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One of the areas where the left and the right are forging a consensus is in criminal justice reform. One part of this consensus is that it is better if the 650,000 people released from prison each year get some sort of training to succeed outside prison than get dumped out in the street only to end up back in jail.

But what sort of training would be a good idea for prisoners?

A conference at the American Enterprise Institute[1] last week addressed this issue, with panelists including think tank fellows, professors, and some former prisoners. (A summary of AEI programs in this area can be found here.)

Much of the conversation centered around university programs for inmates. These programs are not without controversy. The people who ask why their children are paying gigantic sums to study Plato or Proust complain even more loudly about programs in the humanities for prisoners.

AEI fellow Gerard Robinson, who moderated the conference, noted that families of victims have every right to complain about opportunities provided to prisoners that are denied to spouses or children whose life was cut short because of crime.

The panelists largely stayed away from these moral issues to focus on more practical questions, such as how college programs for prisoners work and whether they increase the chances that released prisoners will succeed in entering the labor force.

I learned that there are lots of obstacles to implementing a collegiate program in a prison.

Grant Duwe, a criminologist with the Minnesota Department of Corrections, notes that many prisons are in very old buildings, constructed in the days where the prevailing view in penology was that prison life should be as miserable as possible. Those buildings, he says, were designed as “safe and secure facilities that emphasize isolation,” which means that they have no areas that could be converted into classrooms.

A second obstacle is how to pay for the programs. Until 1994, prisoners were eligible for Pell Grants, but when Republicans took over Congress, this program was killed. In 2015 the Obama Department of Education brought back Pell grants for prisoners in a pilot project, which currently funds education for around 4,000 prisoners. The Trump Administration has made no changes to this program.

University of Baltimore criminal justice professor Andrea Contrera noted that in order to apply for a Pell grant, you have to supply proof that you registered with Selective Service when you turned 18. But many of the prisoners who apply for “Second Chance Pell” grants didn’t do that because they were in prison at the time they should have registered. The paperwork to apply to Selective Service years after you should have, Contrera noted, is monumental.

Postsecondary education for prisoners isn’t a program where large funders are spending money on. But Linda Gibbs of Bloomberg Associates, who spent 30 years in New York City government, provided a cautionary tale of what happened when New York City attempted to change prisoners’ lives with a “social impact bond,” which rewards investors who agree to fund a social program in return for successful results. Goldman Sachs agreed to put up $9.6 million over three years in a program at Rikers Island in which sixteen and seventeen-year olds agreed to undergo cognitive-behavioral therapy. If the number of teenagers who didn’t go back to prison after undergoing this therapy fell by 10 percent, Goldman Sachs would make a profit. Funds also went to MDRC, a respected evaluation firm, to evaluate the project.

The project was a failure in that the therapy had no effect on recidivism rates. One reason, said Gibbs, was that the fifth step of the therapy was for recipients to state before a group, “I know what I did was wrong,” and any teenager who said that publicly in Rikers Island was marked for death.

However, Goldman Sachs didn’t lose all their money; Bloomberg Philanthropies, which agreed to protect Goldman against many of their losses, paid the investment bank $7.2 million.

Do we know if college-level programs help prisoners succeed when they leave?

Urban Institute fellow Nancy La Vigne warned that social science only provides limited information here. She did a meta-analysis of nearly 1,500 studies in this field. One-third of them were junk science that failed “minimal standards of scholarship.”[2] The result, she says, is that there is limited evidence that people in these educational programs have lower recidivism rates, and no evidence that university programs in college help place people in jobs.

That does not mean that university programs for prisons are useless, but rather that, like many welfare programs, the benefits college classes provide are moral and spiritual and can’t be quantified.

John Huffington, a consultant who spent 32 years in prison, says in his experience, inmates who are taking classes are less likely to be recruited by gangs—or what correctional officers call “strategic threat groups”.

In other cases, prisoners improve because a caring outsider pushes them to work to take control of their lives.

Renita Seabrook of the University of Baltimore works with female inmates at a local prison. She explained that she told one inmate all the steps she needed to complete the program, including taking classes in how to apply for jobs and how to save for retirement. “I expect you to complete your program,” Seabrook said. The inmate replied, “I’ve never had anyone ask me to do anything.”

“If we want people to get out of prison,” Seabrook said, “we have to own it and mean it.”

Karen Jones was very cynical when she showed at a recruiting program Goucher College had at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women. But she went because the recruiters were in the library, the only part of prison that had air conditioning. Then Goucher professor Amy Roza told Jones how her grandparents immigrated to America with very little, and worked hard to provide a better life for their children. If her grandparents could succeed, Roza said, Jones could.

“I don’t want to be a cynic anymore,” Jones told herself. She worked hard on her courses, and when she was released, she started a business that currently employs seven people.

Perhaps the lesson of college-level courses in universities is that programs do not result in sweeping change, but in small victories as individuals taking these programs get their lives in order.

Surely this is a better result than doing nothing at all.

[1] AEI has been a client of mine since 1990. Most recently, in 2016 and 2017, I provided education research to AEI under contract. I do not currently have any contracts with AEI.

[2] Only a third passed an evaluation test known as “fidelity,” which means the educational programs surveyed did what they were supposed to do. And very few of the studies that were good actually looked at whether or not people in the programs entered the labor force.

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