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Fostering success among students involved with the criminal justice system

Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

October 11, 2018

Students in classroomEducation is the underpinning of an enlightened, democratic society. An effective criminal-justice system is equally important in terms of maintaining a safe and equitable society. In a democratic society, people who have been incarcerated or who are current “customers” of the criminal-justice system (e.g., on parole, probation or house arrest, under supervision or monitored by ankle devices, or engaged in other types of community corrections) have the same need for education as any other citizen. In fact, education can be the perfect vehicle for rehabilitation, social mobility and equity for this population. So how do we, as educators, help those who are or who have been incarcerated to move forward with their educational goals?

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It is important to reiterate that education is an essential element of a democratic society. But not only is education of currently or formerly incarcerated students their right and a democratic moral imperative, it also contributes to the improvement of social health. Michelle Weiss writes in her Educause Review article “On Education Behind Bars” that “a 2013 Rand meta-analysis that synthesized the findings of 50 studies on recidivism revealed that a person receiving postsecondary education in prison would be about half as likely to recidivate as someone who does not receive postsecondary education in prison. The social benefits are just as clear: In terms of direct costs, for every dollar invested in a prison education program, the country would save $4 to $5 of taxpayers’ money in reincarceration costs.”

There are some programs that exist to support post-secondary education for incarcerated people. The Second Chance Pell program offers grants for incarcerated students to study as a valuable means of reducing recidivism. Corrections to College California is a high-profile, grant-funded initiative to grow programs that connect people involved in the criminal-justice system directly to educational opportunities to create positive pipelines for equitable social mobility. These and other programs promote education as a viable path toward a future outside of the criminal-justice system.

But specifically, how can we support these students?

  • Start each semester by asking all students to fill out a small note card or survey that provides the professor with information they need to help students do well in class. Let students know that they can tell you anything, including information on their involvement in the criminal-justice system. For example, some students may have a scheduled UA (urinalysis) or a court date they can’t get out of, and telling you in advance will allow you to come up with workaround solutions. BONUS: This is a universally designed approach that will help all your students, regardless of their personal situation.
  • Don’t make assumptions about students who reveal they have been incarcerated. It is easy to immediately think the worst, but remember that there are many situations besides guilt that lead to involvement with the criminal-justice system, and you are neither judge nor jury. Only assess and evaluate your students’ performance in class.
  • Avoid using polarizing language in class. Don’t say things such as “illegal immigrants” (as opposed to “undocumented people”) or other criminalizing or labeling language.
  • If some of the material in your class might be traumatizing, be flexible about allowing students to do the work outside of class, as it might be too hard for them to digest this material with their peers. For example, if you are reading a text or watching a video that has to do with the criminal-justice system, the topic may trigger a reaction that prohibits a student from engaging in class. Try to universally design the most poignant content to allow multiple means of engagement for all students.
  • Be willing to connect students to services. Students who are, or have been, involved with the criminal-justice system may need wrap-around support to be successful on campus. For example, refer students to the Counseling Center, the Gender Institute for Teaching and Advocacy, the Access Center or any other on-campus resource they might need.
  • Create a safe space within your classroom that is accepting of all students and all their different situations, and don’t draw attention to any one single student’s issues. Universally design compassion into your course.
  • Above all, remember that education is, in so many different ways, the embodiment of freedom.

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