Second Chances: The Funders Bringing College into Prisons

photo:  txking/shutterstock

photo:  txking/shutterstock

A small but steadily growing prison education program continues to expand with the help of some big foundations. The Prison to College Pipeline Program (P2CP), one of several programs offered by the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, provides college courses to incarcerated people who qualify so that they can complete their degrees after release.

Prison reform is having a moment in philanthropic circles, and with a prison population that at 2.2 million people exceeds the population of New Mexico, it isn’t hard to see why. There’s a lot of room for reform in the criminal justice system, with many funders focusing on the inequities of who goes to jail in the first place. But improving the life prospects of those already in the system is another critical priority.

This particular program is affiliated with the City University of New York. The institute brings CUNY professors to the Otisville Correctional Center to teach accredited classes to inmates there. This fall, 52 students are participating, but the hope is to expand to 150 students by 2019, with philanthropic support and participation of the Second Chance Pell Pilot, which allows prisoners to fund their education with Pell Grants.

Who is providing the philanthropic support? That would be the David Rockefeller Fund, the Ford Foundation, the J.M. Kaplan Fund and the Teagle Foundation. The Ford Foundation is one of the usual suspects in criminal justice reform; the David Rockefeller Fund also works in this area, including its support for the Bard Prison Initiative. The Teagle Foundation focuses on college readiness for kids in New York City, so its involvement in P2CP isn’t surprising, even though the foundation doesn’t focus on criminal justice reform more broadly. The J.M. Kaplan Fund has a Youth Justice Program that focuses on "innovations targeted to divert, re-route, and support the success of youth and young adults."

Though the P2CP program is small, the model seems to be effective. Access to education while in prison can reduce an incarcerated person’s likelihood of returning after release by 43 percent, according to a study by the RAND Corporation. In terms of money, that means every $1 spent on education access for prisoners saves about $5 in reincarceration costs, the study said.

More than 700,000 prisoners are released a year, and 40 percent will commit new crimes or violate parole and end up back in prison. Education can break that cycle.

Despite this, education programs are a rarity in prisons, said Ann Jacobs, a director at the Prisoner Reentry Institute. College in prison used to be more common, but when financial aid for prisoners was discontinued with tough-on-crime policies in the 1990s, the programs dried up, she said. That’s one reason the institute is expanding its focus to public policy with support from the David Rockefeller Fund.

“What you want is programs operating in all the prisons, where, if people get access to higher ed, it’s because they can do the work, not because of an accident of what state they’re in or what prison they’re in,” Jacobs said.

Prisons also face several infrastructure challenges when it comes to offering classes, Jacobs said. “Most prisons don’t have access to the internet. They don’t have good technology. They don’t have good libraries. They’re located pretty far away from the major metropolitan areas,” she said. “So there are ways in which the infrastructure for educational programs takes special attention and commitment and resources.”

Securing those resources will be a focus of the policies the institute pushes for, Jacobs said. It could also be a space for philanthropists to get involved.

While there’s more agreement from funders and policymakers from the left and right that criminal justice reform needs to happen, Jacobs feels that not enough attention has been paid to the role of education.

"The fact is, college is definitely one of those things on which they should be able to agree, but I’ve found they haven’t thought about it much,” Jacobs said. “They’ve thought about sentencing reform. They’re thinking about bail reform. They’re thinking about a number of different things, but not so much seeing the opportunity we’ve got to make the time inside much more productive.”

There are several foundations active in criminal justice reform in a big way, but the largest gifts lately have gone to reforms at the front end of the justice system, where funders believe they can have the most impact. For example, the MacArthur Foundation committed $75 million to figuring out how jails operate with the goal of intervening before people get caught up in the prison system. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation is also focusing in this area. 

The Ford Foundation is a major backer of reentry programs like P2CP. The focus on prison reform aligns with the foundation’s focus on social justice. The foundation was a big advocate for the reinstatement of Pell Grants for prisoners. The Obama administration's Second Chance Pell Pilot Program is one of the reasons P2CP has been able to expand to serve more students.

Knowing what we do about the effect of education access on the likelihood of returning to prison, it wouldn't be surprising if programs like P2CP gain more traction with funders in coming years.