Prison Education Should Serve as ‘Foundation’ for Reentry Plans: Report

With Pell Grant access for incarcerated people returning, a new report says prison education should be key to reentry planning.
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Updated on June 16, 2023
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  • Incarcerated students are set to regain access to Pell Grants for the first time in almost 30 years, starting in July.
  • Prison education should be the "foundation" of planning for reentry, according to a new report by the New England Commission on the Future of Higher Education in Prison.
  • Many prospective students face long wait times before they can start taking classes in prison, hampering their progress toward a degree or credential.
  • Prison education has been shown to decrease recidivism rates.

With access to Pell Grants returning to incarcerated students for the first time in almost three decades, a new report emphasizes that prison education should be the "foundation" of reentry planning.

The New England Commission on the Future of Higher Education in Prison said in a June 7 report that "the entire continuum of intake to re-entry should be re-envisioned to maximize educational and career opportunities" so that students can land a good job as soon as they are released.

Incarcerated people who want to pursue an education or credential currently have long wait times before they can begin taking classes, according to the report. This can hamper their progress toward earning a degree.

The commission's report comes at a pivotal moment for prison education: Incarcerated students will have access to Pell Grants starting in July for the first time since 1994. States, universities, and municipalities have stepped up their prison education ahead of that expansion as part of a nationwide push.

Prison education programs have been shown to reduce recidivism, BestColleges previously reported, and have a dual purpose of both combating inequality through higher education access and improving public safety.

"Reimagining incarceration must include a more humanized approach to planning for re-entry, and the education offerings at each facility, both postsecondary and career and technical, must be more widely adopted and initiated sooner," Carole Cafferty, co-director of The Educational Justice Institute at MIT, said in a release.

While prison education has expanded in recent years, more fundamental changes are needed to maximize its effectiveness, according to the New England Commission on the Future of Higher Education in Prison report. Prisons should prioritize career and educational pathways as part of prisoner intake, according to the report, and bring on education and career navigators to help students through the higher education process.

Work-based learning should also be a key aspect of prison education, according to the report, and prisons should boost opportunities to connect students with employers and create a pipeline for jobs. Prisons also need to update their facilities to incorporate modern learning techniques, the report says, and review their facilities to ensure their space is being used effectively.

"Momentum is strong for rethinking what a period of incarceration is meant to accomplish and for reimagining this time as a crucial period for re-entry-aligned growth," the report reads.

"Since 95% of all incarcerated people will eventually return to their communities, the learning and skills amassed on the inside can become part of a high impact toolkit for navigating both the transitional period post-release and students' long-term re-integration into society."

The report also recommends that states develop multi-year plans to ensure effective prison education programs — and create voluntary "credit transfer compacts" that allow schools to sign on and accept students' credits for a transfer after they are released.

"We are seeking to change the conversation in higher education to become more inclusive of the prospective student population in prison," Educational Justice Institute Co-Director Lee Perlman said in the release. "This is another group of students who need what higher education can offer and we must work across systems to deliver it."