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  • Quinn Chappelle

Private Prison Education Programs in Massachusetts: Are They Actually Helping?

Access to higher education is vital to the success of any prison rehabilitation program as it lowers recidivism rates because it has a direct effect on job-finding post-prison. As the incarceration rate continues to grow, investments in prison education programs are necessitated in order to lower recidivism rates. Prison-education programs have proven to be beneficial for prisoners, yet many programs still lack funding or resources especially for women and former inmates.

A setback on increasing prison-education program funding arose in 1994 with the elimination of Pell Grants (Basic Education Opportunity Grants) after the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1993 and the Higher Education Reauthorization Act of 1994 were passed. The acts ordered for over 350 programs to be dismantled, leaving only eight remaining across the country. Additionally, these acts eliminated grants specifically for prison-education programs and as a result, further reductions in inmate rehabilitation programs. A 2004 Journal of Offender Rehabilitation publication found this reduction in programs led to increased recidivism in the following decades.

The few prison-education programs left are privately funded and tend to focus overwhelmingly on male prisons. One of the remaining programs, and the only one available to women in Massachusetts, is the Boston University Prison Education Program that is administered by the university’s Metropolitan College. There are similar prison initiatives in the Massachusetts area that include, but are not limited to, the efforts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tufts University. However, other universities’ prison initiatives starkly differ from the Boston University Prison Education Program — the most obvious being that these programs are only offered to male prisons in Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Prison Initiative is not a degree-granting program, which means it is difficult for former inmates to prove their education when applying for jobs. More so, the program primarily focuses on building skill sets that most prisoners do not have the necessary foundational education for. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Prison Initiative offers a coding course that requires a higher level of mathematical knowledge, when 44% of the Massachusetts male prisoner population report to have less than a sixth-grade math level.

While comparatively, the Tufts University Prison Initiative only rewards four years of coursework and a senior capstone project, with an associate’s degree from Bunker Hill Community College. Tufts University partners with Bunker Hill Community College solely for this endeavor. Their program does not result in a Tufts University degree, despite the inmates having to apply to Tufts University and “demonstrat[e] the capacity to succeed in Tufts University courses that fulfill the general education requirements for a bachelor’s degree.” While a degree from Bunker Hill Community College is still a degree, it is not perceived to have the same value as a degree from Tufts University – which is an unfair arrangement considering that the inmates are expected to complete a rigorous application process and curriculum, as any other Tufts student.

The Boston University Prison Education Program was officially created in 1972 to provide the inmates an opportunity to receive college credit while incarcerated. This program is available to both MCI-Framingham, a women’s prison, and MCI-Norfolk, a men’s prison. Inmates apply to the program in a similar manner to traditional applications, in which they require the equivalent of a high school diploma, complete an application, and submit an admissions essay. Additionally, they need to pass an entrance exam and an interview before they can be admitted into the program, which are requirements that are not asked of traditional Boston University students. This program offers either: a bachelor’s degree of Liberal Studies in Interdisciplinary Studies which requires the completion of 128 credits, or an undergraduate certificate in Interdisciplinary Studies which requires the completion of 32 credits.

Boston University is leading in university-prison partnerships in Massachusetts, without Pell Grant support, and has partnered with other schools to strengthen their own programs. One of these partnerships is with the Harvard University Prison Studies Project Behind Bars, which began at MCI-Norfolk in 2008 and extended to MCI-Framingham in 2009. The Harvard program teaches sociology and community justice courses, and it allows inmates to earn credits towards a Boston University or Harvard University degree.

However, issues exist in this program. The Boston University Prison Education Program does not provide inmates with the financial help needed for them to continue the program. After these students’ release, they are left to find the funds for tuition on their own. Released inmates, who were in the Boston University Prison Education Program, remain as Boston University students; however, there are major issues regarding financial support from the university.

The Boston University Metropolitan College caters primarily to working adults, as its courses are offered in the evenings to accommodate most day-time schedules. Most formerly incarcerated people, as previously discussed, face financial problems and economic insecurity post-prison. These former inmates who need to be employed would best fit the Metropolitan College’s demographics. However, the school does not have much to offer students, like the ex-inmates, in terms of financial relief. The Metropolitan College has limited financial aid available, and in turn, is only available to part-time students. Students in the school may not exceed twelve credits per semester, which would make their tuition roughly $4,000 per semester. Though the cost of tuition seems manageable, formerly incarcerated persons will still struggle to fund their education with insignificant financial aid — former inmates’ average salary is $10,090 annually, for the first several years after their release. Furthermore, if they exceed their allotted course credit maximum, by even half a credit, they become full-time students and are subject to pay full Metropolitan College tuition equating over $29,000 per semester, with a continued lack of substantial financial assistance from the university or from a Pell Grant.

The Metropolitan College administers the Boston University Prison Education Program, yet there is no active financial aid that is specifically available for the students formerly from the program. Therefore, if students from the program would like to receive financial aid, they are encouraged to transfer into the College of Arts and Sciences at Boston University, where they can be eligible for more financial aid. However, transferring schools would present them with more obstacles. Despite a larger financial aid budget, the College of Arts and Sciences’ tuition costs $38,000 per semester. Even with a greater amount of financial aid, formerly incarcerated persons cannot realistically afford this. Furthermore, the College of Arts and Sciences holds classes during the day, which would bar the former inmates from obtaining a full-time job.

Additionally, the Prison Education Program does not account for all of the students in the program who do not live in Boston. Students located outside of Boston would have to commute into the city, every day, by commuter rail or car. This brings about another financial burden, in addition to a financial barrier that is met with the price of tuition, textbooks, and student fees. The lack of financial aid opportunities within the Metropolitan College weakens the strengths of the Boston University Prison Education Program, especially for released inmates. Boston University encourages the former inmate-students, who cannot afford to continue the program, to finish their degrees at other less expensive universities. Their inability to provide for students who they have taken responsibility for, while they were incarcerated, proves this Prison Education Program to be overall ineffective.

These attempts by local universities to invest in prison education programs are well-intended but have damaging holes in their programs. A majority neglect women, the inmates they intend to help and their base education, and what happens to those inmates once released. If these universities do desire to help lower recidivism rates and rehabilitate inmates, improvements are necessary. Or these programs are more or less loose promises that are used for public relations clout.

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