In a country of second chances, college for ex-prisoners returning to society


Credit: Frontline, via The New York Times

America aspires to be a country of second chances. In terms of the numbers, most incarcerated people do eventually return to society on the outside—more than 95 percent of prisoners. That means communities need effective programs and strategies to ensure that former prisoners stay out of trouble and successfully transition into stable and productive employment, housing, and personal support networks. Unfortunately for them, their families, and the public at large, they face a huge array of serious obstacles to doing so.

In California, an innovative program is underway to remedy a key barrier: the lack of educational credentials. College education, in fact, is one of the strategies known to effectively reduce recidivism. As KQED News reports, the state is now trying to offer support services to help ex-prisoners navigate the Cal State admissions process and complete their degree:

The program, called Project Rebound, will create an office where formerly incarcerated students can receive tutoring, counseling on academics and financial aid, and receive cash help to buy meals and books.

The offices will be up and running next academic year on the Cal State campuses in Bakersfield, Fresno, Fullerton, Pomona, Sacramento, San Bernardino and San Diego. The goal is to give these students help applying to a Cal State campus and provide help to earn a degree after they’re enrolled.

“Just some college exposure reduces the recidivism rate by 43 percent,” said Cal State Fullerton professor Brady Heiner, who’s overseeing the launch of Project Rebound on his campus.

Why support these kinds of initiatives at all? As Prof. Heiner noted, the broader impact of higher education for ex-prisoners is a lower recidivism rate—which benefits public safety and public budgets. One Massachusetts state lawmaker, Paul Heroux, also offers some more specific responses for voters that others may find useful:

I’ve spoken with many people who say, 1) why should they get housing support, or job placement, or health care? 2) No one helps me with those things. 3) My son who just graduated from college needs a job; why should he be bumped in favor of someone who did a crime?

These are all legitimate and important concerns. A visceral reaction is that “we should just keep them locked-up” or “they screwed-up; too bad for them.” But keeping them locked up becomes impossibly expensive, and in not helping them be successful upon release we are not helping our communities.

My response to each of these includes: 1) because the chances of them reoffending is higher without support in these areas and it is cheaper to give them support than to deal with the consequences of a crime, which may or may not involve a victim. 2) True, no one helps you with those things so you know how difficult it is; now add to that a criminal record, no family and friends supporting you, and laws that prohibit you from working and living in certain places. And 3) your college graduate son is very unlikely to be competing with an ex-con for a job so it is unlikely that your educated son will lose an opportunity over one afforded to an ex-con. Even if your child didn’t go to college, your child is likely in a very different vocational place than an ex-offender.

Prisoner reentry is a large issue area, with a myriad of background materials, published research, and commentary available from a wide range of resources. For just a few more articles relevant to this post, check out “You Just Got Out of Prison. Now What?” The New York Times (2015); These Programs Are Helping Prisoners Live Again On The Outside,” Huffington Post (2015); Building Knowledge About Successful Prisoner Reentry Strategies, MDRC (2013).