Correctional Education Programs Research Paper

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Correctional education programs include strategies and programs to improve the knowledge, skills, and abilities of incarcerated individuals. These programs are administered at various levels of instruction and include general and specific topics. The programs can best be categorized as academic or vocational. Levels of academic instruction include basic education, secondary education, and postsecondary education. Vocational programs vary in level of instruction, too, and they range from basic employment skills to advanced, professional certification. Additionally, many correctional education programs have separate or integrated components related to enhancing life skills, cognitive abilities, and other pro-social behaviors. Recent reports indicate that correctional populations are less educated than the general public and that nearly 40 % of prisoners have earned less than a high school diploma (Harlow 2003). Released prisoners who have earned at least a high school education are known to have lower rates of rearrest, reconviction, and reincarceration (Beck and Shipley 1989; Harlow 2003). These relationships have placed correctional education programs in a controversial position within the discussions of which services should be provided to inmates that might ease reentry, improve social reintegration, and reduce recidivism and how the costs of prison administration can or should be controlled by eliminating or reducing the frequency of custodial services and programs.

Brief History

Correctional education programs, especially those within the United States or North America, have an extensive history that dates to the origin of incarceration as a source of punishment. In 1787, educational instruction was offered by clergyman William Rogers in the Walnut Street Jail (Gehring and Eggleston 2006, Hanneken and Dannerbeck 2007). Later, Zebulon Brockway used educational programming as a rehabilitative tool during his administration as superintendent at the Elmira Reformatory in New York (Brockway 1912, Gehring n.d.). The modern era of correctional education likely began with the research of Austin MacCormick and the publication of The Education of Adult Prisoners (1931–1976). MacCormick supported Brockway’s principles and went on to found the Correctional Education Association first as a part of the American Correctional Association and later as a separate organization (Correctional Education Association n.d.). The use of correctional education programs as a part of rehabilitation initiatives was dampened in the latter part of the twentieth century as the United States experienced philosophical shifts regarding crime and punishment and as a result of Martinson’s (1974) report on the effectiveness of rehabilitation. Today, it is reported that approximately 80 % of state and federal prisons offer some type of academic program (Harlow 2003).

At times, legislative changes have contributed to the history of correctional education programming within the United States. Notably, the Violent Crime Control Act of 1994 included provisions that eliminated Pell Grants for inmates enrolled in post-secondary correctional education (PSCE) programs. (Federal Pell Grants are based upon documented financial need and provided to low-income undergraduate students to promote higher education; these grants began as Basic Education Opportunity Grants under the Higher Education Act of 1965 (Department of Education, n.d.).) Ubah and Robinson (2003) report that, at the time of the passage of the VCCA, Pell Grants provided the primary source of funding for PSCE, and their legislative elimination carried political and social implications for correctional education programming. Initial assessments of the impact of this legislation showed a near immediate decline in funding for and administration of PSCE programs (Tewksbury and Taylor 1996). Later, Tewksbury et al. (2000) reassessed the relationship and attempted to measure the impact that the elimination of Pell Grants had on PSCE programs. In their research, Tewksbury et al. (2000) surveyed directors of adult education programs regarding the extent of PSCE programs and their perceptions about funding for PSCE programs. They found that after the elimination of Pell Grant funding, the number of certificate, associate degree, baccalaureate degree, and graduate degree programs had decreased. Additionally, they reported decreases in the percentage of inmates participating in PSCE programs and a greater decrease in the percentage of eligible inmates who had actually enrolled in PSCE programs. Directors’ perceptions of programs were negative. Over 40 % of the directors indicated that the elimination had changed their programs, and fewer than 20 % indicated that the elimination had not changed their programs. Similarly, Ubah and Robinson (2003) reported that changes to funding in PSCE have occurred, but many states have been able to continue administering programs by finding alternate sources of funding. For example, some programs began to rely on state-based sources of funding for their PSCE programs. Related to this, Erisman and Contardo (2005) reported that as of 2003, the enrollment of inmates in post-secondary education programs had returned to the levels that existed prior to the elimination of Pell Grant funding.

Spangenberg (2004) reported that another piece of federal legislation, the Workforce Investment Act, had placed caps on the funding for correctional education programs. She stated that with the WIA, the previous minimum of 10 % of adult basic education funds for state programs was changed to become a 10 % maximum. Her report presented information that, in several states, legislation provided mandates that inmates with certain levels of literacy receive education, but despite the mandates, some states became challenged with providing funds for these programs because local economic conditions warranted more restrained spending. Despite this, her report stated that many states were able to continue correctional education programming, despite the legislative changes in federal funding, by identifying alternate streams of funds.

