America’s prison population began to spike in 1975. But why?
Prior to that time, the incarceration rate was pretty level. Since the late ’70s, though, prisons have become more packed each year.
Longer sentences and expanded enforcement and imprisonment of drug-related offenses led people to be more likely to be sentenced to prison and to remain there much longer than in the past. The policy shift had a major effect on African Americans and Latinos, especially those who have not finished high school.
Many also think the school system is to blame. With school shootings and other violent incidents, it’s become commonplace to see policemen patrolling the halls, metal detectors at entrances, and harsh zero-tolerance policies that can see students threatened with arrest for things like wardrobe violations. Kids can be made to feel like they are constantly suspected of being criminals.
These measures can make it much easier to play off racial and socioeconomic biases – more students of color and socially disadvantaged students are cited for school infractions than are others in their peer group. Citations can feed youth directly into the school-to-prison pipeline, trapping them in the penal system as juveniles and seeing many become repeat offenders, thanks to lack of education and the inability to resettle back into society upon release.
That’s where correctional education comes in.
Correctional education is any type of academic or soft-skill program offered in prison. These programs – such as GED courses, college courses, and technical skills training – give the students a chance at finding good-paying jobs after release. And their feelings of accomplishment and pride as they pass each course are key factors in boosting confidence and helping to reshape their ideas of themselves and what they can achieve.
One example is the Cornell Prison Education Program (CPEP), serving the Auburn Correctional Facility and the Cayuga Correctional Facility in New York. CPEP provides educational opportunities to inmates in the two prisons. Thanks to an agreement with Cayuga Community College, the program can offer an incredible variety of college-level courses to inmates. Course selections include poetry, genetics, economics, anthropology and more. Fifteen students graduated from CPEP’s inaugural class in 2012.
“For once I can prove my ability to do good, to exercise discipline and increase my adaptability,” one of the students noted of the CPEP program.
Correctional education has been proven to work, and work very well. In 2015, the Department of Education released the Re-entry Education Model Implementation Study: Promoting Re-entry Success Through Continuity of Educational Opportunities, and presented it to the Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education. That’s the office that provides administration and coordination of adult education and literacy programs, career and technical education, and oversight for community colleges. The report found that correctional educational programs, in conjunction with partnerships between educational providers and prisons, were vital in enabling prisoners to continue their educations and prepare for viable careers and jobs.
Statistics bear out that when youth in prison have access to education, it decreases the chances of them returning to jail, and increases their success in gaining employment with a living wage and becoming productive and respected members of their communities.
Correctional education for juveniles is key to getting them out of the prison system, and it’s great to see that crucial prison programs are being rolled out across the nation. Education, at every age and every stage, can play a vital part in every prisoner’s rehabilitation program. These programs, along with more thoughtful and less punitive approaches to incarceration, will doubtlessly have an impact on the problem of America’s crowded prisons.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to The Huffington Post, New York Daily News, and Prison Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and Prisonerresource.com.