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The Virginia Higher Education for Incarcerated Students Consortium

by Cyndi Finley

How do you equitably teach students in isolation with limited resources? That question could reflect the current status of the public school systems dealing with the COVID-19 epidemic; however, this question represents the very struggle faced by educators and Department of Corrections staff across the state every day.

Background

The Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) reported that 70% of those who were formerly incarcerated will commit a new crime and half will return to prison within three years. “Given that about 95% of every 100 incarcerated people eventually rejoin society, it is crucial that we develop programs and tools to effectively reduce recidivism.” This equates to fewer crimes, cost savings, and improved communities. IHEP reported that recidivism rates for students who participated in prison education programs were on average 45% lower than those who had not participated (Gorgol & Sponsler, 2011).

The benefits extend beyond just reductions in recidivism. The earning potential of a student with a degree is exponential. A bachelor’s degree is worth more than $1 million in lifetime earnings (Correctional Association of New York, 2009). The implications of obtaining a degree, or engaging in education and training, extend into economic development and improved communities as well.

It is widely documented that education has a positive impact on incarcerated individuals. If an individual participated in any type of correctional education program— whether it be adult basic education, GED® preparation, college education, or vocational training—they had a 13 percentage point reduction in their risk of being re-incarcerated. And for those who participated in postsecondary education programs, college programs, their reduction in risk of reincarceration was 16 percentage points, a substantial reduction (Davis, et. al., 2013).

These reductions are estimated to amount to millions of dollars saved annually. The failure of education attainment prior to incarceration is a contributing factor to incarceration itself; higher education in prison is a chance to address those deficits.

Once released from prison, obtaining gainful employment is a top priority for educational participants. Incarcerated students increased their odds of finding employment upon release by 13 percent. The Virginia Higher Education for Incarcerated Students Consortium aims to expand efforts across the state so that incarcerated students can complete and pursue further education upon reentry.

The Consortium Public service agencies are all too familiar with working in our respective “silos,” often leading to duplication of efforts or lack of robust outcomes compared to collaborative efforts made towards the same goal. A select few working towards implementing higher education into Virginia’s prison system made this fragmentation realization. Higher education exists in some prisons across Virginia and works well, but what about all prisons in Virginia?

The current landscape shows a heavy concentration of higher education programs in facilities in central Virginia but does not readily span to other parts of the state. Via a grant award from the Laughing Gull Foundation and facilitated by the Virginia Foundation for Community College Education, leaders from both the Department of Corrections (VADOC) and Virginia’s Community Colleges (VCCS) came together, to explore the expansion of higher education in prisons in Virginia.

The mission of the consortium is to provide equitable access to education for all Virginians, with a focus on expanding access and programs for underserved populations. The consortium has brought together key leaders and contributors from corrections and education; assessed the current landscape; and gathered interest from colleges, prisons, and partners

There are multiple barriers impacting both the implementation of higher education in prison and the students’ pursuits after release. The Consortium broke down these efforts into six targeted areas on which to focus in order to develop and implement a comprehensive integrated action plan.

  • Policy and Advocacy will address internal and external barriers, provide guidance on current policy and the development of new policy, and determine how to navigate existing measures in order to maximize benefits to VADOC, VCCS, and the students.

  • Education Pathways will address program accessibility, student supports, credit transfers, and reentry. The pathways at each individual prison and college will differ, but gaining access to those pathways, the variety of supports the students will need to maintain equitable access to education, and the seamless transfer of students upon release are the primary focuses of the subcommittee.

  • Resources will address funding, technology, course materials, faculty, staff, and educational resources such as libraries. Funding will continue to be a challenge, but the subcommittee will flesh out contacts and strategies to maximize efforts. Designing coursework around limited technology hiring the right staff to instruct this diverse demographic, and obtaining access to materials are crucial for successful implementation. The Consortium plans to develop guidance that will outline steps to navigate those issues.

  • Communication will address how to communicate the Consortium message, especially the positive messaging around higher education in prisons, as well as communicating between partners.

  • Partnerships will address how to develop and maintain partnerships within the correctional facilities and between VCCS and external partners, as well as play a critical role in the implementation of a new program.

  • Outcomes and Data will address how to navigate assessment outcomes between two agencies, evaluate programs, and track processes.

Outlook

The recent COVID-19 epidemic has drastically changed the way we live. Its impact is not halted by four prison walls. Incarcerated individuals will also feel the impact and upon release, returning to a world with new challenges, obstacles, technology, and a new way of surviving. During this time of crisis, partners have come together to strengthen our communities, provide service to those in need, and reach out to one another to make sure people are safe and thriving. It is the work, collaboration, and dedication of these same partners that will help to expand educational opportunities for incarcerated individuals, preparing them for a whole new world. The Consortium will lead this effort by developing and implementing a comprehensive integrated action plan, executed by partners, in order to enhance the reentry process for incarcerated students.

The Role of Adult Education

Adult education plays a huge role in this leadership effort, not only as a provider, but also as a partner. Adult educators across the state are already participating in prison education and their experience and contribution is valuable and crucial in creating a holistic approach to the Consortium efforts. By sharing both the nuances of adult education and the delivery of adult basic skills with the Consortium, adult education programs can play an integral part in this important initiative.


References

Correctional Association of New York. (2009). Education from the inside out: The multiple benefits of college programs in prison

Davis, L. M. Bozick, R., Steele, J. L., Saunders, J., & Miles, J. N. V. (2013). Evaluating the effectiveness of correctional education: A meta-analysis of programs that provide education to incarcerated adults. RAND Corporation (RR-266).

Gorgol, L. E. & Sponsler, B. A. (2011). Unlocking potential: results of a national survey of postsecondary education in state prisons. Institute for Higher Education Policy.


Cyndi Finley

Cyndi Finley holds a master’s degree in criminal justice from Virginia Commonwealth University and a B.S. in psychology from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. She brings more than 20 years of professional experience with local law enforcement agencies, the Richmond Family Court, and local government. Cyndi currently works as the project manager for a variety of programs within the division of Academic and Workforce Programs at Virginia’s Community Colleges (VCCS) where she serves targeted demographics striving to overcome multiple barriers.