Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) sent a series of questionnaires to over 30,000 people incarcerated in federal correctional facilities to learn more about the frequency, type of quality of educational programming offered in federal facilities. They received over 2,000 survey responses from men and women serving time in minimum, medium, and maximum security federal facilities. Although nonpartisan, FAMM is strongly supported, including financially, by the Koch Brothers. However, this report is one of the few that is based almost exclusively on the input of incarcerated individuals.
The survey responses elucidated a few key inefficiencies regarding education and training in federal facilities: inconsistency in quality and availability of education and training classes, overreliance on incarcerated individuals to teach classes, the lack of accreditation and relevance to outside labor markets, prohibitively expensive college programs, and a dearth of access to computers. I was pleased to discover that my proposal addresses many of these inefficiencies.
In terms of jobs in prison, over half of survey respondents reported holding which exist in order to keep the facility operating. Some individuals reported frustration about there not being enough jobs for everyone in the facility and others complained about the scarcity of number of hours available per week (e.g. 1 hour per day, 5 days per week) and the low wages (e.g. 17 cents per hour) (7). However, there were some respondents who “held and praised jobs and apprenticeships in the trades, including HVAC, electrical, woodworking, plumbing, welding, and commercial driving” (6). I’ll be looking at these key areas of interest to see if these would be viable skills training, in terms of teaching through a university and job placement upon release, to include in my Big Idea.
The report found that the most commonly offered educational classes fall under the broad umbrella of “adult continuing education” and cover topics ranging from high school equivalency prep, financial literacy, and parenting to “classes on movie reviews, crocheting, the card game Bridge, and Jeopardy (the game show)” (9). Because incarcerated individuals teach these classes 93% of the time, the topics vary based on the facilitator’s interest and the substance of the course and skill of the teacher also vary widely (9). Many skills based programs were taught by other incarcerated individuals or unqualified/unlicensed volunteers and staff (7-8) so my proposal will include a provision about hiring qualified instructors and offering only courses which lead to credits and/or industry recognized credentials.
Access to these educational and training programs is a huge problem. Because spots in training programs are limited, often only individuals close to their release dates are offered placement (8). My proposal would alleviate some of this pressure by increasing the number and types of classes offered. Another major impediment is the cost of college programs. Since the repeal of Pell grants for incarcerated individuals, college programs are rarely available and rarely free, meaning that prisoners must attempt to save money for college while making wages like 17 cents per hour or rely on funding from their families, many of whom cannot afford to assist (9-10). By utilizing Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship to expand CUNY/SUNY access within all state facilities, I hope to create substantially more classroom seats and make college program affordable for all incarcerated individuals. Many individuals complained that, in order to participate in a particular program, they were forced to request transfers to different facilities, often farther away from home which makes family visits more difficult or to higher security facilities (9). Although my proposal won’t eliminate this issue, because it would be impossible to offer all programs at every facility, I hope to increase the number of programs and provide more choices at each facility, which could reduce the likelihood of individuals needing to request a transfer to find a suitable program.
Another key area in need of improvement is access to computers and the internet. This is important in terms of expanding options for coursework as well as enabling students to conduct research more quickly and easily. Additionally, computer skills are an essential component of any job so the lack of access negatively impacts both academic and career readiness. This is one area that I need to conduct more research in order to make viable suggestions for improvement.
A major survey finding was that 97% of respondents stated they would participate in programs if doing so would result in a sentence reduction (14). Other persuasive incentives were expanded visitation and phone time, but sentence reduction was the most popular and impactful (14). Based on the feedback here and from the Indiana model I looked at for my last lightning round, I now plan to include sentence reduction as part of my Big Idea project.
I’ve found a lot of really interesting research so I’m now trying to distill the most relevant pieces to form a succinct and convincing argument to support my proposal for an expanded CUNY/SUNY/DOCCS system. The program would offer associate degrees that are a pairing of concrete hard skills and general education requirements so individuals are well suited for entry to employment in in-demand industries and/or to local colleges near their homes anywhere in the state. I’ve shifted my focus to include less of a broad historical background and instead focus more directly on the current problems and inefficiencies of the system as I see them and how my proposal attempts to fix them. I’m still working out the best way to present my project, both in terms of the final assignment and the presentation to the class.