October 14, 2015

Backwards on Purpose: The Wrong-Way World of Jobs and Prisons

By Jeff Smith

You’ll be back, sh*tbird.”
If I heard it once during my nearly year-long incarceration for federal election law violations, I heard it a dozen times. It’s what correctional officers (COs) told prisoners nearing their release date, especially those who had “slick mouths” or who otherwise created problems. “Jackasses like you are how I know I’ll always have a job,” one officer frequently said – his way of reminding us that not only did he expect us to return, but his livelihood depended on it.
The hard truth is that as the federal and most state governments have reduced operating costs per prisoner since 2008, prisons haven’t cut staff or their salaries. Instead, they’ve pared back many “non-essential” programs, such as substance abuse counseling, mental health services, and vocational training.
Unfortunately, that undercuts what a robust body of research tells us: That GED courses, literacy classes, vocational training, and even rare opportunities for postsecondary education increase odds for post-release employment, reduce recidivism, and facilitate post-prison success. One particularly successful program is the Bard College Prison Initiative, which offers full-time college seats in six New York State prisons. Participants have a recidivism rate of just 4%, and a team of them recently bested a trio of Harvard undergraduates in a formal debate.

Social entrepreneurs have also developed effective educational programs that don’t cost taxpayers anything but that make a big difference for inmates. Case in point: the Prison Entrepreneurship Program (PEP). It partners with the Texas Department of Corrections and hundreds of volunteers to lead 200 prisoners annually in an intensive, seven-month, MBA-level course, certified by Baylor University. PEP trains prisoners to develop full-length business plans and, as their final exam, present their plans to a panel of CEOs and venture capitalists. PEP also teaches life skills – a factor in why 100% of participants are employed within three months of release. The warden at one facility told me that the relationship between COs and prisoners had improved since the introduction of PEP; perhaps when inmates get a chance to learn and advance, COs treat them more humanely.

Then there’s American Prison Data Systems (APDS). It provides prisons with computer tablets equipped with vocational training software. APDS not only offers prisoners abundant instructional materials; the tablets can also help prison staffers match educational opportunities for inmates with employment needs in neighboring communities.
Yet despite the fact that Manchester Federal Correctional Institute in Kentucky, where I spent most of 2010, was most prisoners’ final stop before going home, the facility attempted precious little rehabilitation. Many long-term prisoners didn’t know how to navigate the Internet, let alone search for a job on it.
No question, prison education programs can be a hard sell. No politician has ever lost an election for being too tough on crime or too harsh on prisoners. “We have a student loan debt crisis for non-offenders,” some will ask, “so why should we subsidize college tuition for criminals?” 
The answer: cost-effectiveness and better public safety. Each year, more than 650,000 ex-inmates return to their former communities across the nation and try to succeed where they have failed before—now with the added baggage of prison records. Too many return to prison – and a big reason is the financial struggle resulting from unemployment.  

Of course, the correctional system does care, perversely, about some jobs: Jobs and job security for correctional officers, parole officers, and wardens. Here’s something I learned from the inmates at Manchester. The prison is part of the federal Bureau of Prisons, or BOP. But to prisoners, that acronym means: Backwards on Purpose – a good description of our wrong-way approach to jobs and prisons. Or as the novelist Upton Sinclair once said, “It is impossible to get a man to understand something when his livelihood depends on him not understanding it.” That may be the next challenge facing policymakers – persuading frontline prison staff to actually believe in and implement the much-needed reforms that are finally beginning to arrive.

Jeff Smith, a former Missouri state senator, is currently a professor of urban policy at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy at The New School.  His new book, Mr. Smith Goes to Prison, describes his experiences in federal custody.

Photo by: Alexander Bryden