Starting a prison program calls for detailed planning

Providing postsecondary education to incarcerated individuals can ensure former inmates will have an opportunity to a successful life when they are released. But setting up an education system inside prison walls – where there are major security considerations – calls for a whole new set of policies and procedures, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.

“Because postsecondary education in prison combines two very different worlds, bureaucracies and sets of policies and practices, colleges and corrections agencies new to this field will find that melding these two systems takes time, patience, creativity and tenacity,” says a new report by the Vera Institute that offers step-by-step guidance for starting a postsecondary education program for prisoners.

“Any college should be aware it does take an effort” to launch a prison education program, says Sheila Meiman, director of Returning and Incarcerated Student Education (RISE) at Raritan Valley Community College (RVCC) in New Jersey. RVCC had to add staff to handle the increased administrative requirements to participate in the federal Second Chance Pell program.

The college educates about 500 inmates a semester at seven state prisons. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, participation has dropped by about half, as some inmates aren’t comfortable with distance learning or are in quarantine.

Administrative hurdles

While RVCC had been teaching courses in prisons since 2013 with philanthropic funding, the college had to overcome some big administrative hurdles when it became part of Second Chance Pell in 2016. Meiman says it was “a huge learning curve” to figure out how to help inmates fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) when they don’t have internet access.

“We worked with the Department of Education (ED) to resurrect a paper FAFSA,” she says, noting that college staff bring a set of forms to a prison, help inmates fill them out, and take the forms back to the college where staff enters the data online.

Related article: Prison education adapts to pandemic challenges

RISE administrators also had to work with ED to find an acceptable alternative for verifying the data for inmates who don’t have a driver’s license or Social Security card.

Only about 65 percent of the inmates in RISE are able to get Pell grants, so the college covers the cost for the rest. One way RVCC saves money is by finding used copies of textbooks, collecting them at the end of the semester and reusing them.

Guiding principles

The Vera Institute report recommends the following steps to set up a prison education program.

1.) Guiding principles – To develop a high-quality program, colleges should:

  • Build programs of the same educational quality as those on campus. That will facilitate the success of students continuing their education when they return home.
  • Maintain communication and collaboration among partners, including department of corrections (DOC) personnel and students. Organize meetings that support open dialogue.
  • Make space for inclusion and provide opportunities for diverse leadership, including student voices.
  • Ensure equitable access. Embed gender and racial equity and accessibility into the program design.
  • Collect data on enrollment, demographic and completion data, and support data-driven implementation strategies.

For RVCC, it’s important that the RISE program has the same courses, same credentials for professors, and same criteria for grades as courses taught on campus, Meiman says.

Being part of a federal program led to an unanticipated benefit for RVCC, she adds: “It really improved our data and records management.”

A collaborative effort

2.) Form an implementation team – The team should include a program coordinator, college financial aid director, college chief academic officer, DOC education director, and the DOC assistant warden or superintendent in charge of programming.

3.) Set up a satellite campus and design the program – The implementation team should determine the degrees or certificates the program will offer, the roster of courses required for completion, and faculty and staff needs.

Because of the relatively small number of students, colleges will likely limit the program to a few career tracks. However, they should offer a variety of programs, such as STEM, humanities and applied technical courses.

The team also needs to make decisions on support services, such as new student orientation, library resources, tutoring, academic advising and faculty office hours. Other areas that need to be sorted include the availability of classroom space, scheduling, prerequisites, grading policies, codes of conduct and the use of technology.

The RISE program is able to use space at the high schools inside state prisons in New Jersey.

4.) Establish a partnership using a memorandum of understanding (MOU) – An MOU should include such elements as the program’s goals, implementation plan, responsibilities of the parties and documents setting forth enrollment targets, student discipline and other policies.

Operational decisions

5.) Determine program funding, financial aid and budgets – There are two main funding models:

  • Colleges receive grants or contracts from a DOC or private sources and pay for instruction and equipment without charging tuition.
  • Colleges set the tuition and fee rates and charge individual students for the cost of attendance. Under this model, colleges create a process for students to apply for financial aid.

6.) Create academic and operational calendars – Decisions need to be made about whether students are enrolled as a cohort or ad hoc, when new cohorts can form, course sequences, and enrollment and financial aid deadlines.

7.) Recruit and train college personnel – The program coordinator should work with the implementation team to create job descriptions that address the specific circumstances of working in prison, such as the potential for violence.

Related article: Leaders in educating the incarcerated, but underfunded

One major challenge at Raritan Valley was finding professors to teach courses in prisons as far as three hours from campus. As a result, the college formed partnerships with other higher education institutions so their professors could apply to teach courses at nearby prisons. Those professors are compensated as adjuncts.

About 20 percent of the RVCC courses in prisons are taught by volunteer professors from Princeton University who requested not to be compensated.

Learning resources

8.) Recruit, enroll and register students – Registration procedures need to adapt to the prison environment, as inmates generally don’t have access to online applications or money for fees and aren’t able to request transcripts.

9.) Create a learning environment – Among the challenges prison education programs face are ensuring students have access to library resources and equipment for career and technical education programs that meet industry standards.

10.) Plan for emergencies – The report urges colleges to plan for four kinds of prison program disruptions:

  • Restrictions on individuals or small groups of students
  • Restrictions that halt individual courses
  • Facility-level program restrictions caused by lockdowns or weather
  • Statewide security-related program restrictions

Colleges also need to prepare for students transferred to other facilities or send course packets to students who can’t attend class.

When inmates in the RISE program are released before they graduate, RVCC helps them complete their education on campus or transfer their credits to another community college, Meiman notes. When more than 2,000 inmates were released early due to Covid, many of their first actions was to call RVCC and ask how they can finish their degree.

Many benefits

Educating inmates benefits society as a whole, as well as individual inmates, the Vera Institute says. Incarcerated people who participate in postsecondary education programs are 48% less likely to commit crimes when released. In addition, every $1 invested in prison-based education yields $4 to $5 in taxpayer savings.

At RVCC, it’s hard to keep statistics on former inmates, but Meiman notes, “anecdotally, many are gainfully employed. Very few of our students come back to prison.”

One graduate works as a professional accountant in her office. Another is working on a Ph.D. in engineering, and several have become national advocates for criminal justice reform. Others have found their improved communication skills have helped them succeed in workforce development programs.

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.