Building a Prison-to-Promise Pipeline

This week is the inaugural  National Reentry Week, designated by the U.S. Department of Justice to draw attention to the challenges faced by people returning to their communities after incarceration. Several agencies including the Department of Health and Human Services, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and local law enforcement agencies are hosting events and announcing programs.

library-922998_1280A 2013 federal study of individuals in state prisons (the largest group of incarcerated people) found that 94 percent of those adults who were nearing reentry identified education as a key need. For young people, the need is even deeper.

Here at Bellwether, I provide strategic advising support and policy guidance to school leaders across the country.  The number one concern that I hear from leaders of successful schools and programs is “what happens when they leave us?” And I’ve talked to kids in juvenile justice schools all across the country who tell me that they feel like their teachers and programs have engaged them in ways that they never thought possible. It leaves them wondering, “why can’t I have this on the outs?”  (When you’re inside the gates, “the outs” is shorthand for the life you left outside.)

In education, we generally talk in terms of bureaucracies, agencies, and buildings. And that makes a certain sort of sense: that’s where the adults are, where the policies are designed, and where the decisions are made. But for young people involved in the justice system, their lives are often characterized by high levels of disconnection and their education experiences are so fragmented that the rationale behind focusing on institutions instead of individuals begins to fall apart.  

Improving outcomes for these students requires us to shift our perspective away from the behavior of any one agency and instead to understand incarceration as a moment in time for these students. For each and every one of them, there was a before. There’s also an after. With few exceptions, young people who are incarcerated come home, many of them within just a few months. As we dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, we need to be building the prison-to-promise pipeline: a robust network of supports that give life to the belief that these kids are not lost causes.

As part of the week’s events, the U.S. Department of Education has debuted their Reentry Toolkit. This is an education framework for reentry and transitions that includes corresponding resources for providers.  It is perfectly aligned with our efforts here at Bellwether to ensure that young people in secure facilities have clear trajectories to (1) return to a local school, (2) enroll in an alternative secondary program, (3) embark on a post-secondary pathway, or (4) begin a career.  

Incarceration isn’t the end of the line.  Just like students everywhere, young people attending school in custodial facilities want a chance to join their communities prepared for success and hopeful about their chances.