Just as the tide has shifted in corrections to focus on offenders' potential success after release, so too has the thinking about inmate education. No longer is it enough to arm inmates with a GED prior to release; they also need to be educated in the skills that will help them live successfully in society.
Correctional educators have long contended that education reduces recidivism, but now the prevailing theory is that education should be provided to even more offenders and in a broader spectrum for this effect to be long lasting.
"Just like in any school it used to be you walked through the gate [after graduation] and that was it. Now, we're trying to have more of an educational hand off - to the [community] one stop people or community college people or have some idea of what their career path might be. My goal would be to have everyone be able to articulate what their career path is [while they are incarcerated]," said Diana Bailey, Workforce Development/Transition Coordinator for the Maryland State Department of Education, which provides education for the state's inmates.
Bailey said that the recent focus on re-entry nationwide has meant that more attention is being paid to educational programming for offenders. And, as a result, there has been a call to bring educational programs in line with those new re-entry and transition efforts.
"Our goal should be that as soon as someone comes in, in addition to their risk assessment, there be an education assessment for short and long-term goals including career assessments and aptitudes and what they can do while they are locked up [such as] institutional jobs, clerking, whatever is available to get them a step toward that goal," said Bailey.
Bailey said that in addition to traditional educational programs, agencies ought to also consider short-term certification programs to provide offenders with some marketable skills in addition to their diplomas. And, they ought to be teaching inmates computer skills, financial skills and improving their employability in general.
Her vision is to also have correctional educators tuned-in to work release programming so that they can assist the offender with planning for their life after incarceration.
"When they are working toward a GED or any other academic achievement, make it in a workplace context," she said.
This is a vision shared by others in the field who follow re-entry trends, including those who recently published a study of offenders returning to Baltimore after incarceration.
According to the authors of the Urban Institute's Baltimore Prisoners' Experience Returning Home study correctional institutions have a unique opportunity to turn things around for those with severe work and educational deficits.
Most offenders are in great need of educational programs as well as programs that help them find a job after release and help them stay straight and sober to keep one.
But, according to Christy Visher, Principal Investigator for the Returning Home study and a Principal Research Associate for the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center, there are several barriers to providing these types of programs to those who need them most.
"We have a number of problems. Prisons don't have enough money to offer these programs to everyone who needs them and, because of the short sentences, often people who want these programs aren't able to get them because they don't have enough time left in their sentence to complete a program. There aren't enough teachers and then there are the institutional constraints - including that if you are not behaving well you are likely not to be considered," said Visher.
Visher said this last piece is important because it means that often the most motivated and high achieving offenders end up in the programs that will give an educational or job-related boost after release. This makes it difficult to know for sure how much of their success after release is due to the programming and how much is due to their natural motivation to do better for themselves.
"It is difficult to research. You can't randomly assign people to take an educational program or not or a vocational program or not," she said.
Without the research to back up the effectiveness of educational, then dollars won't necessarily flow toward these programs.
Visher said a recent study of minority offenders in Florida who had received a GED while incarcerated showed the positive effects of educational programming, but also raised some questions about how lasting they are.
The study indicated that those offenders who had received a GED were more likely to earn more in a job than those who did not, but it also showed that after three years, the earning differential for this group had disappeared.
That's an important distinction.
"[Education] needs to be married with support after release. If you provide a GED while they are in prison but don't help them do anything with it, then what might happen is that earning differential might disappear because they needed the support to be placed into a better paying job. Even with vocational programs, if they are trained in a skill but can't find a job in that area, they [won't succeed]," she said.
In her own study of Baltimore offenders, Visher said finding a job was the number one need that the offenders expressed. So, it follows that agencies should offer offenders work skills programming and the opportunity to participate in work-release programs that mirror the needs of the marketplace outside.
With the Baltimore study, the offenders surveyed also said that the most important aspect of finding employment was the connection they had to family and friends.
"Those personal connections are just as important as education and programming. That goes to the [importance of] the support of people coming out of prison," she said.
According to Visher, the research seems to bear out the need to connect education, vocational skills, job readiness and other programming to post-release in order to have the greatest benefit.
"We should be thinking about tying the programmatic decisions to the post-release phase. There are plenty of people with strong educational credentials who can't find jobs right now. Just having that spot filled on your resume won't do it right now," she said.
She hopes that her own research will help to clarify the effectiveness of education and re-entry programs inside prison as she is in the process of analyzing data from an ex-offender study conducted in Illinois. The study, which will be published later this year, should be able to make a comparison between recidivism and programming completion, she said.
Other recent research has already indicated the dire need for reforming how educational and re-entry programs are provided to the inmate population.
From Incarceration to Community
Realizing there was momentum building in Massachusetts to change the laws and practices related to re-entry there, the Boston-based Crime and Justice Institute recently compiled a report that investigated the existing barriers and identified the supports for re-entry. The recommendations that followed ultimately encouraged state officials to adopt a re-entry model that is being used in other jurisdictions called the Transition from Prison to Community Initiative.
In the report, which was released earlier this year, CJI considered the entire system's approach to incarcerating individuals and made recommendations on several levels from sentencing to assessment to program design.
"It's important to say that the whole system is important to look at if you are changing one piece," said Cheryl Roberts, Director of Research and Policy for the Crime and Justice Institute.
Starting with sentencing, the report states that current sentencing laws in Massachusetts actually have helped to decrease post-release supervision for those inmates who pose the greatest threat to the community. In addition, mandatory minimum drug sentencing practices also prevent these offenders from participating in pre-release programming. Those who do qualify for pre-release programming, Roberts said, are low-level, nonviolent offenders who have a greater chance of success after incarceration anyway.
