The Left

Prison Education Works

Celia Chazelle
Celia Chazelle
When I was a high school student outside Boston at the time of Kent State, I immersed myself in the anti-war movement and — inspired by a terrific teacher — the study of US history. The photo of me is not quite that old, though it is on the dated side, but good pictures of me are rare so I'll hang onto it for awhile yet. | Photo: The College of New Jersey | Link | Celia Chazelle, New Jersey Step, Prison, College,

The story of NJ-STEP and CPEP

The dirty word of the prison education community is recidivism -- the act of a former prisoner or probationer committing a crime and being arrested for doing so. While yes, we measure our success in the number of incarcerated students we help to earn their GEDs, the much more impactful measure of success is simple: how many of our prisoner-students return. Sadly, the most recent statistics indicate that around 43 percent return within 3 years of release from custody.

There are multiple factors that come into play when looking at the reasons for prisoner recidivism: lack of education, support system, substance abuse treatment, mental health care, and the list goes on and on. There are even social problems to consider: gang activity, criminal history, age, and even, sadly, race.

NJ-STEP is a program housed at 7 correctional facilities in New Jersey. The program offers incarcerated students college-level classes which award transferrable credits at 3 local New Jersey colleges. According to NJ-STEP's data, their graduates boast a recidivism rate of less than 10 percent per 3 to 5 years following participants' release from custody.

The best way to assess how these college education programs are working is to look at real-world examples to see how successful the program are. Here we examine NJ-STEP and the Cornell Prison Education Program, a prison education program located in New York State. These real-world examples can be used to evaluate real-world problems.

NJ-STEP is an in-prison college program aimed at helping young men in 7 different New Jersey state prisons attain college credit for courses completed through the program. Celia Chazelle, a professor at the College of New Jersey, began the program years ago. The prison education program is funded solely through private donations from a variety of charities, and completed coursework is redeemable for credits at Mercer County Community College, Rutgers University, and several other New Jersey colleges upon the program participant's release from correctional custody.

The program is based on the following components:

  1. Enrollment in the program is voluntary.
  2. Inmates must either possess a GED or a high school diploma in order to enroll.
  3. Rule infractions result in immediate removal from program participation.
  4. The fruits of the NJ-STEP program are impressive:
  5. Rutgers University accepts up to 50 students from the NJ-STEP program each year.
  6. One NJ-STEP student recently won the prestigious Truman Scholarship.
  7. One former NJ-STEP student is currently studying abroad at Oxford University in the United Kingdom.
  8. Those inmates who attain a college education through the NJ-STEP program boast a recidivism rate of only 10 percent.

Cornell Prison Education Program
The Cornell Prison Education Program (CPEP) sends Cornell University faculty and students to both Auburn Correctional Facility (a maximum security state prison) and Cayuga Correctional Facility (a medium security state prison). Begun in the early 1990s by Cornell professor Winthrop Wetherbee, the program has grown in two very important ways: in 1999, the program began to offer Cornell University credit for completed courses, and in 2008, Cornell partnered with Cayuga Community College in the program. Cornell University now waives tuition and fees, CPEP provides teachers, books, supplies, and program administration tasks, while Cayuga Community College grants associates degrees to those who qualify.

Much like the NJ-STEP program, the Cornell Prison Education Program too is inspiring. CPEP is notable in that:

  1. Current enrollment is around 100 men between the Auburn and Cayuga prisons.
  2. Course subjects include, but are not limited, to: genetics, poetry, economics, and medical anthropology.
  3. Except for graduate students, all program workers are volunteers (graduate students receive a small stipend for their work).
  4. CPEP is funded by an annual $180,000 grant from The Sunshine Lady Foundation, which was founded by Warren Buffet's sister, Doris Buffet.
  5. The program costs approximately $1,800 per student per year. On average, New Jersey state inmates cost the state
  6. $40,000 per year to incarcerate.

The numbers coming out of these two programs -- and a number of other prison education programs -- are very promising. They, and the measurable success resulting from them, clearly show that when prisoners are provided quality programming, that they can do amazing things. They reach people long resigned to being hopeless who, in fact, have hope. They can survive, succeed, and thrive with the proper amount of support. All that they need are the proper tools; tools programs such as NJ-STEP and CPEP provide.

Prison education works. That much is clear. Study after study has shown that prison education is the most cost-effective, proven method of reducing recidivism that the world knows. While it might not feel traditionally charitable to give criminals an education on the American taxpayer's dime, education has proven time and time again to lift prisoners out of a life of crime. And reductions in correction's spending and victimization is something we can all get behind.

For more information on how education in prison can change lives and save taxpayer dollars, visit

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Updated Aug 12, 2017 12:04 PM EDT | More details


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