The Open Door Collective (ODC) http://www.opendoorcollective.org is dedicated to reshaping U.S. society to have dramatically less poverty and economic inequality and more civic engagement and participation in all society has to offer. ODC is composed of a diverse group of stakeholders representing key domains such as adult education, health, criminal justice, immigrant and refugee rights, employment, and social services, who believe that foundational skills and lifelong learning programs open doors of opportunity to healthier, more prosperous, and satisfying lives.
The brief that follows is part of a series that is published by ODC on its website. During a period of national trauma, as a pandemic threatens those in prisons and jails, and as protests against racism in law enforcement swell, this brief makes the case that foundational skills education is a fundamental right for incarcerated and newly released, or reentering, adults. The brief offers information on education and recidivism, variability and standards in correctional programming, and the range of correctional programming in education. The intended audience for the brief is adult educators, those serving adult learners in the criminal justice system, librarians, jail and prison policy makers and administrators, and related stakeholders. The brief recommends multiple solutions, drawn from the research literature, in support of foundational skills education as a fundamental right for incarcerated adults and as an important asset to the communities in which re-entering adults live and seek work. The brief was written in November 2020 by Margaret Patterson, Amy D. Rose, and Janet Isserlis, with input from Lionel Smith, of the ODC Criminal Justice Reform issues group.
~~~* November 6, 2020 *~~~ Foundational Skills Education as a Fundamental Right for Incarcerated and Reentering Adults
People in many countries believe that access to basic education is a fundamental human right, and that this right extends to adult education as well. While prisoners lose many basic rights with incarceration, several international conventions recommend that access to basic education remain a right in prison. In the United States, states differ in how they respond to this imperative. While most debates around educational programs in prisons are concerned with providing college-level programs, in fact foundational skills education (FSE) programs (including Adult Basic Education, High School Equivalency (HSE) programs, and career and technical programs) are the most common. Because education is a basic human right, we argue that maintaining the quality and consistency of FSE programs in prisons is imperative. This brief makes the case that, as a human right, FSE is an important asset for both incarcerated and re-entering adults in the USA. It also makes recommendations from the literature for those working with either or both populations.
In the USA, a basic education is perceived as a fundamental right within states. Primary and secondary education provisions are included in state constitutions. The U.S. Supreme Court called education “perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.” Given the variability in available correctional programming and resources, this brief asks how the adult education field supports FSE as a fundamental right for incarcerated adults, and an important asset to communities in which reentering adults live and seek work.
Recognition of prison education as a basic right highlights a fundamental question, that is, what should incarceration accomplish?
Prison is organised around blame; in many cases the institution expects education programmes to reinforce this approach.... The question is whether incarceration should be primarily about making people pay for their mistakes, punishing them and excluding them from society; or whether it should be about giving them a second chance, forgiving them their criminal deeds, building their qualities as responsible citizens and useful community members and supporting their personal development and their self-esteem. This question accompanies the evaluation of any educational and social work in prison.
Political critiques of correctional education assert that the prison experience is not a time for skill-building, but rather for punishment. Proponents, on the other hand, respond that correctional education has consistently reduced recidivism by providing important educational skills that can be utilized in a post-prison world. There is even less consensus about the most effective kinds of programming.
Education and Recidivism Research has consistently shown that correctional educational programs decrease recidivism. They often provide two avenues to skills that can be immediately transferred to employment and workplace success: occupational training and postsecondary education programs. FSE provides a steppingstone to both avenues, plus a conduit for gaining a high school equivalence (HSE) credential and thus improving an individual’s chances of gaining post-prison employment.
Of course, success is not guaranteed, and programming does not explain why some reentering adults successfully transition back into society and others do not. While limited education and skills are key factors affecting recidivism,  barriers to successful reentry include pervasive systemic racism and stigma against the incarcerated. Since the 1970s, according to a New York report, criminal justice policy has resulted in the incarceration of a generation of mostly young men of color. Released adults face substantial hurdles to obtaining decent-paying jobs, including a lack of jobs for felons and a general lack of job skills. One key element appears to be programs designed to facilitate reentry into a post-prison world. In U.S. reentry programs, a wide variety in purpose and design occurs. Research suggests that strong programs begin in prison and continue through release and reintegration.
