Earlier this year, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law legislation that authorized the use of state funds for the administrative costs of providing postsecondary workforce programs in prison.
The increased flexibility has come at a critical time. Amid budget cuts that have forced the Florida Department of Corrections to make tough choices, it has helped to strengthen relationships with outside partners such as Florida Gateway College in Lake City, which provides critical postsecondary programming within prisons that ease the path to reentry.
Unfortunately, while the legislation makes it easier for Florida’s prisons to offer postsecondary courses, it doesn’t address other financial barriers that frequently prevent people from enrolling in them.
Just like college on the outside, accredited, college-level courses within prison are not free. Students need to pay tuition and other costs. While those costs can prove to be significant obstacles on the outside, they are even larger in prison because inmates are among the poorest of the poor in America.
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What’s more, people in prison currently are barred from obtaining federal Pell Grants to assist with postsecondary education costs, and Florida state laws prevent people who are currently or were formerly incarcerated from accessing the state’s Bright Futures grant, the largest pool of state financial aid for college.
Collectively, these laws work together to form a de facto education ban for many people whether they are in prison or not. When barriers are removed, however, enrollment rates increase, which has benefits for everyone.
As a partner with Florida’s DOC in the U.S. Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Experiment Sites Initiative, Florida Gateway College is one of only 70 colleges in the nation, and the only one in Florida, to be selected to offer Pell Grants to selected inmates scheduled for release within four years. A total of 56 students are currently enrolled in three workforce degree programs through the college, five of those students will graduate this December and 41 will graduate in May 2019. The collective GPA of this current group is 3.64.
Still, more work remains to be done. Right now, Florida operates the third-largest prison system in America with more than 97,000 people behind bars at a cost of just under $20,000 per person annually. Removing state and federal barriers to postsecondary education for people in and out of prison would help to cut those costs by reducing recidivism rates and creating safer communities.
Part of the reason why is simple: in today’s job market around 65 percent of all new jobs require some form of postsecondary degree, but only 22 percent of people in state prison have one. It should come as little surprise then that people who have some form of postsecondary education are more likely to obtain a job. We made a computer lab for the students in prison — no easy feat — so that they leave with the range of skills they will need to be successful after they are released.
People who are employed are also far less likely to commit crimes. But, from what we’ve seen, there are other reasons why recidivism rates drop as well. The reality is that many people who receive an education in prison are transformed, which helps explain why prisons with postsecondary programs have fewer violent incidents, helping to contribute to safer work environments for corrections professionals.
Despite this, the more than 90 percent of prisoners nationwide who will be released from prison at some point continue to find themselves on the outside of classrooms looking in because of barriers. Removing them makes common sense. We hope Florida’s legislators agree and continue to build upon the steps they’ve taken to expand access to postsecondary education for people currently or formerly in prison.
Lawrence Barrett, president of Florida Gateway College, has more than 32 years of experience in professional leadership positions at a several four-year, community and technical colleges.