional Complex, created a scholarship program, holds panel discussions and film screenings, and has started a GoFundMe campaign. 

During the exhibition on campus the group also fundraised by selling Krispy Kreme doughnuts and lemonade, with funds going to buy dictionaries for prisoners at Monroe, and art from the previous year’s exhibition was on display and selling in a silent auction, with proceeds going to two non-profits, University Beyond Bars and Freedom Education Project, which provide accredited college courses for incarcerated students. Other art and prizes were also auctioned off, with proceeds benefitting the Social Work Students Scholarship Fund. 

HOPE’S art exhibits are not the only example of art exhibitions featuring the work of prisoners. Recently the Prison Creative Arts Program held its 21st Annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, featuring more than 500 works in visual arts, creative writing, and theatre, by 250 inmates, from the state’s 30 plus prisons. This is one of the nation’s largest collections of prison art, and culminates largely from workshops done over the course of the year taught by students from the University of Michigan. 

 In California at the Del Norte County Courthouse works were also exhibited in Student Art from the Inside II, and art from Oakhill Correctional Institution in Oregon, was on display at the Madison Public Library in Artists in Absentia. Like the participants of HOPE, the prisoners are given the chance to express themselves creatively, learn new skills, and connect with the outside world, and the exhibits create dialogue about incarceration, prison education, and the humanity of the prisoners. 

These exhibits and programs are examples of effective initiatives with tangible results. They have obvious benefits for those who are incarcerated, as well as providing real examples to share with a larger public that these programs work, and that prisoners cannot be solely defined by their criminal pasts. They create an important forum discussion, and it is great to see so many similar projects, which are all going into at least their second year, if not longer. 

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 and


Indiana inmates deliver unique research on history of incarcerated women

By Christopher Zoukis

Indiana Women’s Reformatory as seen in 1873. Photo courtesy of the Indiana State Library.

Indiana Women’s Reformatory as seen in 1873. Photo courtesy of the Indiana State Library.

Prisoners at the maximum-security Indiana Women’s Prison have undertaken a remarkable feat conducting and presenting their own original research on the history of the 143-year-old prison.

While funding was cut for non-vocational education programs in Indiana in 2011, volunteer instructors have still been teaching as part of the Higher Education Program, co-ordinated by Kelsey Kauffman since 2012. While the prisoners do not earn any type of formal credits and cannot earn a degree as they previously could, there are still many participants in the program, and they have been contributing greatly to historical scholarship in Indiana, including on the history of the prison which is 143 years old – as well about women and related issues.

Conducting their own research has presented many benefits, including developing skills such as inquiry, collaboration, research, critical thinking, synthesis, writing, presentation, and publishing, say the organizers. But it also comes with its unique set of challenges, since in many cases the prisoners cannot access the sources themselves. Participants do not have direct access to literature, interlibrary loan requests can take months, Internet access is largely unavailable, and they must often rely on volunteers to provide or send in source materials, which may not be exactly what they were looking for. The process is arduous at best. 

Despite these challenges, the women have made a number of important discoveries. Under Kauffman, the students set out to write a history of the prison’s founding decade and through this, discovered that many long-held beliefs about this early period may be incorrect, at least in part.

Their research also helped dispel an inaccurate but long-held belief that Indiana Women’s Prison was founded through a benevolent campaign by Quaker reformers to rescue women from the darker, more sinister men’s prisons.

The students also researched the founders of the institution, as well as one of the early doctors, Theophilus Parvin, who was the physician from 1873-1883. Parvin was an advocate for female circumcision and hysterectomies for women considered too sexually active or diagnosed with hysteria, and after research the student were able to connect some of his experiments with women in the prison, who had allegedly not given their consent for research, experimentation or surgeries.

Despite the difficulties, lack of resources, and reliance on the invaluable work of volunteers, some of the students have been allowed to present their research at conferences via video-link, including to a conference on women’s history in Indiana, and to the Indiana Association of Historians. Some of the prisoners are now working on a play about the early history of the prison, which they hope to complete for Indiana’s bicentennial this year as a public history project, and several papers have been published by the researchers. The students are also already thinking about future research topics, including the relationship between present-day abuses of prisoners and the links to the early history of the Indiana Women’s Prison.

If this is what can be accomplished without any funding or direct access to resources, what could these – and other – inmates accomplish with proper access to education?

