Making the Grade: Developing Quality Postsecondary Education Programs in Prison

"From the Director:

The benefits of postsecondary education programs for incarcerated students extend far beyond the knowledge men and women gain through their academic endeavors in prison. These programs not only make communities safer by reducing recidivism, they create the potential for individual transformation. They can also make our prisons safer for those who live and work within them, spur community renewal, and change the economic trajectories of entire families. With the launch of the federal Second Chance Pell Pilot Program—which is making Pell grants available to students in a limited number of state and federal prisons for the first time in 20 years—we are on the verge of realizing the academic potential of thousands of students in prison. We are poised to see in action all of the promise that college education holds for these incarcerated men and women, their families, and their communities. 

But these results won't come without the commitment of college and corrections partners to offer courses in prison that mirror in every way possible those offered on campuses in the community. Colleges and prisons must develop meaningful, quality postsecondary education programs. The courses offered should award the community. When people need developmental instruction, those courses must move students into credit-bearing courses as soon as possible, using best practices regarding accelerated learning. Achieving this involves careful planning and delineation of roles and responsibilities, strong communication, and a solid understanding of goals and concerns in facilities and among students, college faculty, and correctional staff. For college faculty teaching in prison and prison administrators carving out space, time, and operational support for students to learn, making college-in-prison work requires ingenuity, flexibility, creativity, and a willingness to push the envelope of what seems possible.

In other words, colleges and corrections partners must bring their A game, including active listening; honest, open, and ongoing communication; and a commitment to analyzing and resolving problems. Systems change through high-quality postsecondary education in prison requires nothing less. To that end, this report provides useful guidance, recommendations, and lessons learned from diverse college-in-prison programs around the nation. It aims to facilitate the robust development, growth, and strengthening of high-quality student success-oriented programs and partnerships with all the well-known positive benefits to individuals, institutions, and communities that flow from doing so.

Fred Patrick
Director, Center on Sentencing and Corrections
Vera Institute of Justice"

View the Report