International Review of Education

, Volume 65, Issue 5, pp 687–709 | Cite as

The Prison Education Project

  • Renford ReeseEmail author
Original Paper


This article briefly compares the prison system in the United States with progressive correctional systems in the world, before pivoting to discuss the lessons learned from the author’s development of the Prison Education Project (PEP). PEP has expanded educational opportunities for inmates in 12 Californian correctional facilities. With the assistance of 800 university student and faculty volunteers, PEP has serviced approximately 5,000 inmates in these facilities since 2011. By providing academic, life skills and career development programming, PEP aims to educate, empower and transform the lives of incarcerated individuals. This article is a summary of the development of PEP, examining programme outcomes and highlighting implementation, fundraising and branding strategies. The robust spirit of volunteerism is also a central component of the discussion, with the phenomenon of “reciprocal reflex” at the heart of the PEP volunteer experience. This reflex ignites the passion and gratitude of both volunteers and inmates. The volunteers learn just as much as they teach, and the inmates teach just as much as they learn. The fact that each group shows deep gratitude to the other for the learning experience creates an exciting symbiotic loop and an esprit de corps which inspires and empowers all involved. The “reciprocal reflex” leads to lifelong learning. This article captures the intricate dynamics of how PEP has evolved into the largest volunteer-based prison education programme of its kind in the United States.


Prison education Lifelong learning Volunteering 


Projet d’éducation en prison – L’article aborde brièvement le système pénitentiaire des États-Unis d’Amérique par rapport aux systèmes carcéraux progressistes de la planète, avant d’approfondir les enseignements tirés lors de la réalisation par l’auteur du projet d’éducation en prison (PEP). Ce dernier a dispensé des mesures éducatives dans 12 structures carcérales de la Californie. Avec le concours de 800 étudiants et professeurs bénévoles, il a desservi depuis 2011 environ 5 000 détenus dans ces structures. À travers des programmes de compétences classiques et pratiques ainsi que de développement de carrière, le projet vise à instruire, à autonomiser et à transformer la vie des citoyens incarcérés. L’article synthétise l’élaboration de ce projet en en présentant les résultats et en détaillant les stratégies de mise en œuvre, de financement et de promotion. L’esprit puissant de volontariat est une autre composante centrale de l’analyse, le phénomène de « réflexe réciproque » se trouvant au cœur de l’expérience de bénévolat. Ce réflexe génère un enthousiasme et un sentiment de gratitude tant chez les bénévoles que chez les détenus. Les premiers apprennent seulement ce qu’ils enseignent, les seconds enseignent seulement ce qu’ils ont appris. Chaque groupe exprime envers l’autre une profonde reconnaissance pour l’expérience d’apprentissage, ce qui engendre un cercle symbiotique stimulant et un esprit de corps qui inspirent et autonomisent toutes les personnes impliquées. Le « réflexe réciproque » mène à l’apprentissage tout au long de la vie. L’article capte la dynamique complexe au cours de l’évolution de ce projet, qui est devenu le programme d’éducation en milieu carcéral porté par des bénévoles le plus vaste de ce type aux États-Unis.


In a 2015 speech at the 106th annual conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), then United States President Barack Obama poignantly stated that the United States (US) holds 5 per cent of the world’s population and 25 per cent of the world’s total prison population (Obama 2015). For the past 30 years, the predominant approach to treating prison inmates in American correctional facilities has been “punishment over rehabilitation”. This philosophy has led the US to have the highest prison population in the world at 716 per 100,000 people (Walmsley 2013). This is vastly above the rates of other countries. According to the UK-based International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS), more than half of the 222 countries and territories in the World Prison Population List have incarceration rates below 150 per 100,000 (Walmsley 2013, cited in Lee 2015).

Looking at a few country examples in the World Prison Population List, we find that Norway, Uganda, Singapore and Scotland seem to have very successful strategies. In stark contrast to the US, the incarceration rate of Norway is just 72 per 100,000 people (Walmsley 2013). Moreover, Norway has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world at 20 per cent (Fabing 2017), while the US has one of the highest recidivism rates in the world. Some 76.6 per cent of formerly incarcerated individuals in the US return to prison within five years (Sterbenz 2014). What makes Norway’s prison system so successful?

Norway’s rehabilitative philosophy revolves around the concept of restorative justice, which means the Norwegian prison authorities aim to repair the harm caused by the crime rather than punish the perpetrators. Restorative justice means rehabilitating inmates. This begins with the aesthetics of the prison facility. In Norway, they try to maintain as much normalcy in the physical environment as possible. There are no bars on the windows, kitchens in inmate quarters are fully equipped with sharp objects, and the guards and inmates maintain friendly relations. For Norway, taking away a person’s freedom is enough punishment (Sterbenz 2014).

At 97 per 100,000 people (Walmsley 2013), the incarceration rate of Uganda also differs starkly from that of the US. In fact, the International Journal of Criminology and Justice ranked the Uganda Prisons Service as the number one prison in the context of rehabilitative services in Africa and the number seven prison in the world (Candia and Lumu 2014). The recidivism rate in Uganda is at 30 per cent (ibid.).

In Uganda, prison administrators regard the prison facility as being a kind of hospital, they see themselves as doctors, and they see the inmates as patients. Their sole objective is to heal their patients. The prison administrators entrust the inmates with the day-to-day rehabilitative programming of the facility, guided by a 30-page constitution drafted by inmates. This system uses robust academic programming, vocational activities and football as forms of rehabilitation (Vice 2016; Goldblatt 2015; Pierce 2016).

