Written by Denise Pearson and Kelsey Heckert
The United States leads the world in the number of incarcerated persons per 100,000.1
In today’s global economy, these numbers represent huge wastes in human capital, especially when you consider the inequitable nature of the American criminal justice system, as witnessed by the disproportionate racial and ethnic composition, types of crimes, and length of prison sentences represented within this population. Regardless of the pathway to prison, most incarcerated people will eventually return to the communities from which they came, so one of the important questions may be, how does society want them to show up? Broken or made whole? Angry or hopeful? Employable or unemployable? Role model or counterexample?
The essence of this paper is linked to a favored quote by the late Nelson Mandela, who said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” These words are as profound today as they were in 1990 when he addressed an audience of Boston high school students. Furthermore, education in America remains one of the best investments individuals and governments can make, which should include investment in prison-based education programs. These types of efforts are cost-effective, reduce recidivism, improve employment prospects, increase civic engagement, and can disrupt generational poverty. Despite Second Chance Pell programs and other evidence supporting the multilayered value of postsecondary (coursework beyond high school) education for incarcerated populations, barriers and challenges persist. Fortunately, leaders of state agencies and systems of higher education are increasingly exploring
the feasibility of these programs for their states.
This paper presents preliminary findings from a survey SHEEO administered to its members in 2018. It advocates for postsecondary education for incarcerated persons as a relevant policy issue at federal and state levels in current political environments. Key findings and recommendations were informed by responses from 38 percent of SHEEO’s membership. States responding to the survey were Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming. Non-member organizations included Truckee Meadows Community College (NV); University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Bismarck State College (ND); and the Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges. The paper is organized around three main categories: access, program delivery, and reentry of program participants into society, with the following key performance indicators.