Prison Education: The Sunshine State Takes Education Online

By Christopher Zoukis

In 2012, Florida established the first online high school within a correctional facility.  In 2014, it has celebrated the success of that pilot program by extending it to a total of seven prisons across the state.  Still the only program of its kind, Florida's experiment demonstrates one potential strategy for improving the educational opportunities available to America's incarcerated masses.

The Florida Department of Corrections Online Campus was established two years ago in partnership with Smart Horizon's Career Online Education, itself the world's first Southern Association of Colleges Schools (SACS)-accredited online school district.  Incarcerated students attend a computer lab in each prison, and use secure workstations to access the high school diploma program.  The prison inmates can advance through the courses at their own pace, and their proficiency is assessed as they progress.

One original feature of the Online Campus is that it allows inmates to combine general high school learning with vocational training.  Incarcerated students are able to graduate with both their GED and a certificate of accredited vocational training.  Indeed this was an important factor considered by the Florida Department of Corrections when selecting and developing the program.  Staff hope that providing this dual training will significantly increase the likelihood that inmates will secure a job when they are released, and that this will help them in avoiding a return to prison.

According to http://prisoneducation.com, employment is one of the most important factors determining whether a released prisoner will make a successful, law-abiding life back in the community.  Of those who are re-incarcerated, 89% are unemployed.  Unemployment leads to poverty, and often to further crime.  In a highly influential report issued by the RAND Corporation in 2013, data from multiple studies demonstrated that amongst prisoners who participate in educational programs there is a 43% lower rate of recidivism compared to those who do not.  The report also shows a 13% higher rate of post-release employment.

Despite its proven benefits, prison education is an easy target for cuts.  To many it is seen as an indulgence for prisoners rather than a necessity.  Spending on prison education nationwide fell 6% between 2009 and 2012.

Florida has already saved $65 million over two years by cutting the recidivism rate by just 4%.  With the third largest state prison population in the nation, at around 103,000 inmates, Florida needs to do more.  From its modest beginnings, the Online Campus has already had 324 incarcerated students enrolled, 100 of whom have graduated.  Together they have earned 4,135 high school credits, all from behind bars.  Their success has encouraged the recent expansion.

States look to reduce their ruinous expenditure on corrections.  According to http://prisonlawblog.com, education is by far the most cost-effective tool to reduce recidivism and thus prison costs.  The Online Campus is certainly a program to watch, but further data will be required to ensure that the early success does lead to the falls in recidivism seen with other educational programs.  There is also a risk that similar programs may simply be instituted as a way of reducing short-term costs by laying off prison teaching staff.  In the meantime, the Florida Department of Corrections is to be commended for taking this innovative step.

Dr. Howard Liebman discusses a few of the innovative educational concepts provided by Smart Horizons Career Online Education.  Smart Horizons Career Online Education is not only accredited but has now hooked up with the Florida Department of Corrections to give prison inmates access to high school degree programs.