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State replaces cell with classroom in new effort to reduce recidivism

School of Reentry opens in Roslindale, offering skills & life training to 25 inmates

Jule Pattison-Gordon

Inmates are trading bars for books in a new program designed to ease their reentry into civilian life. The Baker-Polito administration’s newly-opened School of Reentry aims to address education gaps among its student and cultivate skills to help them land jobs and reconnect with their communities once they leave the correctional system.

By the numbers

74 percent of those sentenced in Massachusetts had prior convictions

20 percent of those had 11 prior convictions

40 percent of those sentenced to a house of corrections had received a prior house of corrections sentence within the past three years

The school opened on March 28 at the Boston Pre-Release Center in Roslindale. It serves 25 live-in students. All are men from minimum security. They will spend 12-18 months in the program, studying in class for six hours a day as well as completing homework, toward the goal of graduating with six to nine college credit hours. The academic program is supplemented with substance abuse treatment and counseling, anger management training and personal development training.

“Making the successful transition from incarceration back into society is fraught with challenges, not the least of which is bridging the skills gap,” Governor Charlie Baker said in a press release.

Many say the program has the potential to tackle the state’s high rates of recidivism, thus making communities safer by cutting down on crime and netting the state significant savings.

Burden of failed rehabilitation

Frequently and repeatedly, Massachusetts locks up the same people. In 2013, 74 percent of those sentenced in the state had prior convictions, according to a report presented in April by the Council of State Governments Justice Center. Of that group, 20 percent had 11 or more prior convictions.

And the recidivism can be rapid: More than 40 percent of those sentenced to a house of corrections had received a prior house of corrections sentence within the past three years, according to the report.

The costs are both social and financial.

“When mom or dad goes away and goes to jail, the family suffers mightily. The savings [of reducing recidivism] both socially and fiscally are tremendous,” Steve Tompkins, sheriff of Suffolk County, told the Banner. He said a reduction in incarceration would be a significant benefit to taxpayers. Keeping one inmate at his facility cost $50,000 per year, he said, whereas the cost to keep someone in a detox or mental health program is $17,000 to $20,000 and to educate a student in public school is $12,000 to $15,000.

Education approach

Education seems to be an effective measure at reducing likelihood of reincarcerations.

In 2013, the RAND Corporation and Bureau of Justice Assistance released a meta-analysis of 50 studies involving correctional education and recidivism. According to their findings, prisoners participating in education programs were 43 percent less likely to be re-incarcerated than those who did not.

“All the research tells us that education is one of the most effective practices we have to reduce recidivism,” Ben Forman, research director of MassINC, told the Banner.

Massachusetts aims to reduce recidivism to 18 percent within three years, according to information provided by the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

From prisoner to pupil

The School of Reentry is partnering with Bunker Hill Community College and Roxbury Community College. Courses will include remedial instruction, prep for High School Equivalency certification and as training toward attaining basic Microsoft certifications, according to information provided by the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. Program coordinators also seek to create volunteer internships at local nonprofits or in state government for any graduates who do not manage to land full-time jobs once paroled.

On the web

Council of State Governments Justice Center April 2016 Massachusetts Criminal Justice Review: https://csgjusticecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/MASecondPresentation.pdf

RAND and BJA report, “Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education”: http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR266.html

MassINC: http://massinc.org/research/criminal-justice/

Criminal Justice Policy Coalition: http://www.cjpc.org/

According to an EOPSS info sheet: “We are developing the prison-to-school pipeline.”

As most people recidivate within their first year, the program’s effectiveness could be measured by following graduates for one to three years, Forman said. Rachel Corey, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition, suggested long-term success be measured by graduates’ ability to achieve housing and jobs that allow for self-sufficiency as well as give back: “Are the graduates of this program stable? Are they able to achieve living wage jobs, support themselves in a manner that doesn’t just have them living paycheck to paycheck but really contributing to society?”

And if that is not the case, she said, the state needs to be flexible in reexamining the program to find more effective reentry methods.

Funding a second chance

In the early 1990s, at least seven Massachusetts higher education institutions had programs for educating criminals, but by 2015, the number had shrunk to one: Boston University, according to CommonWealth Magazine. Part of the cause may be the U.S. Congress’ 1994 decision to make prisoners ineligible to receive Pell Grants, funding targeted for low-income college students.

Now with the state’s inmate population declining, more money may be freed up to go towards such educational programs, Forman said.

The School of Reentry’s Summer-Fall 2016 academic/vocational instructors were hired with $6,400 provided by the Jubilee Christian Church.

If it works

If the program is successful Corey said, the state should next explore if education programs can offered to more inmates and earlier in their sentences, while assuring programs are offered to more complicated cases: for instance, those who may need special accommodations due to experiences of trauma.

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