At 230 per 100,000 people (Walmsley 2013), the incarceration rate of Singapore is a lot higher than those of Norway and Uganda, but still considerably lower than that of the US. Singapore’s recidivism rate is at 26.5 per cent (SPS 2016). Spearheaded by the Community Action for the Rehabilitation of Ex-Offenders (CARE) in Singapore,1 an initiative called the Yellow Ribbon Project (YRP) was established in 2004 to help formerly incarcerated individuals in the country to successfully reintegrate into society upon their release. This initiative promotes public awareness around the challenges this population faces and community support (Huiwen 2016). According to a senior practitioner involved in this initiative,

A large part of our success came from a lot of public advertising. We developed a message of “please give someone a second chance”. That is a positive way of positioning stigmatization and discrimination. It becomes a case of “everybody at some point in their life needs a second chance”, not necessarily just offenders. Maybe the offender will need it the most. Everyone can give second chances (YRP 2017).

In 2012, I was invited by the Singapore Prison Service (SPS) to observe the Yellow Ribbon Project. I was impressed with their advocacy and campaign to educate the public about giving their formerly incarcerated population second chances. I toured Singapore’s main prison facility and I was amazed by the “feel” of the physical environment. It reflected humanity and warmth.

In fact, many of the transformative prison systems in the world have created humane and aesthetically amenable environments for transformation to take place. The ecology of these physical environments is conducive to learning, self-reflection and growth.

Scotland (incarceration rate 147 per 100,000 people [Walmsley 2013]; recidivism 28.2 per cent [Davidson 2017]), has built its prison facilities prioritising rehabilitation. The facilities are open, nicely furnished and warm. Inmates are given 40 hours per week of purposeful activity, which is aimed at developing job skills and preparing them for successful re-entry upon their release (Freeman 2012).

There is a lot the US could learn from other prison systems in the world. While two of the examples discussed above are in Africa and Asia respectively, the other two (Norway and Scotland) are in Europe. Christopher Moraff, a journalist whose special interest is in the intersection of policing, criminal justice, drug policy and civil liberties, asks, “Can Europe offer the US a model for prison reform?” (Moraff 2014). Other countries have embraced “rehabilitation over punishment” (i.e. the opposite of the US approach), and by comparison to the US, their societies are better off because of this correctional philosophy.

Moraff (ibid.) cites Rick Raemisch, executive director of Colorado’s Department of Corrections, who stated that “There’s a reason it’s called corrections and not punishment. Punishment doesn’t work”. Despite this candid observation, for three decades, US policymakers have embraced such laws as mandatory minimum sentencing2 and hyper-punitive drug laws, and they have added new classes of felony offences (Moraff 2014).

United States Senator Jim Webb, in an online article entitled “Why we must fix our prisons”, observes that

America’s criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace. Its irregularities and inequities cut against the notion that we are a society founded on fundamental fairness. Our failure to address this problem has caused the nation’s prisons to burst their seams with massive overcrowding, even as our neighborhoods have become more dangerous. We are wasting billions of dollars and diminishing millions of lives (Webb 2009).

While some argue that policymakers are to blame for the exponential rise in incarceration in the US, political scientist Peter Enns blames the American public for its push for more punitiveness. It is this “tough on crime” fervour which has led to the prolific expansion of the PrisonIndustrial Complex (Enns 2014).3

The “war on drugs” that was enthusiastically embraced by United States Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan4 led to the increase of incarceration rates in the US from 50,000 in 1980 to 400,000 in 1997 (Gunn 2016). “The war on drugs … included dramatically increasing the size and presence of federal drug control agencies and pushing through measures such as mandatory sentencing” (ibid.).

Another brick in the road which led to a substantial increase in the prison population in the US is the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (USDoJ 1994). This law gave states billions of dollars to build new prisons and hire more police. It included the “Three strikes and ýou’re out law” (CSL 1994), which stated that if a person got convicted of three serious crimes, he or she would have to be imprisoned for 25-years-to-life. A mandatory minimum sentencing requirement was also implemented. The “Pell Grant programme”,5 which gave inmates financial aid to pay for college, was eliminated in 1994. As a result of these “tough on crime” policies, many correctional education and rehabilitative programmes for inmates were cut (Messemer 2003).

In short, there is a lot to fix, and some viable ideas for reducing recidivism (and federal expenses) have already emerged. Over the past five years in the United States, there has been a seismic shift in the way policymakers discuss criminal justice. The subject has become an apolitical issue. Both liberals and conservatives agree that reform is necessary. Fiscal realities that were exacerbated during the economic crisis of 2008–2012 compelled pro-punishment conservatives to find ways to cut costs to state and federal budgets. Criminologists Todd Clear and Natasha Frost argue that the Republicans’ abandonment of the “punishment first” model marked “the beginning of the end of the punishment imperative” (Clear and Frost 2014).

Policymakers have now come to realise that education is more cost-effective and sensible than incarceration. A number of studies have been conducted to buttress this assumption.

Among this body of research is a five-year follow-up study (2005–2009) of 6,561 offenders who were released from the Indiana Department of Corrections. It examined post-release employment and recidivism rates among this target population (Lockwood et al. 2012). The results of this study revealed that an offender’s education and employment were the most important determinants on whether they recidivated. Those who had not completed high school were susceptible to recidivism. Younger offenders were also likely to become recidivist offenders. The study found that the recidivism rate for those who had a college education was 31 per cent, while the recidivism rate for those had below high school education was 55.9 per cent (Lockwood et al. 2012).

