April 22, 2024

Jail and Prison Education Programs

Jonathan Wynn author photoBy Jonathan Wynn

In sociology, we read a lot about the criminal justice system, deviance, and policing. We also learn about education, the hidden curriculum, tracking, and similar topics. It’s a challenge to talk about the interconnections between the criminal justice and education systems in our Introduction to Sociology classes.

There has been some good research on policing in schools—what some call the school-to-prison pipeline. Aaron Kupchik’s Homeroom Securityfor example, focused his work on “school resource officers” as a failed policy on preventing or limiting student crime, while increasing the chances that students will enter the criminal justice system. Yet we still need to expand opportunities for education for incarcerated citizens.

On any day there are about 1.9 confined Americans. Of those, 550,000 are in local jails, and a whopping 448,000 (28%) of them are not convictedUnlike prisons, jails are places where people are awaiting sentencing. (There’s a great infographic by the Prison Policy Initiative here, which includes this note: “In 2022, about 469,000 people entered prison gates, but people went to jail more than 7 million times.”)

Recidivism—the phenomenon of formerly incarcerated ending up back in jail and prison—is a major social problem. There are certainly those who might believe that prison time alone should be a deterrent, but most likely do not think of the social conditions under which people are arrested, and do not recognize the high likelihood of recidivism: depending on the type of criminal activity, about 50% of those who have been incarcerated in the United States will re-offend after their release.

The problem of recidivism is complex, ranging from structural issues (e.g., employment opportunities, access to education) to personal ones (e.g., drug addiction). Employers and institutions of higher learning often compel applicants to disclose their incarceration or arrest history. Through audit studies, Devah Pager found that job applicants with white-sounding names and a misdemeanor charge were more likely to be called back than applicants with a Black sounding name and a clean record. Appalling discrimination aside, a misdemeanor charge impacted both sets of applicants.

Based on his research in Homeward, sociologist Bruce Western’s main policy suggestions (in addition to criminal justice reform and reentry support) aimed at breaking the cycle of incarceration and facilitating successful reentry is to “ban the box:” to remove questions about criminal history from job applications, allowing individuals to be considered based on their qualifications rather than their past (see more here). The fact of even being wrongly arrested might impact employment or educational opportunities should give anyone pause.

Education encourages individuals to envision a future beyond their past, motivating them to take steps toward a more stable life. Many formerly incarcerated people have been denied the opportunities to acquire the skills and education necessary to secure meaningful employment due to historic inequalities (e.g., redlining, economic disenfranchisement, racist hiring practices), further hindering their ability to reintegrate successfully.

Research by sociologists Christopher Uggen, Jeff Manza, and Angela Behrens shows that formerly incarcerated individuals with a college degree are more likely to find stable employment, earn higher wages, and contribute positively to their communities. Others found that formerly incarcerated folks who participated in correctional education programs were 13% less likely to return to prison. And yet, formerly incarcerated people often struggle to access college education due to limited financial resources and inadequate support systems.

To address this, initiatives such as Second Chance Pell Grants have been implemented (after being cut via the 1994 Crime Bill, in a disastrous tough on crime political climate) to provide financial aid to incarcerated individuals. Expanding such financial aid programs can increase access to education.

There are more than a few prison education programs across the country, some of which have sociologists playing a role as with the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Prison Education Initiative. Other universities and colleges are meeting the need as well: This is why there are programs like UC Irvine’s UCI Lifted, Indiana University–Bloomington’s Prison Arts Initiative, University of Oregon’s Prison Education Program, USC’s Prison Education Project, and UCLA’s Prison Education Program.

With a few other colleagues, I am working to build the Jail Education Initiative @ UMass Amherst. (They helped fine-tune this post: Thank you Laura Ciolkowski and Annie Raymond!) In theory, jails are short-term holding facilities, but people can be stuck in jail for months, even years. One of the reasons the 448,000 Americans in jails are waylaid from their lives is not because they have been found guilty of committing a crime, but because they cannot afford bail—a cost of, on average, $10,000: roughly 8 months of salary for the typical detained person. Bail can be set at much lower rates, however, and finding ways to support bail funds can have a great deal of impact. (Check out the Massachusetts Bail Fund, here).

The Commonwealth Beacon makes some critical points about the effects of this policy, calling for an end to the cash bail system:

A large and growing body of research indicates that pretrial detention can do harm to individuals’ physical and psychological well-being; significantly reduce employment, wages, and annual earnings; increase their likelihood of conviction on current chargeslead to more severe sentences with conviction; and increase the burden of criminal legal debt, often shared with family members.

People in jails are likely to return to their communities sooner than those in prison and have a great potential for getting back on track. We believe that access to post-secondary education while incarcerated—particularly credit-bearing courses—provides a substantial step exiting incarceration, and a substantial step away from a return to the criminal justice system. (The Prison Policy Initiative has a great deal of data on all this, here.)

There is so much more to explore on education policy and prisons and jails, and so many connections to make between what we learn in our education readings and our readings on the criminal justice system. We hope you take a closer look at education policies, and what can be done on your campus.


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