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Inmate Education Success Stories Shared at Department Convening

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Education, which under the Trump administration has advocated transferring more power to states on various reform issues, hosted a convening Monday at which state and local leaders shared success stories about initiatives to educate inmates.

Upwards of 100 people representing education, labor, criminal justice, public policy and other sectors attended “Rethinking Correctional and Reentry Education: A Second Chance at Learning” at the department, with more watching live online as panel presenters and other speakers described innovative, employer-responsive approaches in locales across the nation.

The White House’s support of educational and other initiatives for returning citizens, such as proposing more than $500 million in next year’s budget to assist inmates – combined with various legislative actions such as Perkins V and the recently approved FIRST STEP Act – “make sense from a social, economic and moral perspective” because they reduce recidivism and help create productive citizens, “a plus for everyone,” deputy education secretary Dr. Mitchell Zais said in prepared remarks.

Maurice Smith, second from left, former inmate and Goucher University graduate.Maurice Smith, second from left, former inmate and Goucher University graduate.

The president and education secretary Betsy DeVos “believe strongly in the power of redemption,” Zais said, and that funding from the federal level complements solutions and ideas from the people closest to the problem.

“We believe that local control unleashes innovation,” he said.

Michigan’s Vocational Village initiative, established in 2015 to begin equipping inmates to transition to employment, expanded on-premises vocational education by adding a skilled-trades training center for moderate- and high-risk offenders, said Heidi E. Washington, director of the Michigan Department of Corrections.

The program is shaped by market demands in a state with a skilled trades gap that reflects a national shortage.

And because employers have expressed workforce concerns such as reliable worker attendance, Washington said, students live in the same unit and train eight hours a day in fields such as auto mechanics, robotics, plumbing and electrical.

“They are totally focused on learning” and finish with a state or national credential or license that makes them job-ready, said Washington.

Of more than 480 inmates who have gone through the program and been released, only five have ended up back behind bars or are in the process of a behavior violation, she said.

With funding from the governor and state legislature, officials are adding a second village with training in different fields such as commercial truck driving and masonry. And a third village at a correctional facility for women is expected to open by the end of the year.

“Now employers are coming to us,” said Washington. “They’re coming to us, asking us to train people in the particular niche they need filled. But it doesn’t do any good if we train them and give them certificates and they can’t find a job.”

Village staff work with more than 500 employers and others in the business community, brokering opportunities such as on-site job interviews and other workforce-readiness, wrap-around services that can help returning citizens succeed and reduce the steep individual and social costs of recidivism.

Dr. Mitchell ZaisDr. Mitchell Zais

Although it is too soon to fully measure program success, some data suggest efforts are succeeding. About 95 percent of village participants secure a job even before release, Washington said.

“And so they’re leaving prison one day and reporting to work the next day,” she said. “Our goal is that everybody has a job before they leave.”

In California, where officials in 2003 launched the first charter high school ever to operate inside a county jail, the Five Keys program serves more than 25,000 incarcerated adults a year at 20 jails and more than 80 community sites in seven counties, said program executive director Steve Good.

Students get skills training in any of 20 sectors, as well as life skills development and other as-needed programs such as special education up to the age of 22.

Faced with numerous structural challenges of trying to program education and training at facilities where the average stay for offenders is 60 days, officials try unconventional approaches such as semesters that are only four to six weeks, said Good.

“We had to rethink what correctional education looks like,” he said, describing the importance of building bridges to external resources to help individuals complete their education in jail or after leaving and start working.

More than 2,800 have earned a high school diploma or equivalency, taking their training to jobs in areas ranging from welding and bike repair to pet grooming and horticulture.

At the same time, with an eye toward prevention, the state used a grant from Google to turn an old municipal bus into a classroom on wheels. It rolls into four San Francisco housing projects each week, where 40 students are currently enrolled in classes and another eight graduated from high school last year, Good said.

Meanwhile, the Division of College and Career Readiness in the D.C. Department of Corrections has added post-secondary education to its educational programming.

Aside from CTE programs, there are courses on journalism and entrepreneurship, as well as for-credit partnerships with institutions such as Ashland, Georgetown and Howard universities, said department deputy director Amy Lopez.

Georgetown, for example, broadened its commitment by requesting face-to-face classes, transitioning from no-credit to for-credit courses, covering costs and permitting students with a 3.0 grade average or higher to continue at the ground school upon release, said Lopez.

By the end of the first year, the program was serving nearly 12,000 students, she said.

In a student and educator panel discussion moderated by Sean Addie, the education department’s director of correctional and reentry education, Amy Roza talked about the success of the Goucher Prison Education Partnership (GPEP) she executive directs at Goucher College.

GPEP is among a handful of programs in the nation where inmates can complete a bachelor’s degree while incarcerated, Roza said, and 70 percent of students are first-generation.

Local communities must assume a share of the responsibility for whether returning citizens are better or worse than when they went to prison, because it will be one or the other, said former inmate Maurice Smith, a 2018 summa cum laud graduate of Goucher.

Smith said programs like GPEP are critical, as well as eradication of overly restrictive parole policies, employment disqualification based on a criminal background check and other practices that work against a fresh start for people like him.

GPEP “played a major part in transforming my life,” he said. “The community we rebuilt in prison allowed us to take on the role and identity of students. And I carried that with me upon my release.”

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