By Christopher Zoukis
This week the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections was awarded one of nine “Improved Reentry Education (IRE)” awards of $1 million each from the US Department of Education, Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education. The program itself is mandated to support “demonstration projects in prisoner re-entry education that develop evidence of reentry education’s effectiveness” recognizes the daunting, complex, and varied list of barriers that impede successful prisoner re-entry. This year’s successful applicants were required to demonstrate an additional commitment to first, support high-needs students, and second, improving supports and correctional education. Chief among additional requirements were a solid comprehension of social and theoretical models related to prison education and re-entry, and demonstrated commitment to increasing the number of successful program participants.
Pennsylvania is the only DOC to have been successful in their application this year, likely due in part to their demonstrated commitment to reducing recidivism rates through a variety of mechanisms. Chief among those efforts has been the state’s “Justice Reinvestment Initiative” (an approach which, while accepted across the country, has yet to be fully realized), geared at early intervention facilitated by improved data on offences and alternative justice mechanisms. However the sustainability of this reduction is somewhat in question, as the number of educational programs available to inmates has actually decreased in recent years; it is hoped this grant might help stem, if only marginally, that tide.
One notable inclusion in Pennsylvania’s approach is the need to examine underemployment rather than simply unemployment. Similar to much popular analysis of employment figures, there is a failure to recognize that underemployment is just as detrimental to economic and social well-being as being jobless. The insecurity of part-time work and its incumbent lack of benefits and protection leaves former inmates and their families just as vulnerable as before they were released.
The DOC is also seeking to bridge the gap between education and training inside prison with those on the outside. A lack of continuity between curriculum and/or accreditation between programs can mean that efforts spent at furthering education while in prison are rendered null and void upon release. This ties in with the additional goal of changing how offenders are assessed when it comes to choosing appropriate educational programs, and matching them with occupational opportunities and existing job markets.