In 2008, the Second Chance Act (P.L. 110–199) was authorized and included provisions to fund programs related to the successful reentry of inmates returning to communities (Justice Center, n.d.). These funds are designed to develop and provide resources to former inmates that include employment assistance, housing, substance abuse counseling, and other services. A portion of the Second Chance Act funds have been used to establish a study by the RAND Corporation to assess the impact of correctional education programs on the successful reintegration of former inmates (Turner and Davis 2011).

Extent Of Correctional Education Programs And Participants

In 2007, the American Correctional Association conducted a survey of correctional education programs (Corrections Compendium, 2008). The results of this survey indicated that approximately 27 % of inmates at that time were participating in correctional education programs and many more were on wait-lists to join future programs. Many programs included incentives for inmate participants, including good time credits for program completion, monetary rewards or pay-per-day for participation, employment opportunities within the institution, and/or transfer to facilities closer to family members. Across state systems at the time, available correctional education programs included adult basic education (ABE), General Educational Development (GED), vocational/technical, advanced academic or Adult Secondary Education (ASE) (e.g., 2-year degree, 4-year degree, and postgraduate), and other specialized instruction (e.g., special education, English as a second language (ESL), prerelease, and job readiness), with ABE, GED, and vocational/ technical programs being the most prevalent. Despite established needs among correctional populations, correctional education programs are not available across all institutions (Harlow 2003).

The population of correctional education participants includes many who qualify for special education (Harlow 2003). Leone et al. (2008) report that accurate measurement of the proportion of inmates in need of special education services is difficult to obtain, but those with disabilities are entitled to accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act. Similar provisions are included in the Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1997. Leone et al. (2006) report that special consideration must be provided to juvenile offenders, and often, the issues related to their education are regulated by state or federal mandates tied to program funding.

Assessment And Evaluation Of Correctional Education Programs

Tracy and Steurer (1995) developed a model evaluation instrument with the intent to assess existing correctional education programs. The purpose of their instrument, funded by the National Institute of Justice, was to create an evaluation tool that would identify the strengths of previous assessments and evaluations of correctional education programs and would be applicable across all state system and federal educational programs. The interest in developing this tool was to overcome some of the disadvantages of past evaluations. They had identified that independent evaluations of correctional education programs had been done, but individual agencies or facilities had conducted these evaluations with singular purposes related to immediate agency needs. That is, a specific agency, facility, or program would be evaluated with no interest or applicability in comparing specific results to other programs, agencies, or extant research findings. Based on a review of the existing literature, their model evaluation instrument focused on the best of existing evaluation designs (e.g., standardizing uniform measures of recidivism and other offender behaviors, identifying appropriate control and/or comparison groups, incorporating statistical control variables, and administering intake and exit measurements to identify causal patterns) while minimizing other methodological concerns (e.g., selection bias related to inmates’ personality or interest in succeeding in correctional education programs).

Evaluations of correctional education programs include the goal of identifying the success of the program, but there is no common measure or sentiment about how success should be defined. Possible measures of success include improved skills among inmates (e.g., grade level increases, literacy, and earned certification or degree), reduced administrative costs (for the facility or correctional system administration), reduced recidivism, or enhanced social position such as employment, higher wages, home ownership, or enrollment in higher education upon release. The varied measures of success create challenges for researchers and policy analysts who want to summarize or generalize findings across studies.

Identifying the relationship between correctional educational programs and recidivism is a typical objective for assessments of program success, but the measurement of recidivism is not standardized. The measurement of recidivism across evaluations includes post-release self-reported measures of offending, arrests, convictions, and reincarceration. This variation across evaluations in the measurement of recidivism makes it difficult to draw comparisons and summary conclusions. Within this measure, another evaluation concern is associated with studies that measure offending and distinguish inconsistently the differences between new crimes and technical violations of parole conditions that lead to revocation. Additionally, the time of exposure or time following release from prison or jail must be considered, as the follow-up period of evaluation varies across studies; longer periods of exposure could be associated with increased rates of recidivism that might not be related to educational programming.

