From prison to college: Major foundations fund five-year study bridging divide

Published: Monday, May 13 2013 11:15 p.m. MDT

The five-year experiment will be evaluated by the RAND Corporation, said Fred Patrick, who is spearheading the program for the Vera Institute of Justice. Patrick hopes the resulting data will "move the needle" on public investment for prisoner education.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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That education plays a key role in keeping children and adults out of trouble is widely understood, and yet there has been surprisingly little effort to figure out the role education plays in reforming prisoners.

This fall, three states will set out on a five-year journey to change that. Sponsored by the Vera Institute of Justice and funded by some of the most prominent charities, including the Bill and Melinda Gates, Ford, Kellogg, Open Society and Sunshine Lady foundations, Michigan, New Jersey and North Carolina will take prisoners two years before their release and put them in an intensive education program of vocational or college coursework.

Prisoners who complete the program, called Pathways, in prison will then continue their coursework on the outside, transitioning without interruption from there to the employment market.

Twenty years ago prisoners could receive Pell grants for college coursework, but critics saw this as coddling criminals at taxpayer expense and eligibility was stripped in 1994. Higher education in prisons has languished since then, becoming heavily dependent on private efforts, and it varies widely from state to state and prison to prison.

The five-year experiment will be evaluated by the RAND Corporation, said Fred Patrick, who is spearheading the program for the Vera Institute of Justice. Patrick hopes the resulting data will "move the needle" on public investment for prisoner education.

The study will test an integrated education model, beginning two years before release from prison and then continuing seamlessly two years after release until the former prisoner completes the program.

In addition, the states involved in the project are working closely with employers on the ground to secure jobs for former prisoners who complete the program, part of what Patrick calls the "wrap-around supports," aimed at ensuring that those who truly want to succeed do not fall through the cracks.

"There will also be mentoring and tutoring initiatives, and we are asking that the states involved make sure that they have supportive parole policies in place," Patrick said. The states will also be experimenting with broader technological access within the prison, including experimenting with controlled Internet access. Normally prisons are leery about allowing prisoners access to the Internet, so this represents considerable flexibility and some willingness to take risk.

The states will also house participants together in their own housing unit, so as to create a collaborative, dorm-like atmosphere, with positive reinforcement from peers on the same track.

"There are lots of pieces that make this more comprehensive than just simply a college partnering with the prison," Patrick said.

North Carolina is creating "local reentry councils," with the state reaching out to and pressuring local employers to take an active role, said Nicole Sullivan, who spearheads the Pathways Project for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. Sullivan expects these councils to help educate employers about the upside of giving ex-offenders a chance.

Sullivan said she believes having nationally prominent foundations such as the Gates, Kellogg, Ford, Sunshine Lady and Open Society foundations involved will make it easier to engage employers. She also noted an element of self-interest.

"Employers are having a hard time finding good, qualified workers," she said.

Employers will also be reassured, Sullivan said, because the ex-offenders who complete this program will have been given ample indication they changed their lives.

"That's our pitch to employers: This is a person who has already demonstrated a commitment to doing this because this is going to be a very tough program."

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