Launching a successful reentry from behind bars

When we think about prison education, our minds
typically go to the skilled trades: woodworking, plumbing, electrical, and the
like. But how many people really have the talent, skill, or interest in this
kind of work? Inside or outside prison, the answer is relatively few. To help
prisoners find their educational niche, they need options — “hooks,” as it were
— for finding an intrinsic and self-sustaining interest.  

To address this challenge, one area of growing interest is opening up bachelor-level programs to inmates. Georgetown’s Prison Scholars Program has been teaching prisoners non-degree courses in the liberal arts since 2018 in the District of Columbia. Now, they are launching a fully-fledged degree program for Maryland inmates as an extension of its Prisons & Justice Initiative. Goucher College in Maryland also offers bachelor-level education to inmates in the Maryland correctional system. Bard College has offered a rigorous bachelor’s degree program to New York system inmates since 1999; the program has even been featured in a compelling PBS documentary directed by Ken Burns showing the transformational power of liberal arts education for incarcerated men and women.

This trend is being fueled by 2019 congressional action that restored the Second Chance Pell Grant program, as well as a renewed emphasis on thinking about prisons as a place for rehabilitation and not just punishment. Bachelor-level education helps support rehabilitation by focusing on the internal development of prisoners, seeking to sharpen — or establish for the first time — skills like critical thinking, writing, collaboration, self-regulation, and discipline. Research shows completing a prison education program is an important indicator of criminal desistance. The certificates and degrees earned through educational programming also serve to help “credential” for future employers that this is a person with the discipline and stamina required to finish a job. By “flooding the zone” with a variety of educational programming — including college degrees — we may be able to get a better fix on who’s ready to start their lives afresh and help them build momentum for a successful transition back to the community.