Top Foundations Are Keen to Smooth Reentry for Incarcerated People. Here’s What They’re Learning.

Ruslan Bordyug/shutterstock

Ruslan Bordyug/shutterstock

Employment, housing and transportation have traditionally been identified as three pillars necessary for successful reentry into society for incarcerated individuals. A recently released study, backed by nationally known funders, has identified a fourth: education.

The RAND Corporation, partnering with RTI International, recently released the results of the Vera Institute of Justice’s Pathways From Prison to Postsecondary Education program in North Carolina. It studied 201 incarcerated people from six minimum- and medium-security prisons.

North Carolina was one of three states chosen in 2013 as pilot sites for the Vera Institute’s Pathways program—the other two being Michigan and New Jersey. The five-year project was funded by the Ford Foundation, the Sunshine Lady Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Participating states were encouraged to offer a continuum of education and reentry supports that began behind bars and continued in the communities to which the inmate students were released. The goal was to encourage program participants to continue the postsecondary education begun while incarcerated until completing an associate’s degree or a professional certification. The pilot project lasted four years, with the fifth year—2018—spent evaluating the program and gauging its impact.

Funding College Behind Bars

Prison education programs, slashed in the get-tough 1990s, have grown in popularity over the last decade. The state of New York has been notable in its successes. Bard College’s prison initiative began as a tutoring program in the late 1990s and has been awarding degrees since 2005. Ford, one of the funders of the Pathways program, is a longtime supporter of the Bard program. Another program, affiliated with the City University of New York, offers postsecondary educational opportunities to inmates in the Otisville Correctional Center. Ford, the Teagle Foundation, the J.M. Kaplan Fund and the David Rockefeller Fund have been the underwriters of this program.

Ford is one of the most prominent funders of education-in-prison programs. Besides the New York-based programs discussed here, the funder has also supported the Prison University Project at California’s notorious San Quentin State Prison near San Francisco.

The Andrew Mellon Foundation is another key player in efforts to offer higher education behind bars. Mellon has supported Columbia University’s Justice in Education initiative, aimed at current and formerly incarcerated individuals in New York state.

Efforts like these have borne fruit—in the form of lower recidivism and savings for taxpayers. RAND studies of these programs found that inmates who complete an educational credential are more than 40 percent less likely to reoffend. It also found that every dollar spent on educational programs avoids about $5 in costs associated with reincarceration.

The Pathways program differs from these other efforts with its combination of in-prison instruction with reentry supports to encourage continued education upon release. In North Carolina, program participants received postsecondary education in prison for at least two years prior to their release. Inmates selected for the program had to be incarcerated in minimum- or medium-security facilities, with no gang affiliations or sexual offenses. They also had to agree to be released in one of three communities: Asheville, Charlotte or Greenville. The three communities were selected because of their reentry infrastructure and availability of community colleges.

In addition to postsecondary education, inmates in the program received remedial instruction, college readiness classes, and college counseling while in prison. Area community colleges and universities partnered with state correctional authorities to conduct the educational program.

Ongoing Help

Once released from custody, Pathways participants were expected to continue their educational pursuits or to gain full-time employment. To support these efforts, they were provided with a range of reentry services, including financial aid for tuition, assistance with housing and childcare, as well as with employment and transportation.

By 2018, 145 of the original 201 had exited the Pathways program, completing more than 1,500 credits, and 11 earned degrees or certificates. Some voluntarily exited the program, and others were involuntarily removed. The study noted that programs such as Pathways take time to establish and that participants required more developmental instruction than initially anticipated.

Despite an extensive screening process, not all participants assimilated well into the program, with some leaving for personal reasons or misconduct. Some participants felt the limited range of courses of study did not align well with their interests. The programs offered in prison were limited to business administration, entrepreneurship and information technology. Researchers also found that family support and the traditional pillars of reentry—employment, housing and transportation—must be strong for participants to be successful in continuing their educations.

The study also identified some communications barriers. Instructors in the program, drawn from community colleges, had little or no experience teaching in a correctional environment, and there were misunderstandings about the program’s expectations and what was promised to the inmates participating in it.

These and other prison education programs, coupled with new funder-backed prison reform projects, underscore the broadening array of work addressing mass incarceration on multiple fronts. At the front end of the system, funders such as Arnold Ventures have worked to reform pretrial justice and reduce pretrial detention by concentrating on those incarcerated people deemed the most serious threats to public safety. At the back end, education and other reentry efforts aim to reduce recidivism.