Princeton University Library Catalog

Private Investment in Postsecondary Prison Education: Beyond Jobs?

Lee, Janie [Browse]
Senior thesis
Katz, Stanley [Browse]
Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs [Browse]
Class year:
115 pages
Summary note:
Overview: When the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 excluded incarcerated students from using Pell grants toward postsecondary education, the number of state and federal prisons offering college courses fell by a margin of two thirds. Since then, private foundations have helped fill the gap in college courses. This thesis examines how foundations are making promising investments in college education and the methods they are using to heighten interest from stakeholders who have not traditionally had deep ties to postsecondary prison education. By narrowing the focus to a case study of the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformation Education in Prisons Consortium (NJ-STEP), I highlight innovative approaches to providing comprehensive postsecondary education and post-release services as well as persistent challenges in this landscape. The Formation of NJ-STEP: Prior to NJ-STEP, private foundations had a pattern of investing in individual postsecondary prison education programs. However, they wanted to make systemic changes in criminal justice, which required a more comprehensive approach. As such, a group of foundations funded NJ-STEP, a demonstration project that would think about providing college education in prison as only one part of the approach to criminal justice reform. Foundations got buy-in from stakeholders largely by focusing on societal benefits and framing correctional education as a community renewal project that results in safer communities, reduced recidivism, and taxpayer savings. Strengths: NJ-STEP uniquely brings colleges, the Department of Corrections (DOC), and the State Parole Board together to minimize the logistical issues of teaching in a prison. A centralized degree attainment process allows courses taken in prison to count toward an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree. Finally, NJ-STEP empowers students through advisory committees and the hiring of former students to serve as mentors. Barriers to Success: Despite the partnership with the DOC, NJ-STEP still struggles with working alongside the DOC, particularly with the correctional officers. Underlying structural barriers like housing and employment present challenges for incarcerated individuals after they are released, which affect their performance in college. Conclusion: According to the metrics that RAND has put forward for evaluation (attainment of GEDs, postsecondary degrees, employment, recidivism), NJ-STEP is a promising investment. However, these metrics do not capture the full extent of NJSTEP’s outcomes and impact. Liberal learning provides unquantifiable benefits to incarcerated individuals and the opportunity to teach in prison is a unique and meaningful service opportunity for teachers. Even after broadening the scope of NJ-STEP’s arguable outputs and impact, we should admit that postsecondary education is still altogether marginal to resolving the issue of mass incarceration. The social impact of mass incarceration boils down to how many people are sent to prison and how long they stay in prison. However, college programs are nevertheless significant examples of choosing rehabilitation over punitive treatment for marginalized subsets of society. Programs like NJ-STEP help us start to transform the nature of punishment and return to a model of rehabilitation.