Targeting barriers before release via FSE programs can reduce chances that a reentering adult will turn back to crime and ultimately reduces recidivism. Colorado’s Department of Corrections begins reentry in its prisons. For incarcerated adults who did not finish high school, the top priority is getting an HSE credential, which could involve fundamental skills, English as a Second Language (ESL), or other specialized instruction as needed.
Variability and standards in available correctional programming Even as this brief asserts that provision of and access to education services are basic human rights, we acknowledge that a number of basic human rights are abrogated by imprisonment. This statement is not necessarily a contradiction. It goes to the heart of questions about the nature, purpose, and perceptions of incarceration.
Once an adult is incarcerated, even if the individual is young enough for school enrollment  (e.g., 16 through 21 years), correctional programming does not always assure an opportunity to learn foundational skills. Since 1982, federal prisons have been mandated to offer basic education to incarcerated adults not meeting a minimum level of literacy. The minimum Mandatory Literacy Requirement is currently a twelfth-grade level. State prisons and local jails, however, are not held to this requirement. Incarcerated adults reaching 100% HSE is not yet a universal aim.
When FSE programming is unavailable, adults are deprived of a critical resource that can assist them in becoming productive members of society upon release. The evidence is strong that incarcerated adults who gain foundational skills are less likely to return to prison. In fact, time in prison can exacerbate needs for basic and workplace skills that limited employment prospects of incarcerated adults even before conviction. Providing access to foundational skills is important to supporting access to potential workplace success in the future.
Although a high percentage of incarcerated adults have learning or other disabilities affecting their learning, too often they are not provided with accommodations for learning disabilities or with access to special education. For some incarcerated individuals, an undiagnosed mental illness may have caused behaviors that resulted in suspension or expulsion from school. Once excluded from school, an individual’s chances of involvement in the criminal justice system increase. “Ultimately, students’ behaviors that are a direct byproduct of a disability have resulted in incarceration.” Once incarcerated, they may not find educational support for their mental health needs or disability. They may also lack advocates for accommodations and services. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 667 of 1,821 state and federal prisons for adults provided special education services. Ongoing overcrowding, transfers, and a lack of qualified teachers compound the problem.
To support high quality in correctional education programs despite differences in institutions and program approaches, the Correctional Education Association (CEA) has developed “Performance Standards for Adult, Juvenile, and Jail Correctional Education Programs”. Correctional programs adhering to the standards are evaluated based on the philosophy and goals they are trying to achieve, the community they serve, and actions taken to meet the needs of participating students and staff. The CEA standards establish “that correctional education programs must have comprehensive policies and procedures, have qualified and well-trained personnel, have adequate resources, offer appropriate programming, and focus efforts on student needs….” The CEA standards are not universally incorporated into practice, however.
Range of correctional programming Overall, many different kinds of programming are available in prison settings. The most common is FSE, that is programs which provide instruction in foundational knowledge and skill in reading, math, and writing. FSE programs are widespread in prisons and jails and are considered cost effective. In fact, direct costs of reincarceration are often greater than those of providing FSE.  Still, the reach of FSE programming is variable and dependent on sufficient resources. Our earlier brief, “Crimmigration in the USA” (https://www.opendoorcollective.org/crimmigration-in-the-usa.html ), recommends offering education and job training to incarcerated and re-entering immigrants, as well as expanding English language offerings. States differ in the attention paid to FSE programs and the investments made to them. Although most Departments of Corrections require inmates to be tested upon arrival and mandate FSE for those who score below a certain reading level or need HSE, these programs may not be well-funded and may lack sufficient teachers.
Although not specifically a program, prison libraries play important roles in promoting and enhancing literacy skills, too. Prison libraries are “a badly needed resource for inmates struggling with literacy.” Prison librarians are very aware of the limited literacy levels among library patrons, and some attempt to encourage reading or implement programs appealing to those with lower literacy skills. A librarian said, “The number one purpose [of the library] is literacy. That literacy is not just the ability to read, but the kind of social literacy that comes with reading.” The extent to which prison libraries and FSE programs work together to boost foundational skills of incarcerated adults is unknown.
