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Community Forum: Prison & Education

Updated: Apr 27, 2022

First Step Alliance recently spoke with a returning citizen from Pennsylvania to learn more the availability of educational resources during his incarceration and the need to expand programs to prepare people for successful re-entry.

"Some of my friends told me about a nail technician training program that was posted for sign-ups at their prison. These guys never had a mani-pedi in their lives. They thought a cuticle was an office divider. They said they were so desperate for education they signed up. Turns out it was only a joke posted by a guard."

This may seem amusing to some, but on a more serious note, there aren't a whole lot of options. So what learning opportunities are offered to people who are incarcerated? "Well, not much frankly. The chaplains typically will host some classes on spiritual topics, language classes may be available to learn English or Spanish. Sometimes classes like anger management or addiction recovery are presented."

What training can help prepare people for a successful transition back to their families and the community? "Providing a program to develop a person's ability to manage the stress of daily living and strategies to cope with them healthily is very important and grossly missing. Prisoners can learn simple tricks like counting to 10 to avoid a fight with a significant other or a coworker. That momentary pause could be the difference between returning to prison or not."

How can financial education help? "The top category of topics is all connected to one I've already mentioned, employment and financial education. The Urban Institute in their study found housing and employment were tied as the top needs of an inmate reentering society. Of course, these are the top concerns; they build our sense of worth and security. From a life skills perspective, this highlights an essential need for a comprehensive program taught in prisons on personal financial management. Sadly, this is not being done inside our prisons. Housing requires money to be safe. Good financial practices can be taught to help maintain a home. Employment gives someone a sense of pride and belonging. One of the most important results of a job is income. The educational goal is to understand personal banking, budgeting, using personal credit properly, etc. Debt and bad money management can trigger problems in many other parts of an ex-con’s life. With the tools of good financial management, the transition from confinement to freedom is much more likely to succeed."

Unfortunately, today educational resources are extremely limited. He elaborated, "My experience is that many courses are taught by fellow inmates or reluctant guards, all untrained themselves. This shows the low priority some prison officials place on these topics. Without a good understanding of daily living skills like budgeting and money management life can become pretty stressful for a newly released prisoner."

What additional training can be provided to currently incarcerated individuals to improve employment opportunities? "The need to deliver solid post-secondary education to inmates is also vital. Courses that lead to jobs are what statistically lead a person to go home and build a crime-free life and never return to prison again. It allows people to show they were improving themselves when they served time. The areas of this education are as varied as the interests of the inmates pursuing it. States maintain a workforce needs list that gives a snapshot in time of the careers with the most need for workers, and what types of education and training are expected to be in demand in the future in their regions. This is an important piece of information for an inmate to consider when selecting an educational path."

How does the First Step Act help improve access to education during incarceration? "Some things are certain. The passage of the First Step Act in 2018 and the mandate to have it fully implemented by January of 2022 should result in more prison-sponsored educational programs in the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Also, Congress lifted the ban on inmates using federal student aid. This will make money available to pay for tuition from accredited schools. There are a number of post-secondary schools that offer degrees to inmates as fully correspondence programs."

Some final thoughts. "It is not ever nice to be in prison. It is a tough place with a lot of problems. From an education standpoint, the pendulum is swinging toward giving more support for inmates to pursue training and education. The payoffs for our communities are undeniable."

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