Push for Inmate Education Moves Beyond Prison Walls

These resource papers are excerpted from the book College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons.

Prison education has already created an astonishing impact on our society. Most of the time, though, we don’t hear about it. The stigma of having served time and the difficulties involved with revealing a criminal background make a lot of individuals keep quiet, despite how much they’ve overcome.

One group of ex-prisoners all became professors. Frustrated by the ignorance of criminology professionals, researchers, policymakers, and politicians, they announced their histories to the world. In 1997, they presented a seminar called Convicts Critique Criminology at the conference of the American Society of Criminology (ASC).

The seminar and the book that resulted, called Convict Criminology, offered a new perspective on the day-to-day realities of imprisonment. Since then, the CC group has offered roundtables and workshops around the world. They also developed Inviting Convicts to College, a free, non-credit college preparatory course.

CUNY’s College Initiative

The City University of New York’s (CUNY) College Initiative (CI) helps former prisoners continue the education they began behind bars. Services include employment assistance and guidance in becoming citizens who contribute in meaningful ways.

CI is truly a model for our nation. As of 2010, the recidivism rate for CI participants was as low as 3.2% after just one semester. Out of 2,000 individuals, 12 had earned associate degrees, 51 had bachelor’s degrees, and 27 had completed their master’s. All performed on par with the traditional CUNY population.

Prison Entrepreneurship Program

“We were murderers. We were gang leaders. We were drug dealers. We are executives. We are MBAs. We are pastors. We are professionals.”

PEP is the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, a nonprofit established in 2004. The program brings top executives, MBA students, and politicians together with prisoners to stimulate positive transformations. Of more than 700 graduates, the recidivism rate is less than 5 percent. A full 98% of participants find jobs within one month of release.

North Carolina

Every year, the State of North Carolina educates over 16,500 prisoners with an emphasis on vocational training. For more than 30 years, the state’s Department of Corrections has worked closely with the North Carolina Community College System, the University of North Carolina, and Shaw University. UNC provides limited onsite instruction as well as video and web conferencing. Unlike other states that lay the costs of education on the prisoners, postsecondary education is fully funded by the state.

Texas: The Windham School District

One of the largest prison systems in the country—and in the state known for its aggressive use of capital punishment — uses prison education as the key to rehabilitation. The Texas DOC created the Windham School District to provide postsecondary adult education programs inside the prison. Of the roughly 10,000 prisoners served, two-thirds work toward an associate degree, while others pursue vocational certificates. Their motto, “Fighting Crime through Education,” rings true because they achieve recidivism rates of only 16 percent.