Prison-Based College Presents Challenges, but Can Succeed, Study Finds

Image: LA Johnson/NPR

Creating a prison-based program where incarcerated individuals can take college classes and then work toward a degree upon release can be successful, but many obstacles challenge the success of such efforts, according to a new study.

In evaluating a five-year effort in North Carolina, researchers found it took incarcerated individuals longer than traditional students to complete coursework, according to the study by researchers from the RAND Corporation and RTI International.

“The program we evaluated was given high marks by both the participants and the prison officials who were involved,” said Lois Davis, lead author of the study and a senior policy researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “But an overarching lesson is that it takes time to implement a prison and community-based program that has many partners and targets a population that has diverse needs.”

Interest in prison-based education has grown in recent years as an approach to reduce recidivism and improve the future of people who are incarcerated for crimes.

In 2018, RAND updated and expanded its earlier evaluation of the effectiveness of correctional education programs and found that the original findings still hold. According to RAND’s research, inmates who participate in correctional education programs have a 13-percentage-point reduction in their risk of returning to prison and every $1 invested in prison education can reduce future incarceration costs by $4 to $5 in the near term.

The new study evaluates the Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education program established in North Carolina state prisons in 2013 as part of a multi-state demonstration project supported by several foundations.

To help incarcerated individuals obtain a postsecondary education degree or credential, prisons offered them college classes during the final two years of their incarceration, with support continuing for another two years following release to help them achieve their degree or certificate goal.

Researchers from RAND and RTI evaluated the program’s adoption and success rate, interviewing more than 70 stakeholders, program staff and participants to gather input.

Overall the program enrolled 201 students at the six participating prisons, where classes were taught by instructors from local community colleges. The in-prison portion of the program was completed by 150 people, who transitioned to classes at community colleges once released from incarceration.

Participants had to agree to be released from prison into one of three communities in North Carolina where support services were concentrated to help them transition into community colleges. While this approach made sense from a resource perspective, it was not ideal for all participants because it kept them from being near supportive family members, according to researchers.

Among the recommendations made by the report is allowing participants more time to build their general education credits prior to their release from prison and allowing people to initially attend college part-time once they are released, which would allow them to better acclimate to their new lives.

Researchers also recommend that programs have a geographically diverse group of release communities so participants can live near their family members and other supports, and that community colleges and other community-based educational providers are a part of the planning process.

“The North Carolina Pathways Program offers valuable insights into the success and challenge of implementing a prison-based postsecondary education program intended to help participants continue their education upon release,” said Michelle C. Tolbert, the study’s co-author and a researcher at RTI, a nonprofit research institute in North Carolina. “These lessons can help guide other states that want to undertake such efforts.”

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