A Second Chance: The Promise of the Prison-to-Education Pipeline

Gerard Robinson at Batten Hour 11/6/23

"When you think of prisons, what word comes to mind?"

Professor Gerard Robinson posed this open-ended question to a crowded room at Garrett Hall which led to a cascade of responses from the audience, each one embodying the complex web of perceptions, outrage and hope surrounding policy reform of the American penal system. Students had no shortage of opinions. 

In this week’s thought-provoking Batten Hour event, Robinson–professor of practice at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and leading expert on K-12 and higher education, criminal justice reform, race in American institutions and education within U.S. prisons—did more than simply ask questions. He offered valuable insights into the transformative power of education behind prison walls, discussing the systems that work and those that don't. Moreover, he shed light on the pivotal role higher education institutions are playing in expanding learning opportunities for the incarcerated. 

Robinson's discussion delved into the historical evolution of prisons as penitentiaries, which he shared is a uniquely American invention. Prison as we know it today is very old—tracing back thousands of years to ancient civilizations. However, there was a notable shift in prisons starting in the early 19th century America. The first major wave of penitentiary building started with Pennsylvania's Eastern State Penitentiary in 1820, emerging in response to the harsh conditions of colonial-era jails and a growing emphasis on more humane punishment. 

Rendering of Eastern State Penitentiary
The State Penitentiary for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, lithograph by P.S. Duval and Co., 1855

These facilities were constructed to be different, aiming to provide structured environments for inmates to reflect on their actions, engage in moral reform and make amends through isolation and labor. This focus on rehabilitation and solitude marked a striking departure from earlier punitive methods overseen by the British monarchy and laid the foundation for the modern American correctional system.

But today’s American penal system is one of unfulfilled promises. Americans make up 5% of the world's population and 25% of the world's incarceration population. More than 1.9 million people are incarcerated in state and federal prisons as well as jails. Robinson shared statistics on how women are one of the fastest growing demographics in U.S. prisons. In 2020, nearly 153,000 women were incarcerated, a 500% percent increase since 1970, disproportionately affecting Black women. 

He said a majority of the people in prison are parents, and nearly half (47%) of the approximately 1.25 million people in state prison are parents of minor children. Today, 2.2 million kids have parents in jail, which can yield severe hidden consequences. Children whose parents are incarcerated, in particular, face a host of challenges and difficulties: psychological strain, antisocial behavior, suspension or expulsion from school, economic hardship, and an increased likelihood of being involved in criminal activity and entering the penal system themselves one day. 

Robinson emphasized that entering the American prison system is “almost like a birthright, and not one that just impacts Blacks and Hispanics. If you’re white and have a parent in prison, you’re more likely to be in a rural than urban place.” 

Approximately 650,000 people leave prison each year, and 95% of all those incarcerated will leave prison one day. Once the prison doors close, incarcerated adults have a host of challenges facing them. Violence and loss of individual liberties are just two examples. 

What can we do to help them prepare to leave prison, Robinson asked the audience, and, hopefully, not return? He explored how offering access to education programs is one promising option.

Gerard Robinson at Batten Hour 11/6/23

In recent years, there has been a growing focus on providing educational opportunities for incarcerated individuals as a means of reducing recidivism and enhancing their prospects for successful reintegration into society. One prominent initiative Robinson highlighted is the 'Second Chance Pell' program, first established in 2015 by the Obama-Biden Administration to provide Pell Grants to incarcerated individuals to allow them to participate in postsecondary education programs. 

Administered by the U.S. Department of Education, the grants can be used to cover the costs of pursuing higher education, including associate's or bachelor's degrees. 'Second Chance Pell' has been a key part of a broader movement to expand access to education within correctional facilities, recognizing the transformative potential of learning for individuals during their incarceration and their chances of securing a better future upon release.

Robinson said that informing the public on why education matters to incarcerated people is critical, with researchers finding that participants in education programs while in prison have a 28% lower recidivism rate than non-participants. He also spoke to the role of Congress and how the program also made economic sense, with every dollar invested in prison education yielding four to five dollars in return. 

“Providing education in prisons is important not just for the people there, but also because it’s a reflection of an ideal of the American people.” Robinson encouraged students to carry the torch of educational reform beyond the walls of Garrett Hall, as the promise and future of the “prison-to-education pipeline” lies not just in the hands of policymakers and experts but in the collective efforts of students, educators and community members. 


Garrett Hall at Sunset

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