An earlier study, conducted by Jurg Gerber and Eric Fritsch (1995), found that vocational and adult education lead to fewer disciplinary incidents during incarceration and to reductions in recidivism; furthermore, they increase employment opportunities, and increase participation in education upon release.

Moreover, in a letter to the Indiana Daily Student, Shannon Gunn (2016) states that there is an array of “rehabilitative approaches” for policymakers in dealing with individuals involved in criminal justice. These options, “all based on the individual’s particular situation”, include “substance abuse treatment, drug court supervision, probation and community correctional programs” (ibid.). “It is time for us”, Gunn concludes, “to take a rehabilitative and health-based approach rather than excessively punitive measures that have no proof of truly addressing the problem” (ibid.).

More than 650,000 inmates are released from federal prisons in the United States each year, and two-thirds of those released will likely be rearrested within three years of being released (USDoJ 2017). A Rand Corporation study funded by the US Department of Justice (Davis et al. 2014) studied data from thousands of in-prison programmes nationwide and found that inmates who participated in educational or vocational training during their incarceration are 43 per cent less likely to recidivate once they are released from prison than inmates who did not engage in learning/training activities. The study also showed that providing correctional education could be cost-effective when it resulted in a reduction of recidivism (Davis et al. 2014; Palta 2013). Inspired by these research findings, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) launched a project in 2011 which embraced a progressive and innovative approach to supplementing and expanding educational opportunities for inmates. This project is discussed in detail below.

The prison education project

The prison education project (PEP) is the largest volunteer-based prison education programme of its kind in the United States. It was developed by a team which included five prison administrators from the California Institution for Men in Chino, a representative of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Assistant Superintendent for Correctional Education, the Dean of the College of Education and Integrative Studies at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona, and myself. This team met for a brainstorming session in September 2011. I was the founder of the concept and the coordinator of the first group meeting. Meanwhile, PEP has expanded educational opportunities for inmates in 12 Californian correctional facilities. With the assistance of 800 university student and academic volunteers, PEP has serviced approximately 5,000 inmates in these facilities since 2011.6 By providing academic, life skills and career development programming, PEP aims to educate, empower and transform the lives of incarcerated individuals.

PEP was introduced when two California Institution for Men (CIM) facilities transitioned from being reception centres, focused on short-term intake and evaluation of newly incarcerated inmates, to general population programming facilities.7 This change created an additional need for educational programming in both of these facilities at a time of significant reductions in educational resources in Californian correctional institutions. PEP helped fill the gap between resources and need, while creating a benefit to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the inmates, the college student volunteers, and ultimately Californian communities.

It all began on 1 November 2011, when I teamed up with the Office of Correctional Education (OCE) and CIM to complement the academic services and educational programming for inmates. Since there is a community college and/or a university within a 30-mile radius of the majority of the prisons in California, the overarching idea was to use existing educational resources in the immediate neighbourhoods of the state’s 35 prisons to effect change. The envisaged PEP programme was to be interactive and dynamic, starting with support from students from my own university, Cal Poly Pomona (CPP), who would be serving as volunteers in three different areas.

One group of students would give academic orientation presentations in which they would speak about their majors and college life. A second group of volunteers, primarily students from the liberal arts and teaching programmes, would go into CIM and offer tutoring in maths and literacy. The third group would be graduate students who would work with the prison’s pre-release programme designed for inmates who would be released within the next six months or less. The third group would work with the inmates in career development modules, such as résumé building and job interview training.

CPP student volunteers signed up and attended a number of mandatory orientation meetings guided by myself and a personal relations representative from one of the prisons. By the end of October 2011, 40 CPP student volunteers made their first visit to CIP. Volunteers are split up into groups of about four people, and each group visits the prison once a week.

The broad goal of PEP is to create a “prison-to-school pipeline” and provide inmate-students with the cognitive tools necessary to function as productive citizens, which in the long term will also translate into a reduction of recidivism, and thus to substantial cost saving. In other words, collaboration with local colleges is assisting the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in reducing both recidivism and public spending. For each percentage point that recidivism is lowered, the state of California saves USD 36.6 million.

Working within the box instead of thinking outside the box: challenges we came up against

In popular discourse, in business, the public sector or in academia, individuals are encouraged by their managers, supervisors and mentors to “think outside the box”. However, I have come to realise that this advice is somewhat flawed, because we live and work within systems e.g., boxes. In order to make substantive changes to organisations and systems, it is in fact necessary to work within the box. Working outside the box keeps one outside the box. Moreover, working outside of the system more often than not results in organisational repercussions. The goal should be to push the boundaries of the box outwards from the inside, thereby ending up in the same place as if one had started outside the box. I have learned this lesson the hard way as a result of working with university administrators and prison administrators. The university and the prison are both systems (boxes) with their own unique standard operating procedures. It is naïve to ignore the calcified structures of these systems. Working outside the box almost guarantees implementation failure.

The most formidable challenge in running a prison education programme is finding a way to get the corrections administrators onto your team. Even with a supportive warden, if other correctional administrators do not believe in what you are doing, you will find it difficult to implement the programme, and its effectiveness will be thwarted. They do not have to be supportive as long as they are not oppositional. The other support you need is that of the educational staff. If the teachers in the facility think that your presence threatens their job, then the programme will also be difficult to implement.

