“Expanding College Opportunity in Our Nation’s Prisons”

For more than five years now, “expanding college opportunity in [one of] our nation’s prisons” has been my part time job, and it’s been my full-time job for the past year, since the JCI Scholars Program partnered with the University of Baltimore to offer courses towards a Bachelor’s degree in Community Studies and Civic Engagement as a part of the US Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative.

I visited the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor last week to participate on a panel with this title. I learned a lot from my co-panelists Erin Castro and Fred Patrick, but each of us were asked to prepare answers to the questions below so I thought I’d share those answers here.

If you had to describe the current relationship between higher education and prisons in one phrase, what would it be?

“Low hanging fruit:” College in prisons is the easiest and most obvious of a host of criminal justice reforms that we absolutely must be making and for which there is bipartisan support. We incarcerate 2.3 million people in the US, at a rate more than seven times higher than the global average. We’re not seven times more violent or larcenous than the rest of the world–perhaps we are seven times more racist, but even that isn’t clear any longer–so we need to fix this over-incarceration crisis. But for the time being, educating the people we incarcerate is almost literally the least we can do.

There is an eternal tension in higher education between the liberal arts and practical arts. Prison education programs often face this same tension. Based on your experiences, how has this divide manifested in prison education programs? Are there certain curricula that tend to receive broader support? How has this influenced your own work?

In the background here is that we don’t stop punishing people when they are released from prison. We continue to subject returning citizens to legal discrimination in employment, merely because of their status as previously-incarcerated.

There’s certainly good evidence that starting one’s own business is a good way to avoid employment discrimination. But most small businesses fail, and returning citizens face problems with raising startup capital that are just as onerous as their problems finding a job. 

In general, you can think of entrepreneurship as evidence that the ordinary labor market is absorbing workers too slowly: there is not sufficient labor market absorption for those currently unemployed, so they must instead go out and start small businesses of their own, taking considerably more risk with high rates of failure. We have not found meaningful work for many men and women, and we’re not willing to suspend our biases, and so we ask them instead to make their own.

Still, even in that context I see the liberal arts degree as superior. I think the data suggest that even for people who want a vocation, a liberal arts degree is the best investment. I’m partial to the philosophy major, myself: employment prospects and pay are better for the modal philosophy major than for the modal business administration major, because the liberal arts are techniques for problem solving, clear communication, and understanding difficult texts and situations. To achieve that, students need to learn to read hard books and write long papers for demanding professors.

Of course, the liberal arts are also–literally–techniques for freedom and for free people. So they’ve got that going for them, too, which is nice.

What are some of the ways in which prisoner education programs help prisoners identify and pursue educational opportunities upon reentry?

In some sense I think colleges have mastered a lot of the fundamentals of reentry because they are already basically institutions of ENTRY: colleges are pretty good at taking high school students and turning them into workers, and they’re also pretty good at preparing people who are accustomed to being dependents to live more independent lives. 

Our program at the University of Baltimore was built from the ground up with the ideal of having students transition from inside to outside while finishing their degree. Thus they’ll be able to use what is already a good transitional space, the university, to help accomplish that other kind of transition: reentry and return.

The audience today is full of current and future educators that may be considering how they can get involved with a prison education program. As you reflect on your own experiences, are there moments that stand out to you as particularly informative for those in the audience?

I started teaching a philosophy class and ended up running a program. There’s tremendous unmet demand among those 2.3 million incarcerated men and women for a college education. Be patient and persistent, recognizing the work comes before your ego, and find and cultivate collaborators.

We also have a lot of people here interested in research and policies that can shape prison education programs. What are the types of research questions the next generation of researchers should consider?

The GED test was once an important distinction, but it was basically devalued because it came to be associated with returning citizens, which is why they decided to raise the standards (to make it much more difficult and specifically to lower the pass rate) in 2014. Will something similar happen with our programs? Can we prevent that? 

Another important question has to do with selection effects. How much are we just finding the men and women who would have gone to university, if we didn’t live in a mass incarceration society? How much are we actually changing lives, adding value,” or changing the course of these men’s lives?

There’s very good reason–as Erin Castro reminded us during the panel–to look past the recidivism question: “We don’t evaluate a University of Michigan degree based on how likely its graduates are to later become incarcerated.” And while I do think that the recidivism statistics are awesome trump cards for the public policy debate, I would like to see my own program evaluated on other metrics, like student satisfaction, just as programs on the outside are evaluated.

Given the change in administration, should we be concerned about the future of the Second Chance Pell pilot program?

Of course we should be concerned! Yet Betsy DeVos has not, to my knowledge, commented on the Second Chance Pell experiment. It’s notable that she is also primarily devoted to school choice in K-12, which is literally modeled on Pell, a grant program that supplies school choice for higher education.

If this becomes a partisan issue, I don’t expect it to survive. But I’d like to think it won’t become partisan, that there’s still enough bipartisan support for this because it’s such low-hanging fruit, because the evidence makes it common-sense. If you’re committed to small government, you like prison education. If you’re committed to social justice, you like prison education. What else can you think of that the Koch brothers agree with George Soros about?

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