Roberts said the report's recommendations include that the system consider providing community-based sanctions for the low-level offenders and then open up opportunities for higher-level offenders inside the prisons.
Now, according to Roberts, most of the state's high security level offenders go back out into the community with no transition planning and no support in the community.
"If your goal is to reduce recidivism, it doesn't make sense," she said.
In terms of the programming that is offered to offenders, the report suggests some changes as well. Those changes include using risk assessment tools to help target those offenders who need certain kinds of intervention and to design programs using existing effectiveness research.
"What drives who should get programming and the kind of interventions are the risk and needs assessments. The medium and high-risk offenders really need the interventions," she said.
Some programs, such as those addressing anti-social thinking and attitudes would greatly benefit this population and help them fit in and succeed when they are released into society, she said.
With re-entry programming, the report points out that the state DOC currently assesses all inmates to create individual release plans based on risk factors and encourages all inmates to attend transition planning workshops prior to release, but this participation is not mandatory.
The CJI report suggests that this is not enough and that the DOC should make that involvement mandatory and institute other changes.
"I don't believe the availability of programming is adequate to match the level of need," Roberts said.
For example, Roberts said, even though 87 percent of offenders in the Massachusetts correctional system - according to a DOC report -- would benefit from drug and alcohol programs, only 33 percent receive it.
"If you give them treatment inside and continue it after release you have a reduction in recidivism," she said.
But the availability of alcohol programs is just the tip of the iceberg, according to the CJI report.
Custody classification issues also play a role in the relatively small number of offenders who receive pre-release planning and programming.
According to Roberts, custody classification needs to change in the system in order to adequately prepare offenders for release. The report states that the DOC tends to over-classify inmates at a higher security level, thus making them ineligible for many programs and all of the programming at re-entry facilities. Recent statistics show that Massachusetts classifies 8 percent of inmates at the minimum level versus a 16 percent average nationwide, according to CJI.
By making some of these changes, with the help of the legislature and support from other high-level government officials, the DOC can begin to incorporate a re-entry program that would serve many more offenders, Roberts said.
She said that legal changes, re-allocation of resources and an expansion of the use of parole are all part of the equation. Beyond that, the DOC needs to begin collaborating with other agencies and creating a strategy for improving the outcomes of offenders after release.
To the state's and DOC's credit, several studies have been commissioned recently to take a closer look at where operations could improve - including those related to re-entry.
"There's a lot that can be done in terms of implementing policies and programs," said Roberts. "Traditionally the DOC's role was to end at release. It is changing. There's greater recognition that part of the job is to change the way they have been doing things."
Some states have already begun the process to strengthen their re-entry programs for offenders prior and post release. Indiana is one of them.
Indiana Makes a Re-entry Change
With a technical assistance grant from the National Institute of Corrections, the Indiana Department of Corrections is creating a strategy for assisting offenders in their transition to the community after release that follows the NIC's Transition from Prison to Community Initiative (TPCI) program.
Although still in the early stages of development, the DOC's re-entry initiative has begun to change the way it approaches transition and re-entry.
"We're looking at correctional practices and bringing them in line with the model [TPCI] and how do we successfully reintegrate somebody. We're looking at a system change and we've created a structure across agencies and organizations to bring people together to address those issues," said Diane Mains, the Indiana DOC's Offender Reintegration Project Administrator.
Mains said one of the major changes to the DOC's re-entry approach will be in case management. Currently this has been part of the state's juvenile detention system only, but now it will be available for adult offenders.
With case management, which will begin with the offender's entry into the correctional system, there will be a focus on individual risks and needs with an eye towards success after release. This system will replace the transition program currently in place that begins working with offenders six months from release.
"Case managers will initiate a connection as soon as they walk in and, if things go well, they will be using the same risk assessment that other agencies use and will share information," said Mains.
Individuals under the DOC's custody will not necessarily have a case manager, but they will have a case plan and a team of individuals will help the offender work towards the goals spelled out in the plan.
By sharing information between agencies, Mains said that the agencies involved in the offender's incarceration and rehabilitation will get a better handle on the person's needs and what will help lead him or her to success.
This also means that connections will strengthen between the DOC and agencies in the community, such as health and human service agencies, the state Department of Workforce Development, the Department of Education, Department of Health, as well as the state police, sheriff's associations, local agencies and organizations like Volunteers of America and the Salvation Army.
"This project brings in the partners at the upper levels and we'll have more consistency," Mains said. "And we will pool our resources so as not to duplicate services. We found communication was lacking in a number of areas. Large agencies like the DOC have trouble internally communicating, then multiply that by all the agencies involved in the offender's life."
After new communications systems are set up, the DOC will begin restructuring the types of programs that are offered to offenders. Literacy and substance abuse programming are two areas that the DOC will start with.
According to Mains, the focus is to identify gaps between education and release preparedness and actual release. By identifying needs up front, the DOC hopes to be able to better position offenders to obtain the education and skills they need and then have an opportunity to put those skills to use after release.
"We weren't necessarily focused on the release aspect of programming and education. We are now bringing that under the project," said Mains.
With this in mind, the DOC is also working closely with the state's Department of Workforce Development to create programs that will train offenders in jobs and skills in careers that are viable in the community. Many in re-entry circles hope that other corrections agencies will come to the same conclusion and begin building ways to truly rehabilitate offenders so that they don't come back.
"It's a recognition that with the high numbers of offenders being incarcerated, what we are doing is not working. We have to do something different," said Mains.
Crime and Justice Institute's report From Incarceration to
Correctional Education Association's report Education Reduces Crime: www.ceanational.org/documents/EdReducesCrime.pdf
Urban Institute's Baltimore Prisoners' Experience Returning
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