When we began running our first PEP sessions at the CIM in 2011, the warden and the top administrators were excited to have us come in. However, they did not transmit their enthusiasm to their staff. They did not have a meeting with the correctional officers to let them know that PEP was to be made a priority. Hence, the officers at the front gate were adversarial towards the group of university students coming in. These officers would often have our volunteers waiting outside the gate for 30–45 min. By the time the volunteers arrived in the classroom with the inmates, they would only have 45 min or so left to teach, because their teaching time had been minimised by the wait. This made the process cumbersome for the volunteers, which caused attrition.

Another problem we had initially was with correctional officers being negative towards the concept of rehabilitation. For example, one correctional officer would say, “Why are you guys here? These are criminals in here and they will never change.” Some 80 per cent of PEP volunteers are female and the correctional officers would tell them that the only reason inmates were coming to their session was to undress them with their eyes. On the “special needs yard”,8 correctional officers would remind the volunteers that they were reaching out to rapists and paedophiles. All of these comments were an attempt to discourage the volunteers from coming into the facility. However, as the programme has shown consistency and effectiveness, correctional officers have become more positive towards volunteers and the inmates involved in the programme.

Today, our implementation philosophy is that we will only bring PEP to facilities that want the programme. It is too difficult to implement a programme in a correctional facility if there is no internal desire for it.

The prisons are prime examples of how the top-down approach to programme implementation is ineffective. The warden can emphatically state that he or she wants PEP, but if there is no buy-in from the principal, the education staff, the community resource manager, and at least a handful of correctional officers, it will not happen. PEP only thrives in facilities that have the support of these entities.

Another significant challenge of working in the prisons is the unpredictability of situations from day to day. There could be lockdowns and changes made to processes for a number of reasons. For example, we transformed a vacant dorm at CIM into a dynamic learning environment for the inmates. Our philosophy was that in order for people to learn, they need learning spaces which are aesthetically amenable to learning. In this spirit, PEP bought acoustical room dividers for this learning space, which compartmentalised the space into six learning areas. We bought bookshelves for the 600 books we donated to the facility. We bought silk palm trees and two leather couches and coffee tables for a study lounge area. The inmates and staff thoroughly enjoyed coming to this learning space, but unfortunately nine months after creating this space it was turned back into a dorm. The items were eventually donated to the California Institution for Women (CIW).

At the outset of the programme, there were also university-related challenges. My university was fearful of the liability issues that came with students volunteering inside a prison. Our Risk Management department and the university administrators were risk-averse and did not wholeheartedly support our endeavour. In fact, my programme coordinator for PEP was a felon. The university wanted me to dismiss him because he was a sex offender. It did not make any difference that his crime had taken place 16 years before the day that I hired him. Nevertheless, I met with him and told him that the university would be taking him off their payroll, but that he could still volunteer with PEP. I told him that he would have to fully disclose his offence to the volunteers and that his role would be limited to taking the volunteers inside the prison. The university still did not want him associated with the programme – even with his candour in disclosing his offence to volunteers, who still had the option of not participating in the programme. None of these issues moved the university’s administration. It was at this point that I transitioned the programme from my university to be run under the auspices of a local non-profit organisation.

Programme activities

There are two 7-week PEP semesters during the year: Fall and Spring. The Fall Semester begins in October and the Spring Semester begins in February. At the beginning of each PEP semester, there is a mandatory orientation session for new volunteers, followed by mandatory training conducted by a Community Resource Manager from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Volunteers complete applications for clearance during this training session, and then embark on teaching within the following four thematic courses of the programme:
  1. 1.

    Academic Orientation course: Student volunteers give Academic Orientation presentations to expose inmate-students to college (e.g., majors, classes, college life, careers, etc.).

  2. 2.

    Career Development course: Graduate students and community volunteers with significant work experience conduct Career Development workshops on résumé-building, job searching and interview skills for inmates.

  3. 3.

    Interdisciplinary course: University professors and graduate students teach interdisciplinary modules such as: “Introduction to Psychology”, “Introduction to Communication”, “Introduction to Philosophy” and “Introduction to Wellness”.

  4. 4.

    Enrichment course: This includes modules in Art, Creative Writing, Spoken Word, Forgiveness & Healing and Yoga & Meditation.



According to functionalist theory,9 people volunteer because the act of volunteering fulfils various psychological functions. While people’s rationale for volunteerism appears the same for everyone on the surface, there are in fact various motivating factors that cause people to volunteer. Moreover, as Gil Clary and Mark Snyder found in their research, about two-thirds of volunteers have two or more important motives for volunteering. The five most prominent motives which have been identified in volunteerism literature are: value-expression; career; understanding; social enhancement; and ego enhancement. These motives fall into the two categories of being either self-oriented or other-oriented (Clary and Snyder 1999).

PEP volunteers invest their time, and share their personal experiences and knowledge. Volunteers expose inmates to substantive content which allows the inmates to transform their lives. Each volunteer commits to one 90-minute session per week for seven weeks. Volunteers visit correctional facilities and give Academic Orientation presentations, Career Development workshops, or tutor inmates to help them prepare to pass the General Education Development test.10 Unlike other prison education programmes that have one instructor who teaches inmates, PEP is forum-based. The majority of our modules are taught in groups. This approach allows us to expand the impact of the experience to more volunteers.

