In Dr. King's rightfully famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, he said: “The best way to solve any problem is to remove its cause.”
It is widely agreed the root cause of why many individuals commit crimes is socio-economically motivated. Even for those who have never seen the inside of a prison- and especially for those who have- the benefit of a college degree is one of the most profound and radically effective means of climbing the economic ladder. Perhaps rivaled only by winning the lottery, obtaining a college degree is one of the only near-guaranteed methods available to Americans to break the cycle of poverty they find themselves in. Looking beyond the individual economic benefits, people who participated in educational programs while incarcerated were almost half as likely to recidivate(1), which positively contributes to the long-term safety and well-being of the communities that previously incarcerated people return to.
So if we can agree it is in everyone’s best interest to expand these educational programs for the incarcerated, how can we expedite the progress? Well, evidence shows that computer-based educational programs in correctional facilities is the answer. The educational benefits of computer-assisted instruction has been shown to double or triple the rate of learning in STEM subjects as well as reading comprehension in English. Which makes sense, right? Can you imagine going to college nowadays without access to the internet?
Even if you are to disagree with my previous argument, this infamous COVID-19 pandemic may very well be forcing us in that direction whether we like it or not. Previously, RCP’s incarcerated students progressed through the nationally recognized DSST Credit-by-Exam program- which gives students the opportunity to get college credit for learning acquired outside the traditional classroom- entirely with paper materials. Everything from course introductions, to midterms, to final exams, and all the homework in between was done on paper. Typically, materials were dropped off to students by caseworkers and picked up again when completed and ready to be mailed back to Prometric, the exam administering institution, for grading. However, the dangers posed by the pandemic caused this paper-based learning and testing process to come to a pause; and now a complete, final stop. Prometric recently announced that they will be outmoding paper-based learning opportunities. This leaves computer-based learning as the only option for our students, who only want to better themselves through higher education while serving their time. But unfortunately you’ll be hard pressed to find a computer lab in any correctional facility in Rhode Island.
Now that you’re up to speed with the dilemma we find ourselves in as advocates for our incarcerated students, you may be wondering: how can I help? Well, one free and easy thing we’re all able to do to advance this cause is educating those around us of the problem and the research supported solution. It is also important to express this policy priority to our elected representatives; this includes those that represent us locally all the way through to those who represent us on the national scale. Since numbers often speak louder than words, it will be helpful to mention that the Vera Institute of Justice estimates that 64% of the incarcerated population is eligible for postsecondary education, which represents around 463,000 potential students nationally(2). That's almost half a million Americans (plus their families) that we have the opportunity to help lift out of poverty; and even better yet, this effort does not have to be a pricey one. Studies done by the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) confirmed that even if educational programs were to be expanded, every state’s per-prisoner cost would still be far less than the total cost of incarceration. The same study from IHEP shows that currently, only around 6% of corrections spending is put towards programming- which includes higher education programs (3). This number leaves more than enough room to grow in corrections spending before the ‘cons’ of increased educational programming even come close to outweighing the ‘pros’.
If you are motivated by what you have learned here today and choose to join us in advocating for increased access to computer-based educational programming for incarcerated students, first of all, we must offer a sincere thank you. We are blessed to be surrounded by such an amazing, compassionate community of supporters as we tackle the “sources” of the problems we see in our system of mass incarceration, in the spirit of that famous quote from Dr. King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. Secondly, do not forget that expanding access to computer-based higher education opportunities for incarcerated students should be a policy priority, not only for its proven ability to break the expensive and harmful cycles of recidivism and poverty, but because it is the morally correct thing to do.
Davis, Lois M., Robert Bozick, Jennifer L. Steele, Jessica Saunders, and Jeremy N. V. Miles, Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education: A Meta-Analysis of Programs That Provide Education to Incarcerated Adults, RAND Corporation, 2013.
Patrick Oakford, Cara Brumfield, Casey Goldvale, Laura Tatum, Margaret diZerega, and Fred Patrick. Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison. New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2019.
Wendy Erisman and Jeanne Bayer Contardo, “Learning to Reduce Recidivism: A 50-State Analysis of Postsecondary Correctional Education Policy,” Institute for Higher Education Policy, 2005.