Until more resources become available, members of the public can help volunteer as researchers

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 and

The Iliad is doing hard time - and the inmates love it

By Christopher Zoukis

Maximum-security inmates at a New Jersey prison have been learning about the literary world with Rutgers University associate professor Emily Allen-Hornblower. But the novelty isn’t that they are studying literature, or even that they are doing it behind bars.

It’s what they are learning about that’s so impressive. Prisoners at East Jersey State, formerly Rahway State Prison, are devouring The Classics - the The Iliad, the Epic of Gilgamesh and many other literary heavyweights.

Allen-Hornblower, who also recently taught Western Civilization at Northern State Prison, shares her love of heroic epics because she believes students identify with the main characters - who often have complex, troubled lives.

As such, the characters’ adventures serve a as springboard for frank discussions about the complex issues that the prisoners have dealt with in their own lives, and the struggles of positive and negative influences. In essays about the books they’ve written, the inmates share their thoughts about the consequences of their actions in life, and discover a new connection to the past, present and future - regardless of race, gender, or other circumstances.

The classes help prisoners inspect and explore the larger picture of their lives.

Inmates do not just have the opportunity to study classics and other humanities subjects. The Education Department of East Jersey State Prison offers a wide variety of programs to inmates including vocational programs such as mechanics, culinary arts, and horticulture, as well as primary education and GED courses, and other college level classes.

Allen-Hornblower isn’t the only professor who is teaching in prisons in New Jersey. She is one of many academics participating as part of the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons Consortium (NJ-STEP), which is an association of higher education institutions in New Jersey that works in partnership with the New Jersey Department of Corrections and State Parole Board to provide higher education courses to those who are incarcerated and, importantly, assist in the transition to college life after their release into the community.

There are currently nine participating institutions, including Rutgers and Princeton, offering courses in seven different facilities. Besides the academic courses offered, the NJ-STEP program also includes re-entry support programs including academic counsellors and admissions officers, that help prisoners plan for release and help get them accepted into colleges after, helping to ensure continued success.

The programs are clearly successful, offering inmates the opportunity to learn new skills, think about their futures, provide a positive social network, and goes a long way to reducing recidivism. Programs like this are so important when 95% of prisoners in the state will be ultimately be released, and it is important to prepare them for what happens next.

Officials at NJ-STEP and Mountainview, a continuation program at Rutgers, say that only a small handful of program participants return to prison. The academics that participate as teachers also see huge personal benefits, and count the participants as the best students they’ve ever had. They are thirsty for knowledge, want to better their lives, and are really committed to the work.

NJ-STEP and Mountainview are just two great example of successful models of what prisons should be as part of America’s goal to reduce rampant recidivism and incarceration rates.

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 and

Connecticut aims to break school-to-prison pipeline

By Christopher Zoukis

Connecticut is moving to implement a series of juvenile justice and education reforms aimed at cutting the school-to-prison pipeline after a series of complaints were lodged about problems plaguing the state’s system.

Governor Dannel Malloy has already moved to close the Connecticut Juvenile Training Program by 2018 after multiple reports of violence, unlawful restraint, and extended use of solitary confinement, and lack of concern shown in regards to issues of mental health and self-harm. There are similar complaints at the neighbouring Pueblo Unit for girls. Inmates have already been reduced from over 160 to less than 40, and alternatives are being looked at to house juveniles that need a confined place for residential treatment.

The new bill focuses on education, reducing expulsions, and ensuring that students who are expelled have access to suitable alternative educational programs – something that is mandated by the Constitution of the State of Connecticut and children’s fundamental right to an education. This is the basis of many complaints against the State Department of Education and the Governor, as currently there are no standards for the quality of educational alternatives that must be provided to expelled students, which has resulted in substandard education for many of the 1,000 students that are expelled every year in the state, of which a disproportionate number are black children.

According to media reports, a 6th grade girl was given less than 3 hours per day of instruction in her alternative program, and said that work was too easy, no guidance or support was given, and little feedback was received. One 8th grade boy was expelled after an alleged delinquent act outside of school, though charges were later dropped, and was given a tutor for only 10 hours per week for 4 months after which he was out of school for a year when he was barred from enrolment in another school district, and was not offered any alternatives. 