We believe that in order to sustain a movement, it needs advocates, which is why 50 per cent of the emphasis of PEP is geared towards the inmate experience and 50 per cent of the emphasis is geared towards the volunteer experience. Ultimately, the volunteers will one day become policymakers, teachers, district attorneys, business owners, correctional officers and police officers. If we can make this experience transformative for them, perhaps they will become more empathetic and open-minded. We want our volunteers to be passionate advocates of the inmates and our movement. Disproving all the talk of millennials11 being apathetic, our student volunteers are serious and committed to teaching and transforming the lives of inmate-students. Our volunteers do not get credit for volunteering in the prisons. They volunteer because they have a strong desire to be involved in a cause that is substantive and meaningful. The PEP volunteer motto is that “We have a commitment to commitment.”

We believe that volunteerism thrives when there are meaningful nonmonetary incentives of the work. Volunteerism also thrives when there is reciprocity – e.g., when the volunteers get back just as much as they give. Indeed, reciprocity is one of the most important elements of the volunteer experience. The “reciprocal reflex” is palpable in each meaningful volunteer experience. The clients (inmate-students) are visibly moved by the experience. They express gratitude for the outreach efforts. The volunteers express gratitude for the gratitude. The “reciprocal reflex” enables the volunteer experience to be rewarding, fulfilling and meaningful.

The “reciprocal reflex” is dynamic with PEP, because the volunteers get instant feedback on how much they are valued. This is manifested in the intense attention given to the volunteers by the inmates during the volunteers’ presentations. This can also be seen in the animated gratitude the inmates show towards the volunteers after each academic session.

In the end, it is not the presentation of content that makes the experience rewarding and life-changing. It is the reciprocal behaviour that creates an extraordinary experience in which the volunteers and the inmates motivate each other. The “reciprocal reflex” leads to lifelong learning for all involved.

Programme outcomes

Joseph Durlak and Emily DuPre (2008) argue that one must assess the impact of implementation on programme outcomes. They go on to state that implementation is an important element of programme evaluation, and that more research is needed to evaluate the impact of implementation factors in different community settings (ibid.).

During the Spring semester 2016, a one-question multiple-choice questionnaire was handed out to 64 PEP volunteers volunteering at six correctional facilities in California. The purpose of this survey was to gauge the primary motivating force of these volunteers. The question was “What is your motivation for volunteering with PEP?” Among the four answers to choose from, one was “other-regarding” (To inspire others) and three were “self-regarding”(Because I was curious about the experience; To develop leadership skills; and To learn about myself).

The results of this survey (see Figure 1) reveal that the majority of PEP volunteers (54 out of 64) were motivated to volunteer for an “other-regarding” reason – they wanted to inspire others, while only 10 volunteers selected self-regarding reasons for volunteering with PEP.
Figure 1

Results of survey to gauge PEP volunteers’ primary motivating force

Many PEP volunteers come from working-class backgrounds, and many of them have someone in their immediate or extended families who has been entangled in the criminal justice system. Consequently, they have a deeper empathy for inmates and want to reach out to inspire and empower them.

We surmise that the reason why 75 per cent of PEP volunteers only volunteer for one PEP semester lies in the intensity and completeness of the experience. This type of short-term volunteer commitment could be problematic for some organisations, but it works for PEP, because each semester we have over 100 new student volunteers eager to sign up for the programme. For almost all of our volunteers, the experience is transformative and life-changing. Moreover, despite the scarcity of PEP volunteers who volunteer for more than one semester, PEP is successful because of the wholehearted commitment of these short-term volunteers.

Assessing the impact

To gauge the impact of this initiative on inmates, we use a qualitative post-programme self-assessment which is handed out at the end of the last session of a course module. The questionnaire is designed to capture whether the inmate participants felt that the module was impactful. The form contains five questions on a Likert-type scale which ask what the inmates thought about the impact of the courses and whether they thought the courses would help them when they paroled. At the end of each one-year cycle we host focus groups with inmates who participated in the programme to discuss the programme’s impact. We also host a focus group with the correctional officers, the captains,12 the principal and the community resource manager to evaluate whether the programme had an impact on inmate behaviour.

All volunteers in the programme are required to submit a 3-sentence “session report” electronically to the PEP administration after each session. Through these “session reports” we can gauge the effectiveness of each class. If there are problems, this internal assessment mechanism allows us to make real-time modifications in a particular course. At the end of each semester, volunteers are required to give their overall assessment of their experience. This gives us substantive information on what worked and what did not work. It also gives us the appropriate content to make adjustments in future courses.

By evaluating the programme’s impact from the perspective of the inmates, facility staff and the volunteers, we are able to triangulate our methodology and get a more comprehensive understanding of the programme’s effectiveness.

Using data we collected for one PEP Spring semester (PEP 2016) from four courses: Academic Orientation (Figure 2), Career Development (Figure 3), Forgiveness & Healing (Figure 4) and Yoga & Meditation (Figure 5), I will now present a snapshot evaluation. The results are combined from four correctional facilities where the respective course was taught during this cycle: The California Rehabilitation Center (CRC), the California Institution for Women (CIW), the California Institution for Men (CIM) and the Santa Fe Springs Custody-to-Community Women’s Facility.
Figure 2

PEP Academic Orientation course evaluation (PEP 2016)

Figure 3

PEP Career Development course evaluation (PEP 2016)

Figure 4

PEP Enrichment course, Forgiveness & Healing module evaluation (PEP 2016)

Figure 5

PEP Enrichment course, Yoga & Meditation module evaluation (PEP 2016)

There were approximately 500 in-custody students taking classes in 10 different courses during this cycle. The results represent a sample from the courses taught and reflect PEP’s holistic approach to human development.

