By Christopher Zoukis
The Prison Education Project (PEP) utilizes faculty volunteers and university students to provide education in 12 California correctional institutions. To date, PEP has reached 6,000 inmates since 2011, making this initiative the largest volunteer-based prison education program in America.
The ultimate goal of PEP is to flip the school-to-prison pipeline around, creating instead a prison-to-school pipeline that gives inmates the tools they need to rejoin society as active, reformed citizens.
PEP operates in a smart manner, committed to using “the resources in the backyard of each of the… prisons;” a pro-active move, as a college sits within 30 miles of most of the major prisons in the state. Leveraging these nearby colleges and collaborating with them to provide education to the inmates, PEP saves the state money. The initiative calculates savings of $89.4 million for every percent recidivism is reduced.
PEP monitors its outcomes via thesis, reviews, and evaluation reports. The following data show responses to PEP’s spring 2018 semester courses.
For each course, the inmates were asked to answer “Yes” or “No” to the following questions:
- Question 1 – Did this course increase your interest in the subject matter?
- Question 2 – Did this course inspire you to further your education?
- Question 3 – Will you be able to use the information that you learned in this course when you are paroled?
The results for each course were:
- Introduction to College
- Question 1: 74 Yes, 1 No
- Question 2: 72 Yes, 2 No
- Question 3: 71 Yes, 3 No
- Forgiveness and Healing
- Question 1: 34 Yes, 0 No
- Question 2: 32 Yes, 2 No
- Question 3: 32 Yes, 0 No
- Introduction to Soft Skills
- Question 1: 51 Yes, 0 No
- Question 2: 50 Yes, 1 No
- Question 3: 51 Yes, 0 No
- Yoga and Meditation
- Question 1: 20 Yes, 0 No
- Question 2: 19 Yes, 1 No
- Question 3: 20 Yes, 0 No
- Financial Literacy
- Question 1: 15 Yes, 0 No
- Question 2: 15 Yes, 0 No
- Question 3: 15 Yes, 0 No
What is interesting is the healthy mix of hard and soft skills. Being financially literate is always a good thing, but how helpful is knowing how to balance a budget if you can’t manage your temper? Providing skills for life that take into account each student’s whole being – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual – is one of the reasons why PEP is so successful.
The greatest testament to the success of PEP comes from the inmates themselves. When asked to provide written feedback on the courses, their comments included:
“In addition to the subject matter, I have gained a hope in humanity because I have seen the passion in our citizens who take a Friday night (of all nights) to come into prison and help another human being get their lives back of course.” – for Introduction to College
“I feel when men have a place to process their HONEST thoughts and feeling, we are forced to deal with self. And grow. You are appreciated. Respect, appreciation, and gratitude.” – for Forgiveness and Healing
It was this comment from the Financial Literacy course that the evaluators flagged as “most touching.”
“In the last 13 years this is the first and only course I’ve ever taken. I’ve enjoyed it a lot. I have actually started looking forward to Friday night class… There are almost no courses offered that are relevant to me specifically… Will be over 70 upon release. Having been incarcerated for 28 straight years this class has started to make me think again… Thank you very much.”
PEP is making great strides in prison education and changing lives for the better in California. By leveraging the resources already near the prisons and allowing volunteers a chance to teach subjects that will make paroled lives better, PEP sets an example that other states would be wise to follow.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.