The bill will reduce expulsions and time in courts as school officials will be mandated to handle disciplinary matters in-house, including truancy, and alternative education programs will have to meet certain minimum standards, and help transition students back into the regular schooling system after their expulsion time is over. Parents must also be given the chance to attend an expulsion hearing, with a chance to appeal, and given at least 5 days’ notice of the hearing.

Gov. Malloy has also proposed raising the age at which at which juvenile offenders are sent to adult courts, up to 20 years old and there is a move to segregate those under 25 who commit less serious offenses which would be considered misdemeanours.

Going forward, the bill is a good start at reforming the education and juvenile justice systems, although there will still bework to do – plans must be put in place to expand community services, identifying effective truancy models, and reducing recidivism, although budgetary issues remain a concern.

It’s good to see a growing number of states and school districts move towards reducing zero tolerance punishment and out of school expulsions, and working towards keeping kids in school. Notes Martha Stone, director of the Center for Children’s Advocacy: “These are the most needy students. They need more education, not less.” Absenteeism, suspensions, expulsions, and court involvement for minor offenses are a huge disadvantage to youth, and only contribute to marks and ability well below grade level, missing the development of socialization skills, a lack of supervision and guidance, and often ultimately, future involvement in the justice system. We need to keep ensuring that as many children as possible stay in the education system, and give them the best education and guidance possible.

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 and

Former inmate-turned-chef returns to jail to teach others his craft

By Christopher Zoukis

It took him a decade, but former inmate Colin Bramlett Sr. has returned to Brown Creek Correctional Facility. But this time, he’s not there as a resident. 

Bramlett returns regularly to the correctional centre in Polkton, North Carolina, to teach the culinary skills he learned behind bars - skills that helped him leave prison with an eye on becoming the chef and restaurateur he is today. 

After four years in prison and six years after his release, he is now giving back by helping prisoners develop their skills by teaching a cooking class at Brown Creek, including items students get to choose to make off his restaurant menus.

The entrepreneur’s visits also offer the opportunity for inmates to ask questions, and for some, it can even land them a job with his restaurants once they are released from jail. Bramlett owns three restaurants, with hopes of opening a fourth soon. 

What this visionary chef/teacher and the leadership at Brown Creek are doing is so important. It underscores the need for more diverse and practical, even cutting-edge options, to upgrade or finish their education. 

The emphasis on non-traditional roles is particularly unique - why limit inmate training to vocational studies such as automotive, welding or other trades? Today’s economy requires marketing, social media, advanced literacy (Read last week's blog about inmates launching a new radio station, and how their new skills will hep them find jobs after their release.)

During his time at Brown Creek, Bramlett completed a 90-day cooking diploma program through South Piedmont Community College, and was able to get a work release for a local restaurant, where he became assistant manager within a month. He worked there for a year and a half, honing his skills and perfecting his craft. 

After release, he went back to school, studying dietary management and taking several other professional development courses at South Piedmont. He now owns three restaurants, with hopes of opening a fourth soon. 

In addition to the cooking classes, current inmates in this program are also enrolled in complementary programs. This includes the ServSafe Food Protection Manager Certification, and the South Piedmont food service technology program, including courses on baking, food service, cost control, and sanitation. 

Inmates at Brown Creek are also able to choose from a variety of other classes through SPCC, including carpentry, horticulture, veterinary assisting, and cabinet making. Classes for adult education, GED testing, human resources development, and English as a second language are also available, and inmates are able to work in a number of capacities, including in the kitchens or in the metal products plant. 

Brown Creek also offers the Domestic Violence Education Program, and participates in A New Leash on Life, which partners prisoners with local animal shelters and other agencies to train dogs in preparation for their adoption over an 8 to 12 week period. The program also offers inmates the chance to earn apprenticeship certification.

This is another perfect example of how important it is to provide educational and vocational programs to those who are imprisoned. Given the opportunity and support needed, those who are incarcerated have the ability and drive to grow, change, and learn, and ultimately support themselves. 

By giving them the tools and skills needed, they are more likely to do this, and less likely to commit crimes upon release that send them right back behind bars. Brown Creek Correctional is focusing on helping offenders make a successful transition, and become productive members of society, and Bramlett is only one example of how big a difference this type of support can make.


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, and

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 and


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 and

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 and


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 and


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: 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 and


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 and


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 and