Inmate-student post-programme narrative assessment

The “Academic Orientation” course

In the context of the “Academic Orientation” course, our objective is to expose the inmate-students to an array of disciplines in the academic world. Many of the inmates have never heard of majors such as Manufacturing Engineering, Computer Information Systems, Ornamental Horticulture, Neuroscience, etc. PEP’s goal is to introduce these disciplines to inmate-students in the hope that they might pursue one of these areas when they are released from prison. The university student volunteers have a youthful energy and a contagious excitement about their majors and love discussing them with the inmate-students. This type of enthusiasm is reflected in the following statement by an inmate-student: “I enjoyed being inspired by the students and their passion for their studies” (PEP 2016, p. 4).

Other statements demonstrating inmate-students’ experience of the Academic Orientation course are:
  • “I think it’s highly informative for those who are serious about attending college or obtaining a Master’s. It was inspiring to never quit and keep striving” (ibid.).

  • “This motivated me to pursue a higher education upon my release. The research on the field that I want to pursue was very useful. Thank you for your time and energy” (ibid.).

  • “I thought it was very motivating. All the PEP students/volunteers are awesome and very helpful. I can’t wait to parole and receive my G.E.D.,13 then continue college. Thank you. I’m very excited” (ibid.).

  • “This class was interesting. The activities were fun and the environment was great thank you for sharing” (ibid.).

The “Career Development” course

The “Career Development” course is geared towards inmates who have two years or less before they are released from prison. This course is broken into five modules. In Module I, we administer the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) self-assessment14 to inmate-students, which is designed to measure psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions (Myers & Briggs Foundation 2017).

We interpret the results with the inmate-students, and after understanding the job environments for which participants are best suited, we proceed to explore their interests in Module II. Utilising the Strong Interest Inventory (SII),15 purpose-designed for making career choices, in combination with the MBTI allows participants to make connections between how their personality fits into careers of interest or why some interests are not suited for certain jobs (Holland 1973).

Module III consists of the Career Values Card Sort by Richard Knowdell (2017a, 2017b). It is a user-friendly tool that allows the participants to prioritise values in a short timeframe. It consists of a deck of printed cards bearing terms such as “time freedom”, “profit/gain” or “precision work”, which inmates are asked to sort according to certain priorities, ranging from, for example, “always valued” to “never valued”. This assessment activity is designed for “‘test-shy’ individuals who have not been very successful in school settings. Instead of seeing the sorting process as ‘a test that I will probably fail’, they view Card Sorts as a ‘game’ that is fun rather than threatening” (Knowdell 2017a).

Module IV of the Career Development course discusses résumé preparation. We incorporate an interactive workshop and study guides in which the participants are required to develop a rough draft of their résumé. We review their résumés individually and provide detailed feedback for improvement.

The interviewing module, Module V, includes an interactive lecture and a mock interview. The latter requires the participants to role play with their peers and provide a peer evaluation of their interviewing skills.

Here are a number of inmate-student statements reflecting their experience of the Career Development course (PEP 2016, pp. 4–5):
  • “The facilitators were very encouraging, and they brought in a lot of great information. The course was very beneficial, and it gave me a better perspective on education. I really gained a lot of knowledge, and I would love to stay associated with PEP to help further my education.”

  • “They did an excellent job giving practical advice about interviewing and résumé building.”

  • “This course has helped me in so many ways. I have been locked up since 1996, so I learned a lot of good information that will help me get a job and hopefully a career in the future.”

  • “This class really helped me to understand what I will need to have when I parole. I will use the tools I got from this class to successfully reintegrate back into my community.”

  • “This class really helped me to gain skills and the confidence to go out and successfully do an interview and answer questions about my background.”

The “Forgiveness & Healing” module

The “Forgiveness & Healing” module, part of the “Enrichment” course, is one of the most important PEP features, adressing inmates’ need for tools that allow them to take responsibility for their actions and to forgive and heal. The content of this module consists of the following themes: “What is forgiveness? Why forgive? How do people forgive?”; “Sharing Stories of Pain”; “The Power of Humility; Accepting Blame; Second Chances”, “The Power of Love; Forgiveness vs. Condoning”; “Strategies for Anger & Stress Management”; and “Writing as Therapy”.

Forgiveness is one of the most challenging acts for humans to undertake. Inmates have victimised others and have also been victims themselves. A substantial number of inmates have been emotionally and/or physically abused as children. They have also been betrayed by family members, friends and fellow gang members. These variables make forgiveness difficult for them, which is reflected in one inmate-student’s comment:

“It is hard to accept the fact that I’m ready to forgive this person, but I’m willing to try harder. Deep inside of me I’m willing to do it” (PEP 2016, p. 5).

Our sessions help inmates begin this difficult process. Here are some other inmates’ experiences of this module (PEP 2016, p. 5):
  • “I learned how to forgive and let go and let God handle the situation” (ibid.).

  • “Forgiving is a must in order for the healing process to begin for yourself. Period point blank” (ibid.).

  • “This was very good. So many students made this class more impersonal. A smaller group would be better. Thank you very much!” (ibid.)

