An interview with Fred Patrick, national project director, Vera Institute of Justice’s Pathways from Prison to Post-Secondary Education Project

In spring 2013, Sesame Street introduced a new character, Alex, a child whose father is in prison. Alex’s videos are part of a Sesame Street tool kit – including tips for children, parents and caregivers – created to help families cope with the incarceration of a parent. And implicit throughout the material is a unifying idea: young children need their parents, regardless of whether a parent is incarcerated.

The same idea has been expressed elsewhere by pediatrician Dr. Jack Shonkoff of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “The hallmark (of the parental relationship) is the readily observable fact that this special adult is not interchangeable with others,” Shonkoff has written.

Google “‘children’ and ‘incarcerated parent'” and the resulting citations may help explain the rationale and timing behind the Sesame Street tool kit:

  • The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world: 2.3 million people in U.S. jails and prisons – a dramatic increase from 500,000 in 1980.
  • More than two percent of U.S. children have a parent in prison. About half are children 9 years old or younger. Nearly 25 percent are younger than 5.
  • Seventy percent are children of color – one in 15 African American children, one in 41 Hispanic children.

If the Vera Institute of Justice’s Pathways from Prison to Post-Secondary Education Project proves successful, some of those children likely will be reunited with their incarcerated parents. And the returning parents will have the education and training to build more stable lives for their families and avoid a return to prison.

Returning parents will have the education and training to build more stable lives for their families and avoid a return to prison.

Fred Patrick, national project director, describes the project as a five-year effort to test and independently evaluate a strategy to provide post-secondary education to soon-to-be released and recently released prisoners. The project is underway in three states – Michigan, New Jersey and North Carolina.

To a participant, the promise seems clear: increased employability and earnings potential, increased wherewithal to support children and families and reduced temptation to engage again with the criminal justice system.

Beyond simply reuniting, the benefit to families and children is at least as compelling. A wide body of literature indicates that education is critical both to outcomes for the incarcerated and to outcomes for their children, their families and their communities, according to the Institute. Educational levels of parents tend to strongly predict the educational achievements of their children. And studies suggest that graduating from college programs can reduce recidivism by nearly 75 percent, and can increase a family’s earnings by between $8,000 and $20,000 annually.

To make the data work on behalf of the Pathways participants, the states have agreed to adhere to specific guidelines.

For example, while GED courses and other secondary education may be necessary as part of the educational process, the pathways are specifically designed so that participants earn a post-secondary associate of arts degree or vocational certification leading to greater employability and higher earnings for participants.

All of the programs provide a standard set of features. Each participant in each state enrolls in an educational continuum that begins roughly two years before release, and extends for two years afterward. Each receives mentoring, tutoring, academic counseling, re-entry support and connections to local employers.

And regardless of the participating college or university, each student’s in-prison courses match the curricula, texts and instructors used by the universities’ on-campus students.

There are also differences between the states, each of which has designed a model for operation of the program based on the state’s needs and capacity.

For example, Michigan participants will be selected from among two correctional facilities, and their selection will be partially based on their plans to re-enter communities close to one of the designated schools.

Michigan also has a particularly strong vocational certification component that can run in tandem with a participant’s academic work.

As Patrick points out, such localized modeling gives the program – and its students – a community, rather than a corrections-system, focus.

The first four years of the project are devoted to education and support, while the fifth year will be devoted to an independent evaluation to be conducted by the Rand Corporation. But the Vera Institute is not waiting until 2017 to begin evaluation or leverage lessons-learned. Efforts are already underway to create a learning community that will allow the states to exchange plans, solutions and experience.

“For us, this is about long-term sustainability and replication,” Patrick said.

For participants, it’s about something a good deal more personal. In characterizing one recent encounter with students, Patrick described them as feeling thrilled to be part of a potentially important movement, and responsible for its success.

“As one of the guys said, ‘We’re trailblazers,” Patrick said.