Warming up to educating inmates

Signaling its interest in finding ways to better prepare inmates for successful re-entry into society, the Trump administration on Monday held a day-long event at the U.S. Education Department focused on promising practices, as well as challenges, in using education and job training to help incarcerated individuals.

Attendees of the meeting heard from government officials, program directors, educators and formerly incarcerated students who tapped education to transform their lives.

Mitchell Zais, the department’s deputy secretary, highlighted the administration’s and department’s efforts to reform correctional education, including a pilot program that allows more than 60 selected higher education institutions (including many community colleges) to use Pell grants for eligible inmates seeking to attain a postsecondary education. More than 10,000 incarcerated students are receiving Pell grants from 64 institutions this award year (July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019), according to ED.

Over the past three years, the pilot program has produced 612 graduates and awarded 954 credentials, Zais said.

“That’s a lot of lives transformed by a small pilot program,” he said.

In 1994, Congress dropped Pell eligibility for incarcerated individuals, causing a significant decrease in the number of education programs in prisons. Over the past several years — and especially more recently as Congress looks to reauthorize the Higher Education Act — lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have indicated that they would support reinstating prisoners’ Pell eligibility.

A new way to prepare for re-entry

At Monday’s convening, leaders of innovative local and state corrections programs shared details of their practices. Officials from Five Keys Schools — a non-profit education management corporation that operates charter schools, workforce development and re-entry programs for transitional-aged youths and adults at more 70 locations in the community and in 17 county jails across California — highlighted its programs for county inmates, who typically serves shorter sentences averaging 60 days. It partnered with City College of San Francisco on several programs, and now offers certificates in culinary arts, hospitality and business entrepreneurship. It also works with college faculty to teach dual-enrollment in jail.

Amy Lopez, associate administrator of the D.C. Corrections Department, noted that when she arrived at the institution a year and a half ago, officials there didn’t know they could tap certain Perkins funds to educate and train inmates. That’s why it’s important for correctional facilities to hire or work in partnership with educational institutions which know more about potential resources for higher education, she said.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson summarized efforts in his state, which included colleges such as Arkansas State University-Newport participating in the federal Second Chance Pell program.

Several of the speakers noted that corrections reform requires offering more comprehensive services to inmates, from working with employers who will cover training costs as they seek skilled workers, to even providing health care coverage for recently released inmates.

“Those who broke the law need a chance to start a new life,” Zais said.

Afternoon breakout sessions focused on four areas:

  • Prevention and juvenile re-entry
  • Criminal justice reform and correctional education, which included discussions on using funds from Perkins and Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) programs
  • Second Chance Pell
  • Individuals with disabilities in correctional and re-entry education, which again included, in part, WIOA

Related article: Bill would restore Pell eligibility for inmates

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.