  • “It was very helpful and informative. It also helped me forgive people in my life and it has allowed old wounds to heal … We want more! Thank you” (ibid.).

The “Yoga & Meditation” module

“Yoga & Meditation” is a therapeutic module which is also part of the Enrichment course; it gives the inmate-students a practical way to manage their stress and anger. Beyond the impactful breathing and stretching exercises, this session focuses on meditation, introspection, reflection and gratitude.

Many inmates ended up in prison because they had no impulse control. The “Yoga and Meditation” session gives them the capacity to have agency and control of their behaviour. One inmate-student’s comment reflects the impact of this session on their self-awareness and self-control:

“Just Wow! Wonderful class for body, mind, soul, spirit. I have learned more self-control of how to embrace peace, calm, serenity and non-violence towards myself and others in my whole being!” (PEP 2016, p. 5)

Other statements demonstrating inmate-students’ experience of the Yoga & Meditaion module are:
  • “Very motivating – spiritual – peaceful; I learned calmness, serenity and awareness of self” (ibid.).

  • “This class changed my life. I am at peace. This is something I never thought would have an awesome impact on my life!” (ibid.).

  • “As I shared in class, yoga has taught me how to let go and take time for myself. The breathing and meditation are amazing and the discipline is amazing. My body feels better, my mind and heart feel better. Will take again. Billy is awesome, so thankful my first try at yoga and meditation was with him as my instructor” (ibid.).

  • “Oh my God! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I feel so empowered to be healthy minded, healthy speaking and living – much love for your time. Thank you, Billy. Namaste” (ibid.).

Research limitations

The outcome data reflect the overwhelming impact that PEP volunteers have on educating, inspiring and empowering in-custody students. In the scholarly universe, there is always a need to be critical of data – there is a desire to highlight the limitations of one’s methodology. There is one prominent research limitation in our survey results and that is self-selection bias. It was not mandated that the in-custody population sign up for PEP classes – this was optional. Inherent in making PEP courses non-mandatory, there is a lack of randomisation and a tendency for inmates who already want to educate and transform themselves to skew the results. Hence, one fundamental methodological question is whether the above data would have been the same if PEP courses were compulsory for all prison inmates.

Moreover, because there has been a lack of robust academic and career development programming in many of the correctional facilities participating in PEP, our data could be skewed because inmates are just pleased to have any type of programme, irrespective of the quality and delivery of the content. This perspective represents a critical alternative explanation to the above data.

The Reintegration Academy

PEP has established an inside-outside approach to rehabilitating inmates and parolees. Once inmates are released, they have the opportunity to participate in PEP’s 10-week Reintegration Academy,16 which is hosted on a college campus each spring. Participants are immersed in academic, life skills and career development modules. On the first day of the programme, each participant receives a meal card, a voucher for transportation, and a voucher to purchase business casual clothes. In the fifth week, each participant receives a free laptop computer. In the sixth week, participants are registered at a community college and are assisted with completing financial aid forms.

Our vocational education focus includes the following felony-friendly fields: Aviation Maintenance, Graph Arts, Computer Technology, Horticulture, Electronics, Welding, and Culinary Arts. During the ninth week, the programme hosts a job fair for the participants – inviting 25 local employers to meet, greet and interview participants. At the graduation banquet, each participant receives a certificate of completion. Thus, PEP’s inside-out approach helps to create a “prison-to-school pipeline”.


The US can learn from humanistic prison systems throughout the world. There is one common denominator in the correctional systems of Norway, Uganda, Singapore and Scotland. All of these systems believe that individuals deserve second chances and that rehabilitation is more rational than punishment. Progressive prison systems create aesthetically warm physical environments which enable inmates to reflect, learn and evolve.

In the absence of wholesome physical environments in Californian prisons, PEP uses words to inspire and empower inmates. Words are the most powerful way in which we can transform the internal human condition – the way we feel about ourselves – e.g., our self-esteem and confidence. It takes money and resources to transform the external human condition. But, in the absence of money and resources, we still have the agency to educate, empower, enlighten and inspire through the simple use of words. If we doubt the transformative power of words, we should ask ourselves how we feel when someone says to us: “Great job!”; “Hang in there”; “Be careful”; “Stay safe”; “Things will be okay”; “You’re awesome”; “I’m proud of you”; or “I love you”.

For people who have been damaged by words, words can also be used to heal and comfort. And the beautiful thing about words is that they are free. We all have access to them. Take a 12-year-old in the inner city who is being raised in poverty. He has low self-esteem. He is angry and insecure. He is the product of yelling, cussing, fussing and people constantly telling him that he will never amount to anything. Although the people yelling at this 12-year-old may not have money or adequate resources in their community, all of them have the capacity to empower this youth through the words that they use with him. And these words can transform him into being more confident, more inspired, and more hopeful about his future.

With the Prison Education Project, we use weekly “PEP-talks” via e-mails to let volunteers know that they are valued. We remind them that they are transforming lives in each of their sessions. The goal of the PEP-talks is to motivate and inspire volunteers to motivate and inspire the inmates.

In prisons where volunteers do not have access to an overhead projector, PowerPoint presentations, or the Internet, they have their words. And it is these words that have the extraordinary potential to enlighten the inmates. Beyond the academic content presented by the volunteers, it is the power of other exchanges that inspires inmates. When the volunteers say to the inmates: “How are you doing?”; “We’re glad to be back”; “Good question”, “Great question”; “This was another great session. We look forward to coming back next week”; or “This class is amazing”; and when the volunteers hear from the inmates: “Thank you”; “Thank you so much”; “We really appreciate what you are doing for us”; “We are learning so much from you”; or “You volunteers are amazing”, these statements validate the inmates and the volunteers in a priceless way. This is an example of how words help to create an exciting and dynamic learning environment that is based on reciprocity.

