In order for the nation to increase college access and success for all students, we know that education must occur in a variety of environments, Sing Sing prison included. Our group of college leaders, non-profit, government and corrections officials gathered for a strategic partners meeting to discuss expanding support for prison education programs and to see the work up close.
I started the day struck by stark contrasts — the daunting high walls and barbwire fencing overlooking the calm, picturesque waters of the Hudson River — the setting for an impassioned conversation about the value of education with a group of incarcerated college students. The students we met are enrolled in the Hudson Link educational program but as visitors that day, we were the ones going to school.
We heard tough facts from a black male who noted, “When you come up with nothing, you wind up in jail or dead. We wound up in jail.” We also saw demonstrations of transformation through education.
“College changed my life. It gave me an identity in a place where you quickly can become a voiceless number,” said one graduate. Another student, Jon-Adrian, talked about one of his favorite classes, criminology and the application of rational choice theory, helping him understand choices and consequences. Also in our visitor group, Alexandria, a former incarcerated female silenced the room saying, “There were a lot of things I wanted to pass on to my daughter, but being incarcerated wasn’t one of them.” Now pursuing a Ph.D., she enrolled in college to “pass on something positive.”
The statistics bear out the impact as well. According to a 2013 RAND study funded by the Department of Justice, incarcerated individuals who participated in high quality correctional education – including postsecondary correctional education – were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years than those who didn’t participate in correctional education. We in the Obama administration are proud to support the education of more than 10,000 students participating in the Second Chance Pell Program. It’s designed to evaluate the impact of Pell Grants on helping incarcerated men and women pursue and attain a high-quality postsecondary education. Our thanks to the committed college and correctional leaders connecting to make this happen.
We know the reach of educational attainment extends beyond an individual, often impacting families as well. That impact was on display when Talisha, the child of a formerly incarcerated parent shared how her dad’s educational journey refocused her effort on doing well in school. I won’t soon forget that daughter’s pride when more than half of the incarcerated students noted the impact of her father on their drive for education as well. It’s simple, those who get it pass it on to others – their own families and their community inside and outside prison walls.
Corrections officials offered two compelling points to the critics of prison education. Good education programs are good for security, engaging incarcerated individuals in positive actions. The programs are also valuable because of the strong commitment of participants to do something good and to give back.
I asked the students how we get more high schoolers and middle schoolers to value education without incarceration and the ideas began to flow. Make education cool. Use great role models. Get good information to students and families so they know that college is an option. Get the hip-hop culture to promote the value of education.
We’re working on many of these ideas and more to expand opportunity and increase college completion, that includes encouraging more higher education institutions to Take the Fair Chance Pledge to support reforms and remove barriers to second chances in postsecondary education.
When someone says education saved my life, people listen. We need more life-changing and life-saving through education in our country.
Kim Hunter Reed is Deputy Under Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education.