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Prison Education in the Lehigh Valley

Quality education is an essential guarantor of success in life and thousands of the U.S.’ incarcerated population, including inmates in the Lehigh Valley, lack access to adequate educational resources which directly contributes to high recidivism rates, according to a 2014 RAND Corporation study.

U.S. state and local prisons host thousands of inmates who have not received a decent education in the past. The RAND study reveals that adult correctional education improves postrelease outcomes, therefore reducing recidivism. There are a few programs and organizations in the Lehigh Valley that offer educational services to the local incarcerated population. Namely, the Lehigh Prison Project, a university program that offers student tutoring services to inmates, and Pinebrook Family Answers in Allentown which offers parenting, family, mental health and basic education programs to inmates.

Pinebrook Family Answers works closely with Northampton County Prison and Lehigh County Jail for many of their programs to service local inmates, parolees and formerly incarcerated individuals. The Lead the Trail program features trauma and addiction recovery, job training and individual sessions to help women during their release from prison. Thinking for a Change promotes useful thinking and teaches social and problem-solving skills to incarcerated, parole and probationary individuals. Parenting Inside-Out teaches participants parenting skills, emotion regulation, child safety protocol and effective discipline techniques.

People in prisons are at a serious setback in society, and at least 70% of inmates in local jails are not convicted of any crime, although they are accused of one, as reported by the Prison Policy Initiative.

There are more people who have not been convicted of a crime in American prisons than the total prison population of Iran, Colombia and Saudi Arabia combined.

The Lehigh Prison Project is directed by the university chaplain and professor of religious studies Lloyd Steffen. The program coordinates a tutoring program between Lehigh students and Northampton County Prison to help inmates receive their high school equivalency certificate or GED.

“About three years ago, at least 40 of the inmates who participated in the GED preparatory courses through the prison passed the exam,” Steffen said. “The prison credits much of that success to the Lehigh student tutors.”

The students who participate in the Lehigh Prison Project dedicate themselves to making a change in the community.

“The big thing that we stress in the Prison Project is that you have to make a commitment to it,” Steffen said.

Tori Campbell,’20, is participating in the program and believes that it is critical to help inmates re-enter society.

“Severe conditions will have an impact on their mental health, how they view the world, and their ability to integrate back into society after they return,” Campbell said. “Education opens doors for people. It is an opportunity that will not only help the inmates themselves, but also will have an impact on their communities.”

While incarcerated, and even after release from prison, people rarely have the chance to make up the educational opportunities they missed out on. This lack of education clearly affects the likelihood for formerly incarcerated people to return to prison and their ability to secure jobs.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative report, formerly incarcerated people have a staggering 27% unemployment rate and those with low levels of formal education face even higher unemployment rates.

The report conveys that the hampering effects of low education are particularly felt amongst men and women of color. Out of the formerly incarcerated population, nearly 45% of African-American men who don’t have a high school diploma or GED are unemployed. Women of color face the highest unemployment rates, as 60% of African-American women who don’t have a high school diploma or GED, and nearly half of Hispanic women, are unemployed.

Steffen explains that the Northampton County Prison has close to a 70% recidivism rate, which is not at all atypical. It is very clear that many of these people have been treated unfavorably in society.

“A lot of people who are in the prison haven’t finished high school. They have been educationally disadvantaged for all kinds of reasons… moving around, poverty, bad family situations and everyone has a story,” Steffen said.

At the Lehigh County Jail, and at the Community Corrections Center (CCC), they offer a GED program; English as a Second Language (ESL) for men, diploma program at the jail, and computer literacy at both facilities.

Although the Lehigh County Jail does not work with Lehigh University, the Director of Corrections Janine Donate explained that the CCC partnered with Dr. Kate Richmond and Muhlenberg College for two semesters to make the Inside/Out Prison Exchange class available to approximately 60 people and will soon be facilitated at the Lehigh County Jail as well.

Credits: The Morning Call

The program brings incarcerated individuals and college students together to provide them with a safe space for open dialogue regarding social issues.

“The goal has always been to reach as many inmates and residents as we can to successfully complete the programs they participate in,” Donate said.

Pinebrook Family Answers, located in Allentown, is a nonprofit organization that provides quality services to vulnerable families residing in the Greater Lehigh Valley, particularly former and current inmates.

Dewey Mullis is a social worker and re-entry specialist who helps run the Lead the Trail program. The program extends beyond trauma and addiction recovery, as facilitators teach clients professional skills and help them build their resume so that they can use it when they leave. Funding for these programs typically come in the form of federal, state and local grants. The level of funding fluctuates between programs.

For example, newer programs like Lead the Trail recently received a $1 million federal grant to fund it over three years and is one of only 10 agencies in the country to receive it. In the past, however, other programs suddenly stopped receiving grants altogether.

Alexis Hoke is a group facilitator who runs the Parenting Inside-Out and Thinking for a Change program out of the Lehigh County Jail.

Hoke indicated some level of dissatisfaction with the unreliability of consistent funding which presents an obstacle to nonprofits like Pinebrook.

“Our grants have changed a lot. I used to run relapse prevention, but then it got dropped,” Hoke said. “Thinking for a Change was on a different grant for two years before it got dropped by one grant and picked up by another.”

Mullis expressed a similar sentiment.

“That’s the struggle with jail programming. It is funding,” Mullis said.

Pinebrook Family Answers is contracted through the jails to perform these programs, but since they are grant-funded there is uncertainty as to when those funds will dry up. Most jails rely on volunteers rather than contractors.

Steffen acknowledged that the general civilian population must destigmatize the standard narrative of people with a criminal past in order for society to move forward.

“We need to stop holding a criminal offense against somebody, if in fact they have paid their debt to society,” Steffen said.

In order to build a better future for our nation, we must be willing to allocate essential resources for the rehabilitation of our inmate population and not neglect them. Isn’t the whole purpose of a penitentiary to provide prisoners with the necessary tools to become better versions of themselves?

People do not have perfect pasts nor should we expect them to--- we all have done something that we regretted. For this very reason, the non-incarcerated population must channel a collective will to genuinely understand our brothers and sisters behind bars. We must recognize that we share far more similarities than differences.

All too often we moralize and presuppose that prisoners are inherently more sinister than we are, but we only see one pixel of the picture. We may never know the social, economic, and biochemical preconditions that leads people to commit certain crimes. In fact, there is no way to definitively determine that if we were placed in similar circumstances we wouldn’t resort to the same desperate undertakings. So rather than getting on our soapboxes, we should listen and learn.

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