Reentry education, building a working model

OVAE’s reentry demonstration grant program to invest in innovative programs preparing incarcerated individuals to successfully reenter society with the support of education and workforce training is in good company.  ED’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services is supporting demonstration grants to develop and model effective practices for returning youth in juvenile justice confinement who have Individual Education Plans under the IDEA program.  A funders’ collaborative including the Gates and Ford foundations commissioned the Vera Institute of Justice to implement statewide post-secondary education Pathways Projects for individuals in State prisons who begin post-secondary education programs behind the walls of correctional institutions and continue them in the community.

Until last year, the U.S. Department of Education did not have a model for what a reentry education program might include.  In August of 2012, OVAE published a “Reentry Education Model, Supporting Education and Career Advancement for Low-Skilled Individuals in Corrections.”  We’re proud of this publication.  We believe it represents the culmination of serious interdisciplinary work among corrections and education professionals to map out the critical elements of reentry education.  But since reentry has been a major theme in corrections for well over ten years, why did we wait so long before coming at this opportunity?  Why are we just now starting to implement reentry education demonstration programs?

Reentry was traditionally thought of us a three phase process – preparation for release, the moment of release, and a phase of maintenance in the community.  As we started to talk about reentry and education, it seemed that education fit neatly and virtually exclusively in the “preparation for release” phase.  Shouldn’t the confined individual use prison time to get his/her schooling and to then be ready for the challenges of free society when released?  It seemed to make sense, but finally reality caught up with that thinking.  Assistant Secretary Brenda Dann-Messier challenged us in OVAE to think beyond our traditional models and to find how we could bring education to the table as a core element in prisoner reentry.

Looking at the data, we found that too many incarcerated individuals are not able to finish programs or meet key educational goals prior to release.  Program slots are limited and many prisoners have educational aspirations which simply cannot be addressed through the available programs in prisons.  In both cases – education remains a pressing need at and after the point of release.  Many, many returning citizens are not qualifying for and are not obtaining employment.  For many of them who wish it, education post release is the obvious path.

So OVAE and its partners inside and outside of the Department are now challenging education providers behind the walls and in the community to work together to create opportunities for education that spans the phases of reentry and creates opportunities for formerly incarcerated persons to use education to take a legitimate place in contemporary society.  Promulgating a model, building resources for technical assistance, supporting demonstration projects, engaging in rigorous evaluation of the demonstration projects, and generally disseminating this work – these are the means we are using to support educational practitioners in this work.

John Linton is the Director of the Office of Correctional Education at OVAE