Additionally, career-technical and higher education programs are also sporadically offered in prisons and jails. For the most part, federal funding (through Pell grants) is not available and since the 1990s, higher education institutions have pulled back from offering these programs. However, funding is still extended for FSE programs, yet the need far outstrips current offerings. Our current focus is on FSE programming because this need affects the most disenfranchised of the prison population.
Most U.S. prisons offer FSE for incarcerated adults because a lack of education can greatly inhibit a reentering adult’s ability to obtain steady employment and contribute to society. Yet states differ in their commitments to the reentering population. Additionally, the organizational logistics differ from area to area, sometimes even within states. For example, in Michigan, the Michigan DOC staffs some programs with private contractors, including FSE and other educational agencies. In another example, the Windham School District in Texas provides its own educational programming to incarcerated adults, including GED preparation, special education for students with disabilities, and ESL, among others. However, in 2017 of 65,739 released adults from Windham, only 18% had an HSE.
Solutions The reviewed literature offered numerous recommendations on how to support FSE as a fundamental right for incarcerated adults and as an important asset to the communities in which re-entering adults live and seek work.
● Expand access to education and training: Significantly increase access to education and training during incarceration. Both can play a positive role in reentry efforts, preparing reentering adults to compete in the labor market, join the workforce, and positively contribute to the economy.  ● Increase state investments in foundational skills: States need to “make increased investment in basic literacy and math skills” of incarcerated adults and promote “articulation of those skills into pathways with more advanced skills and employment.” This work needs to include efforts to integrate basic education and training. WIOA funds can be employed to support these efforts. ● Support HSE efforts throughout the correctional system: Establish a goal of incarcerated adults reaching 100% HSE by release. ● Adhere to the standards of practice developed by CEA: These performance standards include: a statement of educational goals; the inclusion of educational personnel in all programming and expenditures; appropriate personnel and staffing choices along with consistent staff development; a stated policy on teacher/student ratios; policies for the involvement of business and industry for job training; a comprehensive education program that includes basic education, secondary education, career/technical education, special needs education, and computer literacy; as well as other types of programs such as ESL, life skills, and remedial and transition education. ● Keep learning active and relevant: Encourage teaching adults via “engaging, hands-on activities rather than having them sit and listen to a lecture.” Bring in “subject matter experts, who can minimize the potentially negative dynamic of reentry specialists always telling [adults] what to do.”  ● Overcome situational barriers to learning: “Tasks that students perceive as uninteresting, uninspiring, monotonous or dull can be made more appealing” by staff and teachers. Staff should also consider more closely the role of social support in learning. ● Consider educational advocacy for incarcerated adults with disabilities: Legal advocates should consider students’ statutory rights to access public services under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In recent years, multiple disability rights lawsuits including ADA have resulted in “improving conditions of confinement, including providing appropriate education services… By advocating for specialized educational services, incarcerated [individuals] with disabilities stand a far better chance of successful reentry and reduced recidivism…”  ● Address dispositional barriers and disabilities: Dispositional barriers, resulting from learning difficulties, impaired attention, and lack of concentration, may also be related to, or exacerbated by, environmental factors in the prison and should also be addressed. It is important that prisons offer help with dispositional barriers and disabilities, as well as good library services and access to literature. 36] ● Pull down institutional barriers to FSE, including use of technology: Barriers “such as lack of information about educational opportunities, inadequate practical arrangements, and inadequate access to software and the Internet, ought to be anticipated by prison authorities. The criminal justice system” needs to “publish comprehensive information about the educational opportunities available in prison... [The] conflict between essential prison security routines and the prisoners’ need to use computer equipment in their studies needs to be resolved.”  ● Support use of prison libraries for building foundational skills: A prison library has the capacity to improve incarcerated adults’ literacy skills. Given skill disparities between incarcerated and non-incarcerated adults, recognizing and understanding the library’s potential to reduce disparities is important. ● Develop 21st century literacies via prison libraries: Librarians should expand their definition of literacy to include 21st century literacies. A prison librarian said, “If we can improve basic literacy and move on to those other literacies—health literacy, computer literacy…—I think we can improve their chances of success” on release. ● Encourage library use as a temporary respite to build foundational skills: A prison library can be a valuable tool to improve skills in that it often provides a physical space that allows for a respite from the “loud, crowded, and sometimes violent atmosphere of the prison.”