SHERIDAN — New secondary education efforts and funding to support it might help incarcerated individuals with re-entry into communities.
Statistics show lower recidivism rates for prisoners who participate in secondary and postsecondary education and training programs while in prison.
More accessibility to education and trainings while in prison might prove beneficial for not only inmates post-incarceration, but also the community in public safety and economic stability.
Currently, the Wyoming Department of Corrections provides an adult basic education and general equivalency diploma preparation program, special education program for individuals with special needs, vocational education programs and English language classes for inmates whose primary language is not English.
WYDOC also partners with the University of Wyoming to provide college courses through Wyoming Pathways from Prison. Funding for those classes come from grants and donations.
WYDOC education programs manager Betty Abbott, in conjunction with other pro-education supporters, explained the need for financial opportunities for inmates for postsecondary education in an email. It stated increase in economic opportunity, safer communities and cost savings by lowering recidivism rates.
Wyoming’s current recidivism rate hovers around 25 percent. A national review by the United States Sentencing Commission reported the national recidivism rate for reincarceration at 24.6 percent in March 2016.
January 1, 2017, statistics said 75 percent of Wyoming inmates without a verified diploma or high school equivalency certificate coming into incarceration leave with that education. Bob Lampert, director of the Wyoming Department of Corrections, said in 2012 the biggest impact on long-term public safety is ensuring that each person confined is provided with opportunities to develop skills necessary to become a law-abiding citizen.
High- and medium-need offenders received 4 percent assistance in education and 10 percent in employment. A Rand Corporation nationwide study indicated that inmates who participated in correctional education programs had 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than those who did not. They also said incarcerated individuals who participated in correctional education were 13 percent more likely to obtain employment after release.
Pell Grants for prisoners were banned in the 1994 crime bill passed under President Bill Clinton, according to Erica L. Green, a reporter for The New York Times. Pell Grants provide federal student aid for undergraduate students and do not have to be repaid.
Recently, though, bipartisan efforts supported lifting the federal ban on Pell Grants for people in prison through the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
Before recent bipartisan efforts, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators presented a preliminary report deriving from a task force to reauthorize the Higher Education Act for better access to postsecondary education, to promote policies that address the needs of disadvantaged students and to eliminate statutory requirements that use financial aid to enforce unrelated social policies, among others.
In the recommendation, NASFAA asked to eliminate the tie between student eligibility and drug convictions, which would open funding to certain incarcerated individuals. The report noted that many schools have rules addressing drug use, and institutions generally have policies that help combat drug use or distribution. Because of this, the reauthorization task force expressed that financial aid should not be taken away as punishment.
“Once released and again possibly eligible for aid, these individuals have already satisfied punishment imposed for conviction;” the recommendation reads. “Education may be their best route to rehabilitation.”
By having access to Pell Grants, inmates would have more of an opportunity financially to be able to seek postsecondary education, if offered, while incarcerated.
Jobs for prisoners
How does the work on the inside translate to jobs post-incarceration?
Coming into the workforce with a criminal record eliminates certain opportunities for those individuals seeking employment. Because of this, several felon job search websites list blue-collar jobs requiring minimal education.
A Minnesota State Colleges and Universities career planning website for people with criminal convictions lists entry level, first-step ahead and next-step ahead job opportunities in food service, warehouse operations, information support, construction, mobile maintenance and production.
Out of the 18 job suggestions, only two listed bachelor’s degrees as common education and training, while nine listed a completed high school diploma or equivalent.
The Vera Institute of Justice currently runs two- and four-year college degree programs in 27 states, with the closest to Wyoming being Nebraska, Minnesota and Washington. Nebraska’s programs provide business, information technology, trade, college and career-prep courses associated with eventual degrees earned. The implementation of degree tracks for incarcerated individuals started in 2016, so the effectiveness of inmates receiving higher-paying jobs because of higher education opportunities remains unknown this early in the process.
Although most job suggestions for felons require minimal postsecondary education, providing the means to obtain higher education through funding like Pell Grants and programs like those done through the Vera Institute might change the job opportunities available upon re-entry.