A Prison-to-School Pipeline? In California, the First School Inside a U.S. County Jail

The conventional wisdom is that when a juvenile commits a crime and enters the prison system, their opportunities to better themselves through education disappear. Learning stops at the iron bars, which means that fewer U.S. adults are fully qualified for the modern workforce and the chances for recidivism among released inmates increase.

Which is precisely why outgoing U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is advocating $15 billion in reform legislation aimed at the nation’s criminal justice system. One way he wants to do that is raising average teacher salaries at schools in the nation’s most impoverished areas by $25,000, which Duncan says will create more equity and reduce the school-to-prison pipeline that is common in the neediest districts.

In a speech made in late September to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Duncan positioned juvenile incarceration as a problem that inevitably harms society. More than two-thirds of state prison inmates are high school dropouts, he noted, which means when they are released they are now even further behind their peers with little chance of catching up.

Besides investments in career training and prison education programs, Duncan is pushing for a Second Chance Pell program that will help put incarcerated juveniles on a pathway to college.

“Let’s invest more in the adults who have dedicated their professional careers in helping young people reach their full potential,” he said. “And let’s place a new emphasis on our young people as contributors to a stronger society, not inmates to pay for and warehouse.”

Indeed, as Duncan suggests, the data shows education is a significant catalyst for prisoners to re-enter the workforce and turn their lives around. Data commissioned in 2014 by the U.S. Department of Justice found that for every $1 invested in education in prisons, $5 would be saved from reducing recidivism. Likewise, prisoners who participate in either academic or vocational educational programs while behind bars better their chances for employment by 13 percent compared to those without access to educational opportunities. For prisoners exposed to strictly vocational training, chances for employment spike to 28 percent.

Lois Davis, a senior policy researcher at The RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank in Santa Monica that conducted the research, says that education is key to not only reducing the risk of incarceration among juveniles, but lowering their chances of moving on to the adult criminal justice system.

Davis’s research shows that both the skill or education levels of the incarcerated population are dramatically lower than those outside prison: 36 percent of those in state prisons have less than a high school diploma, nearly double the 19 percent of the U.S. general population older than 16 years. The findings suggest that when juveniles are removed from the streets to enter the prison system, they are cut off from the advantages of civil society and, worse yet, their education also abruptly stops, which creates a vocational handicap upon release. Not only do they have difficulty building an employment history and having the skills that will help them land jobs, the hardships they encounter can make it easier for them to circle back to prison.

States are beginning to recognize the long-term problems of denying education to juveniles in prison, and in May the Restoring Education and Learning Act (REAL) was introduced in the House of Representatives seeking to eliminate a provision in Pell Grant eligibility that prohibits funding for students in federal or state penitentiaries. (It currently sits in the House Committee on Education and the Workforce).

The most extreme example of education reform in prison is the Five Keys Charter School in San Francisco, the only charter school in the U.S. that is solely operated inside a county jail. Established in 2003, the parent corporation now runs 26 community satellite campuses that focus on prisoner reentry and workforce development. According to the San Francisco Sheriff Department, which operates the charter, about 25 percent of the city’s jail population takes advantage of the program and more than 9,000 students were served across the network in 2014. To date, Five Keys has awarded about 800 GEDs and certificates of completion and the program has expanded to the Los Angeles County jail system.

But high school diplomas are just the beginning. Two years ago, Five Keys announced a program that will allow inmates to earn college course credits, which is intended to strengthen the pipeline from in-prison to post-prison secondary education. The program requires inmates to complete a few courses in prison and then transfer to any California community college after they are outside custody.

So far, victory is determined by the program’s low recidivism rate: 28 percent for Five Keys students compared to 68 percent overall in California. Data also suggests that the schooling opportunities are creating a significant dent in prison violence. The average annual rate of violence among inmates is 12 percent in county jails but only 2 percent for jails that host Five Keys.

Besides education, incarcerated students also benefit from supportive services like re-entry training, life skills workshops and behavioral therapy designed to sharpen their focus and address environmental factors that made it difficult for them to stay in the education system early in their lives.

The greatest threat to educational initiatives in prisons is funding. Even though RAND data shows that the amount of funding to educate prisoners is less than the costs spent to re-incarcerate them, state and federal cuts to education spending have been increasing in recent years. Davis says prisons receive the brunt of the cuts and while funding levels have inched upwards, “it’s not at the same level prior to the 2008 recession.”

In Lake County, Indiana, cuts coincide with political will. According to the Northwest Indiana Times in August, county judge Thomas Stefaniak is pressuring Merrillville Community School Corp. to provide education to teenagers in the county’s juvenile detention system because it is located within the school district.

The school corporation disagrees. Merrillville interim Superintendent Tony Lux told the Times that it is unreasonable to put that responsibility on a single district and that Title 1 funds already are earmarked for incarcerated students. That money pays for supplemental reading and math instruction.

The situation differs dramatically compared to bordering Porter County, which shows how relationships between juvenile detention systems and school districts matter when it comes to addressing the issue. There, the local juvenile system partners with all seven of the county’s school corporations.

Stefaniak says the most effective solution rests with the state. He wants lawmakers to pass legislation that force local school corporations to claim incarcerated students within their district or to create funds directly to the juvenile courts to fund teachers.

The third way is a model forged by Five Keys in San Francisco: A separate charter that would operate within the juvenile detention system itself. That may happen if Youth Law T.E.A.M. of Indiana, an organization based in Indianapolis, is approved for a charter. Next year the organization intends to open three separate charter schools at Lake County Juvenile Detention Center, Porter County Juvenile Detention Center and in Montgomery County at Muskegon River Youth Home of Indiana.

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