In thinking about ways to motivate and empower staff, volunteers and clients with limited resources, it is important for leaders to think about the importance of words. If they are used in a careful and thoughtful way, these words can do what money cannot do, which is transform the spirit and soul of the people around us.

The common denominator with the in-custody populations in the US and around the world is their lack of education. The lack of education within this population has led to serious societal consequences. The person who drops out of school in sixth grade has few options in American society – so he or she will potentially wind up in prison. The person who cannot read is perpetually embarrassed and frustrated in American society – this frustration eventually will potentially lead him or her to prison. US jails, prisons and juvenile halls are filled with an uneducated and angry population. Part of this anger stems from their lack of education and their lack of options in life.

In many cases, someone gave up on them at a very early age. Their parents did not emphasise the importance of education, and their elementary school teachers either did not care or saw them as casualties of their communities from the start – doomed to fail. The inmate who dropped out of school in sixth grade and can barely read needs education. The parolee who has just been released from prison but has no skills needs education. The youth who has been abused as a child, sent to multiple foster homes, and eventually winds up in a gang needs an alternative; he or she needs education.

Inside the prison, we meet the inmates at their own academic level. If they need to learn how to read, we help them. If they need help with maths, we tutor them. If they desire to pass the high school equivalence test, we will help them pass this exam. If they are Spanish-speaking, we work with them on learning English. In our Career Development sessions, we expose inmates to vocational education opportunities.

And when the parolees are released from prison, and probationers are released from the county jail, we use the community college as our transformative system. It is the community college that can transform the lives of this disenfranchised population and help to make their dreams come true. It is at the community college that one can become a nurse, an x-ray technician, an air traffic controller, an electrician, a welder, etc.

Progressive correctional systems around the world embrace education as a tool for transformation. One cannot discuss the rehabilitation of inmates and the reintegration of parolees and probationers without talking about education. The Prison Education Project’s motto is “Education is Liberation” – inside and outside the prison walls. There is no light in the darkness of these lives without it. Education is the centrepiece of all human transformation – there is no hope and there are no dreams without it.


  1. 1.

    For more information on CARE, see [accessed 22 November 2017].

  2. 2.

    “Mandatory minimum sentencing laws require prison terms of a particular length for people convicted of certain federal and state crimes. They are inflexible and prevent judges from using their discretion” (Gunn 2016).

  3. 3.

    PrisonIndustrial Complex (PIC) is a term used to describe the interlocking of government and corporate interests in the rapid expansion of prisons in the United States.

  4. 4.

    Richard Nixon served as 37th President of the United States 1969–1974; Ronald Reagan served as 40th President of the United States 1981–1989.

  5. 5.

    Originally (up to 1980) known as the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant, the Pell Grant programme is named after US Senator Clairborne Pell (1918–2009). He was instrumental in creating the grant in 1973 and one of its main sponsors.

  6. 6.

    The project has its own website at [accessed 23 November 2017].

  7. 7.

    A general population programming facility is a facility where inmates serve their time without special protections or treatment. By contrast, a special needs facility, for instance, houses inmates who need protective custody, e.g. convicted police officers, celebrities, gang dropouts, rapists, child molesters and homosexuals.

  8. 8.

    As explained in the previous footnote, a special needs yard is a protective custody area where ex-gang members, high notoriety inmates (celebrities etc.), sex offenders, mentally impaired inmates and old and infirm prisoners are accommodated.

  9. 9.

    Functionalist theory considers society to be a system of interconnected parts which work together harmoniously to maintain a balance of the whole.

  10. 10.

    In The US, compulsory school attendance varies by state. In general, pupils complete elementary (primary) school at the end of grade 6 at about age 12; middle or junior high school at the end of grade 8 when they are about 14 years old; and senior high (secondary) school at the end of grade 12 at about age 18. Individuals who have dropped out of high school can take the General Education Development (GED) exam. If they pass the exam, they receive a diploma, which is equivalent to a high school diploma.

  11. 11.

    A millennial is a person born between 1980 and 2000.

  12. 12.

    A prison captain is a senior-level supervisor.

  13. 13.

    The General Education Development (GED) test; for an explanation, see footnote 10.

  14. 14.

    “The purpose of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) personality inventory is to make the theory of psychological types described by C. G. Jung understandable and useful in people's lives. The essence of the theory is that much seemingly random variation in the behavior is actually quite orderly and consistent, being due to basic differences in the ways individuals prefer to use their perception and judgment” (Myers & Briggs Foundation 2017).

  15. 15.

    The Strong Interest Inventory (SII) was initially developed in 1927 by psychologist Edward Kellog Strong, Jr. to help people leaving military employment in finding new jobs suited to their inclinations (Strong 1927). In the 1960s, the Inventory was revised by David Campbell (1966). The modern version is based on psychologist John Holland’s “typology of six personality types, six corresponding occupational environments, and their interactions” (Holland 1980).

  16. 16.

    For more information about PEP’s Reintegration Academy, see [accessed 3 December 2017].


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature, and UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Political Science DepartmentCal Poly Pomona UniversityPomonaUSA

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