When GEDs mean failure for prisoners

Last year when changes to the GED programs were first announced, analysts predicted it would have a serious impact on the ability of prisoners to acquire their certificates.  A year later, those predictions have proven accurate. Prison GED success rates have dropped dramatically, in some places up to 82%  since the system switched over.

To begin, the content of the GED tests has changed—accounting for an overall rise in failures nation-wide.  Critical thinking skills—the kinds most often associated with college and university levels of instruction—are being increasingly emphasized due to observations that GED holders are not faring better economically than high school dropouts. Following that, the switch to computer-based tests immediately excludes a large swath of participants in the prison population. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners simply do not have access to computers, let alone the necessary skills to interact with them meaningfully.

As regards the first point the quality of instruction—and thus of the higher analytical skills demanded by the new test—is frequently inadequate in prison settings. In many cases, only a basic Bachelor’s Degree is required (in some rare cases, that’s not even required), meaning that the quality of instruction varies tremendously. Teaching experience, while preferred, is also not a requirement. Master’s programs in the field can often be done online, meaning that they complete the program without spending a day in a classroom—let alone in a prison classroom which, unsurprisingly, is dramatically different from others. This variability means that while one institution’s instructor may be exceptional, another’s may be barely passable. One prison instructor even noted that during their training, two of the people who would later become teachers, failed the test themselves. The brutal truth is that the level of instruction has not kept pace with the changes necessary for prisoners to truly benefit from participation. It’s one of the reasons why we continue to push for the expansion of college-level instruction in prisons—because the emphasis on pedagogy and the development critical thinking skills among professors is simply greater.

The second factor comes down to two issues: political will and resources. Tens of thousands of prisoners do not have access to computers, let alone the internet (even through highly limited networks). In some cases, such prohibitions are premised on the justification that access poses a security risk. Banning computers at jails simply serves no purpose. It is not, as some would suggest, a security risk. Even the least knowledgeable computer person knows how simply access safeguards can be implemented to prevent unauthorized usage—the same goes for internet access. If the prison-industrial complex has taught us anything through their exploitive lockdowns of prison communication methods, it’s that security measures can be implemented with relative ease. Myriad companies have already created the models for this, and prisons committed to reducing recidivism have demonstrated their utility in practice. Prisons in New Zealand have already recognized how critical regular computer access is to ensuring the success of education programs.  Since May of 2015 prisoners at the new high security Kohuora Auckland South Correction Facility have been given access to fixed computers with restricted network access in their cells to work on their studies.

The second issue of resources is clearly the more pressing concern. As cutbacks to prisons and jails across the country continue, the future of prison education remains at risk. We are hearing a tremendous amount of rhetoric from politicians about the importance of education and reform. But that rhetoric remains just that without committing the necessary funding that provides the resources to fully engage in rehabilitative and educational programming. Computer literacy is no longer a “bonus” skill to possess; it’s an absolutely necessary requirement for today’s job market.

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