By Christopher Zoukis
In its waning days, Obama administration officials announced plans to expand education efforts in federal prisons and to provide more direction and oversight to the programs previously run separately at each facility.
Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced in late November 2016 that for the first time, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) had hired an education specialist as superintendent of a planned “semi-autonomous school system” within the BOP. Lynch prominently noted Amy Lopez, a veteran prison educator, was relocating from Texas to become the new point person for upgrading BOP educational programs.
Lopez was previously director of instruction for the large statewide educational school district Texas created for prisoners in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and had also held a number of other correctional education posts in Texas.
More background on outgoing DOJ officials’ plans for creating a new, more centralized BOP education system came in a January 9, 2017 memo from then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. It noted research has found prisoners in educational programs are 43% less likely to be re-imprisoned than those not taking part in educational programs while incarcerated – meaning every dollar spent for prison education can bring savings four to five times larger by trimming re-incarceration costs.
So, the Yates memo declared, the Department of Justice and BOP need to do “all [they] can to ensure every inmate has access to a quality education,” thus cutting recidivism and promoting public safety. It further noted the DOJ had recently evaluated the BOP’s education system, using its staff and an outside consultant, seeking ways to improve programs for adult literacy, special education, high school diplomas and post-secondary education.
According to Yates, the DOJ’s evaluation showed an urgent need for the BOP to develop a comprehensive strategy capable of transforming the structure, operations and governance of its education system. Her memo set three tasks for the BOP in achieving that goal: developing a more centralized structure while improving how finances and personnel are allocated within the system; starting a pilot program for education technology; and devising a new BOP policy on educating prisoners with learning disabilities.
The Yates memo also noted the BOP’s hiring of Amy Lopez to serve as the first-ever superintendent/Chief Education Administrator for BOP education programs, calling it one of the critical first steps in making the agency’s educational offerings both high-quality and consistently implemented throughout BOP institutions.
Before being fired for refusing to defend the Trump administration’s executive order curbing travel to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries, Yates had publicly predicted the new administration would follow the directions set forth in her memo for revamping BOP educational programs.
Recent developments, however, though little publicized, may signal a marked change in plans for the BOP and DOJ. Lopez was apparently fired in May 2017, though the DOJ says it wasn’t at the instigation of either Yates’ successor, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, or Lynch’s successor, Attorney General Jeff Sessions – who while in the U.S. Senate occasionally voiced skepticism on the effectiveness of prison education programs.
BOP officials were noncommittal on what led to the change, or the education plans of new officials at the BOP and DOJ. All of which leaves uncertain what, if anything, remains of the plans outlined for BOP education programs by the departing Obama administration officials.
This article, by PLN contributing writer Christopher Zoukis, was originally published by the Huffington Post (www.huffingtonpost.com) on June 7, 2017; it is reprinted with the author’s permission, with minor edits.
This article appeared in Prison Legal News on June 30, 2017.
About Christopher Zoukis
Christopher Zoukis is an outspoken prisoner rights and correctional education advocate who is incarcerated at FCI Petersburg Medium in Virginia. He is an award-winning writer whose work has been published widely in major publications such as The Huffington Post, Prison Legal News, New York Daily News and various other print and online publications. Learn more about Christopher Zoukis at christopherzoukis.com and prisoneducation.com.