Another methodological concern is related to the structure of correctional education programming. Many correctional education participants are enrolled in multiple courses at the same time, and as this happens, it is difficult to identify which courses might contribute to the relationship between correctional education curricula and recidivism. Also, it is possible that multiple courses or modes of instruction could have interactive as well as additive relationships. As mentioned above, enrollment in correctional education courses might include incentives for pay or early release in addition to the intrinsic value of education. It could be suggested that correctional educational programs prepare inmates for successful reintegration by providing credentials and skills that transfer to successful employment, but another possible relationship is that education produces cognitive changes and creates social capital that promotes pro-social behaviors and relationships. As incentives and mandates for participation exist, it can be challenging for evaluators to recognize the true sentiment of the correctional education participants. This becomes a concern for evaluators if inmates’ sentiment is what causes the inverse relationship with offending; that is, the effect of correctional education programs could be spurious or indirectly operating through variations in offender sentiment. Additionally, evaluations of correctional education programs must recognize and control for the fact that some programs are directly connected to reintegration and reentry services that might enhance the effect of educational programming.

Although many individual program assessments exist, an adequate summary of their findings is difficult due to the conceptual and methodological challenges presented above. Comparative assessments and meta-analyses can be used to establish the general benefits of correctional education across settings and programs, but these are rare. Steurer et al. (2001) analyzed data from three states to determine the effect of correctional education programming on recidivism and employment across three states (i.e., Maryland, Minnesota, and Ohio). The study is unique in that participants from multiple states were assessed in the same evaluation. In this study, offenders were surveyed prior to their release, and state agencies contributed data on recidivism, including arrest, conviction, and reincarceration, and employment for 3 years post-release. The results indicated that correctional education participants had lower rates of recidivism and higher earned wages than the nonparticipants.

Meta-analyses allow for cross-study comparisons that can summarize and highlight the general findings associated with correctional education program success. Cecil et al. (2000) conducted a meta-analysis of adult basic education and life skills programs. They reported that many of the individual program evaluations that were included in the meta-analysis showed positive effects on recidivism, but the effect varied by the population characteristics of the participating inmates and the groups included as comparisons. Their review identified the hazard within this body of literature that the results must be considered in the context of the quality and rigor of the methodology for evaluation.

Bouffard et al. (2000) evaluated the literature related to vocational education and employment programs among adult offenders. Using the Maryland Scientific Measures Scale (see Sherman et al. 1997), they rated the methodology of each program evaluation included in the assessment to weight the individual conclusions according to their scientific rigor. Based on their review, they concluded that vocational education programs and correctional industry programs that incorporate vocational education are related to reductions in recidivism, but they concluded that community-based employment programs have not been evaluated with enough scientific rigor to offer summary conclusions.

In a more general meta-analysis that included evaluations of many types of correctional educational programs, Wilson et al. (2000) reviewed 33 experimental or quasi-experimental assessments of correctional education programs (including programs of various academic and vocational instruction). They concluded that the effects of the correctional education programs are variable, but in general, the programs are related to a lower likelihood of recidivism among program participants when compared to nonparticipants. Similarly, their analysis identified that program participants were more likely to be employed post-release. Wilson et al. (2000) presented these findings with a cautionary interpretation that the results, despite being based on many quasi-experimental or experimental evaluations, provide equivocal evidence that correctional education programs are successful. With many of the studies included as a part of the meta-analysis, the differences between program participants and nonparticipants that were statistically controlled often were limited to demographic characteristics such as age or race; a contrast that was excluded is the offenders’ personal motivation for program participation and desistance from crime. If participants have a personal sentiment related to pro-social behavior, the results could be biased in favor of program and participant success.

Other researchers have tried to identify other summary conclusions related to the effect and importance of correctional education programs. Drake et al. (2009) presented a meta-analysis that focused on the ability of various criminal justice policies and programs, including correctional education, to reduce crime and administrative costs. They included in their review several types of correctional education programs, including basic education, post-secondary education, vocational education, and life skills training. They determined that correctional education showed general evidence that the programs have criminal justice and economic benefits. This conclusion was based upon reductions in recidivism associated with correctional education programs that translate into reduced costs for criminal justice program administration and victims of crime.

In 2006, MPR, Inc., a private educational policy firm, received funding from the US Department of Education to develop a common set of data definitions that measure the characteristics of correctional education programs and participants (Lee et al. 2012). The project was designed to facilitate comparative assessments of correctional education programs across states by requesting that state departments of corrections identify and collect data regarding a core set of variables with standardized definitions. In 2011, a revised data guidebook was established by MPR in a partnership with researchers at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The data guidebook defined key variables across inmates, facilities, and state departments of correction, and when possible, the guidebook included variables that were consistent with existing, mandated educational program data reporting requirements. This revised data guidebook was pilot tested with seven states to determine the feasibility of having states report correctional education data in this standardized format. Lee et al. (2012) found that many states are willing and able to adjust their data collection and reporting practices to promote the cross-state documentation and evaluation of correctional education programs. In the future, standardized data collection and reporting practices will facilitate comparative analyses and program evaluations.


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