Commission urges New England states to prioritize prison education
Report says US at ‘watershed moment’ for programs shown to lower recidivism
IF EDUCATION IS key to a better life, that may hold double for those who are incarcerated. People who land in prison tend to have low educational attainment levels, while facing even greater employment challenges when released than those with similar education backgrounds because of the stigma and barriers their conviction carries.
A report released this week by a regional commission urges New England states to prioritize higher education programming in prisons, making the case that it’s the one of the best ways to reduce recidivism and improve the safety of communities.
With 95 percent of those in prison eventually returning to the community, the New England Commission on the Future of Higher Education in Prison said states should be “working to ensure that every incarcerated person in New England has access to high-quality, workforce-aligned, equitable postsecondary opportunities with a wide range of educational pathways.”
The report marks the latest move by policymakers, advocates, and corrections officials to rethink the “tough on crime” approach of the 1980s and ‘90s that sent incarceration rates soaring in the US.
The 83-member regional commission included lawmakers, advocates, corrections officials, higher education and business leaders, and formerly incarcerated individuals from the six New England states.
“We were trying to bring everyone to the table,” said Carole Cafferty, a commission member who co-directs the Educational Justice Institute at MIT, which brings MIT students and people in Massachusetts prisons together in classrooms.
The commission, co-chaired by Lee Perlman, co-director of the MIT institute, and Michael Thomas, president of the New England Board of Higher Education, urged states to expand prison higher education, beginning with assessments at the beginning of incarceration and following and supporting individuals in reintegration to the community following their release.
Cafferty says the opening up of Pell grant funds to those who are incarcerated is “huge,” and should go a long way toward growing the capacity of higher education programming in prisons.
Pell grants currently provide up to $6,895 per year in education grants, funding that advocates say could be a game-changer from the current situation of just a few small programs in prisons, largely underwritten by colleges.
Cafferty served as superintendent of the Middlesex County House of Correction from 2015 to 2018, and was a deputy superintendent at the Suffolk County House of Correction in 1994 when the federal crime bill signed by President Clinton banned Pell funding for those in prison.
Then-Suffolk County Sheriff Robert Rufo “was all about education and had a booming education division,” she said. “And it came to a screeching halt.”
“Education is the great equalizer, and so we’re trying to capitalize on that,” said Cafferty.
Of the roughly 6,000 people in Massachusetts state prisons, just 213 are enrolled in higher education programs, according to a position paper released last year by the Boston Foundation. It urged Massachusetts to “make genuine, transformative, ambitious college education a central component within its prison system.”
Massachusetts corrections commissioner Carol Mici served on the New England commission along with two Massachusetts lawmakers, Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, co-chair of the Legislature’s public safety committee, and Sen. Lydia Edwards.“Expanding and funding education opportunities during incarceration is a powerful step forward for the Commonwealth to promote equity and protect the dignity of all people in our justice system,” said Edwards.