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College Behind Bars

It’s no secret that going to school gives you better chances of landing a job, this fact holds true even for prisoners.  Inmates who participate in educational (academic or vocational) programs were 13 percent more likely to be employed post-release than non-participants.  For many of the former, finding employment isn’t just finding a 9 to 5—it’s a way out.  Together, education and employment are critical to the disruption of cycles of criminal behavior.  On average, inmates who participate in educational programs while behind bars are 43 percent less likely to return to prison (recidivate) than inmates who don’t.  Furthermore, research suggests that employment strengthens this effect; having a job has been cited as reducing recidivism by as much as 50 percent.

The Florida Department of Corrections offers a number of educational options, including programs to improve basic literacy, obtain a GED, and develop welding or masonry skills.  All of these programs are critical to the post-release success of inmates, particularly vocational programs, but on the academic side, a high school diploma may no longer be enough. 

A Georgetown study estimated that half of all jobs created this decade will require at least some postsecondary education.  Recognizing this looming problem, states have taken advantage of distance-learning programs to provide college-level academic programs in their prisons, but most relied on private funding.

Federal and state prisoners used to have access to higher education programs through grants, but have been ineligible for grants since Congress banned the practice in 1994.  President Barack Obama introduced the Second Chance Pell Grant Initiative in 2015 as a temporary workaround meant to test the efficacy of higher education programs in prisons.  If these programs are successful, there may be opportunity for expansion.

Florida was recently selected as a pilot site for the initiative, which will allow the Sunshine State to offer Associate of Arts programs to Columbia CI inmates through Florida Gateway College starting in January.  Hopefully, this initiative will not only prove to be cost-effective, but also make Florida a safer place to live, work, and play.

“We are excited for this partnership, which will not only benefit the inmates, but the community as a well. Preparing inmates for successful reintegration through effective educational and training opportunities is a critical aspect of the Department’s mission to transform lives and reduce recidivism.”

-- Secretary Julie Jones, Florida Department of Corrections    
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