Exploring the Pathways Project

By Christopher Zoukis

The Pathways Project is an initiative of the Vera Institute of Justice that supports education and reentry services for incarcerated and newly released prisoners.  The initiative currently involves three states: Michigan, New Jersey, and North Carolina.  Funded by leading philanthropic foundations, the initiative supports the tenet that education reduces recidivism.  This project also wants to demonstrate that their methods are both effective and affordable.   Image courtesy vimeo.com

Pathways Project Goals

The underlying goal of this initiative, like many other prison education initiatives, is to reduce recidivism.  Equally important, though, is providing individuals with a chance to better themselves and ultimately better communities in the states where this program operates.  The Vera Institute asserts that education can reduce recidivism among newly released prisoners.  They have also designed their program to disrupt “the cycle of inter-generational poverty” and to “improve the quality of life in neighborhoods disproportionately affected by crime and incarceration,” according to their website.  The initiative also lists their “cost-effective methods” as an important part of their overriding vision of prison education.  They want to promote their model as a viable solution for other states that might resist prison education funding due to factors of cost.

Program Basics

The initiative straddles educational pursuits in prison and outside of prison.  In essence, program designers target prisoners currently incarcerated and provide them with post-secondary education coursework and then they assist the individual once released by matching them with supportive reentry services as well as continuing education until that person has obtained their certification or degree.  The degree, of course, launches the individual into a new tier of employment possibilities.  By increasing the likelihood of employment based on education, that person is set up for success and has a reduced risk of returning to criminal lifestyles that ultimately lead right back to jail.

Don’t Take Their Word for It Though

An interesting component of this program is its evaluation platform.  Many prison education programs work tirelessly to notate every statistic regarding their program and to prove to funders that they are making a difference and that their costs are justifiable.  When programs assess themselves, evaluations are often ignored by funding groups or legislators who need to trim budgets.  This program, however, will be evaluated by an outside group—the RAND Corporation.  This group will measure the program’s success and impact on communities.  

Major Features of the Pathways Project

The main component of the project is post-secondary education coursework—coursework that is accredited by regional colleges or community colleges.  The program also, however, supports vocational, GED, and college preparatory courses, which means it has a large target group—not merely individuals who may be college-ready.  It will reach a large segment of prisoners with varying education levels and varying educational goals.  It does, however, specifically target individuals who are two years away from their release date. 

The initiative supports educational coursework by funding technology and tutoring platforms for participants.  During the post-release period, prisoners will continue to be guided in their studies and provided with access to other support services provided in communities.  Participants are also matched with parole supervision that is associated with the program and aligned to support its educational tenets. 

Support Rationale

The Vera Institute of Justice asserts that “education is key to improving many of the long term outcomes” of undereducated prisoners.  Moreover, it acknowledges that 37% of federal and state inmates do not have a high school diploma or GED.  According to their website information, 78% of inmates do not have any post-secondary education.  Providing access to education is a viable way to reduce recidivism.  In fact, their research suggests recidivism can be reduced by as much as 72 % among formerly incarcerated individuals who complete a college degree.   These statistics, of course, are echoed by other prison education advocate groups across the country.

Support Structure

The Pathways Project is supported by leading philanthropic groups such as the Ford Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Open Society Foundations, and the Sunshine Lady Foundation.  Having garnered such recognized supporters, the Vera project has received considerable attention for its efforts to reduce recidivism.  Allowing an outside group to assess and evaluate the program makes for a compelling structure that other groups may also wish to watch closely.  The two-fold nature of the program—inside and outside prison educational support—is also a model that must be measured because, if it can be shown to work in these states, it has every likelihood of working in other states throughout the nation too.

Improving Lives, Improving Communities

The long-term goals for this program will ultimately affect communities and prisons.  With more people leading productive lives in area communities, fewer people may be incarcerated in these states’ prisons.  The need for increased education is only growing as the number of jobs for people without education is shrinking in the communities where incarcerated people often come from.  Education uplifts people and gives them a new chance.  If this program demonstrates all it has set out to, it will be a model that other states may follow to achieve similar positive results. 


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