Prison Education: A Reward for Crime or a Tool to Stop It

By Christopher Zoukis  Image courtesy

A National Network of Prison Education Programs

The 1980s were a period of expansion for prison education programs.  Through the vehicle of federal financial assistance, inmates were able to enroll in vocational and college courses in their prisons, programs offered through community colleges and state universities alike.  For a period, prisoners had a meaningful chance at learning a quality trade or even earning an associate’s or bachelor’s college degree during their term of imprisonment.  Over 350 in-prison college programs flourished, with professors teaching classes “live,” in the prisons.

The Collapse: Congress Slams the Door on Education in Prison

All of this came to a screeching halt with the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.  The Act, a component of the anti-prison education agenda pushed in Congress and the Senate, imposed a ban on inmates receiving any form of federal financial aid to assist them in the pursuit of an education.  With the slashed funding, nearly every externally supported prison education program in the nation shut down, and the result was an increase in prisoner unrest, violence, and recidivism.  Colleges, prisoners, and prison administrators alike objected, and loudly so, but their pleas fell upon deaf ears.

Advocates for eliminating Pell Grants and other need-based financial assistance for prisoners claimed that those incarcerated shouldn’t be given government funding to pursue education.  They advanced an agenda asserting that prisoners were taking funding away from traditional college students — a patently false assertion — and that offering college to inmates was a reward for crime.  Some even had the gall to suggest that people were committing crimes in order to go to prison, where they could obtain a college education.  It was a political firestorm like no other, and one based on emotion, not fact, logic, or empirical research.

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Adult Restorative Justice

By Dianne Frazee-Walker

Restorative justice is a practice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by crime by bringing victims, offenders, and community members together to reconcile how that will be done. Outcomes from the process can be transformational.

Dr. Howard Zehr, the pioneer of restorative justice in the United States, proclaims, “A restorative justice framework focuses on repairing the harm done to victims and the community through a process of negotiation, mediation, victim empowerment, and reparation. Within this framework, crime and delinquency present a unique opportunity to build relationships and reach an agreement through a collaborative process.”   Image courtesy

The process has been utilized with juvenile first time offenders and proven valuable for reducing the rate of reoffending. Recidivism is reduced from 30% using the conventional punitive system down to 8% using restorative practices with youthful offenders.

Restorative justice approaches to minor delinquency or criminal violations have gained popularity in the U.S. and elsewhere since the 1970s and are increasingly employed as responses to serious delinquency or adult criminal behaviors.

The restorative justice process traditionally involves victims and offenders confronting each other in a conference or also referred to as a circle. Both the victim and offender are voluntary participants. A facilitator and co-facilitator along with community members are also present.

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The Effects of Restorative Justice in the Criminal Justice System

By Christopher Zoukis

Modern criminal justice systems, according to some critics, alienate victims and remove responsibility from criminal defendants. This gap undermines the justice aspect of criminal justice, and in the long term hurts victims and society. Increasingly, reform-minded advocates have supported restorative justice programs to close this gap and allow individuals to learn from their mistakes.  Image courtesy

Restorative justice programs focus on both prisoners and victims. To do this, an array of programs have been developed in cities across the country that employ various strategies to help prisoners see first-hand the impact of their crimes on others. While the methods used to do this are diverse, common themes include support groups for victims, group meetings that unite former prisoners and victims of crime and bringing together individuals serving jail time with their actual victims.

A Victim-Centered Approach

Unfortunately, victims of crime are often ignored in contemporary systems of criminal justice. They are the forgotten other half when a crime is dealt with in society. Restorative justice programs aim to give these victims a voice and an avenue to heal by allowing them to actively participate in the process. This allows victims to feel a higher sense of involvement in their communities, while helping them to recover in a more social and supportive setting.

Outcomes such as these are central reasons for support groups with other victims or joint meetings between victims and those responsible. Allowing victims to confront individuals and let them know the damage they have done is crucial to the healing process, according to proponents of restorative justice programs.

However, these types of programs are not only meant to help victims. In fact, supporters of restorative

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From Skeptical Judge to Peace Circles

Janine Geske / Photo courtesy of icle.orgBy Dianne Frazee-Walker

While attending a restorative justice conference in 2006, they sat down to eat lunch in the cafeteria at Schreiner University in Kerrville, Texas. A friendly blond woman sat next to them with her tray. She introduced herself as Janine. The group carried on a conversation about restorative justice, which is a principle used most commonly within the justice system that brings victims and offenders together in a circle with a facilitator and other affected members of the community. The main objective of restorative justice is for the offender to be accountable for the harm caused by his/her actions, the victim to express the impact the crime had on them, and to have a voice as to how the harm should be repaired.

Later that day, they attended a presentation within the conference about a unique peace circle that takes place at maximum security prisons. The program brings convicted murderers and family members of murder victims together in a three day process that transforms not only the offenders, but reconciles the pain for the diseased victim’s family members as well.   

They were surprised to see the woman they met at lunch earlier facilitating the lecture. Janine Geske, former justice and judge of the Wisconsin Supreme Court and professor at Marquette University Law School was speaking about her experience facilitating peace circles with convicted killers and family members of murdered victims inside prison walls.

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