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Compendium 2000 on Effective Correctional Programming

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Education Programming for Offenders


We live in an age of globalization, restructuring, and rapid technological change. As a result, institutions such as government, corporations, and institutions of higher learning are adapting new roles, new responsibilities, and new relationships (Wilson, 1992). How do civilized and just nations expect to maintain prosperity and safety if many of its illiterate and poor are frequently under correctional control?

There is often concern about correctional populations, yet correctional outcomes are often overlooked. Compelling evidence is offered which shows that controlling crime through education may be an effective and economical method of reducing recidivism rates. Phrased differently, education may be one means of improving reintegration potential of offenders. This chapter examines education as one method of preparing an offender to step back into his or her community with a renewed sense of self image, pride through the accomplishment, and a plan to stay clear from one of the simulators of criminal activity -- unemployment. The argument will be made that one of the least expensive yet most effective methods of crime control (reducing recidivism) is through the education of offenders.


A one-day snapshot of prisoners in Canada's correctional facilities shows that at midnight on October 5, 1996 there were 23,679 prisoners in Provincial and territorial prisons and 13,862 in Federal prisons or a total of 37,541 prisoners (Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics [CCJS], 1999a). Prisoners in Provincial custody serve an average of 31 days and federal custody prisoners serve an average of 44 months (Boe, Motiuk, & Muirhead, 1998). In 1995-96, 114,562 offenders passed through Provincial and territorial prisons and 4,402 offenders passed through federal institutions (CCJS, 1999b). Thus, a high percentage of the Canadian population is exposed to the criminal justice system or more specifically, 151 per 100,000 of the adult population. Canada has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the developed world, second to the United States. This represents an unusual opportunity to help educate a population who otherwise may not see education as a positive experience.

Offenders admitted into the custody of the Correctional Service of Canada typically rank among Canada's most poorly educated citizens. Nearly two out of three offenders (64%) have not completed their high school diploma, of which 30% have not even completed Grade 8. In 1993/1994, 70% of newly admitted offenders tested below the Grade-8 literacy equivalency while more than four in five new inmates (86%) scored below Grade 10 (Boe, 1998). Similarly, research indicates that in the United States prison system, 19% of adult prisoners are completely illiterate, and 40% are functionally illiterate, which means they would be unable to write a letter explaining a billing error (Center on Crime, Communities & Culture, 1998).

The reality of recidivism rates within the Canadian penal system requires attention. Overall, about one half of male offenders released from Canadian federal institutions recidivate. Also, about two thirds of the Aboriginal offenders and roughly one third of women offenders are returned to prison. Recidivists tend to be younger at the time of their first adult conviction, have more extensive criminal histories and are single.

The public, although decidedly punitive toward lawbreakers, are more lenient toward inmates because the public believes, those offenders are no longer an immediate threat. That is, there is an expectation that punishment will teach an offender a lesson. Therefore, it could be reasonable to argue that reduced recidivism rates, from the public's perspective, is the responsibility of the community where former inmates are released, as opposed to the prison system an offender was released from (Allen & Simonsen, 1998). Nonetheless, returning unprepared, uneducated, and unusually bitter individuals to the community could represent a further threat to public safety and enhance recidivism rates (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1997; Stevens, 1 997a; 1 997b; 1994). The more offenders are isolated from a law abiding society and deprived of society's amenities or opportunities, the more likely it is that they will reject the lifestyles and laws of that society (Glaser, 1975; 1997; Stevens, 1998a: 1998b; Stevens & Ward, 1997). One method of bringing individuals into society's embrace is through education especially a liberal arts education since it can provide a better understanding of society along with its expectations as its rewards.


Currently, educational and vocational programs are available at most correctional institutions in Canada. Educational programs consist of Adult Basic Education -- (Grade 1 to 10), Secondary Education, Vocational, College, and University level programs. Inmates generally pay for their own post-secondary education, unless it can be demonstrated that the education addresses a specific criminogenic need. Each program component provides offenders with opportunities to acquire education commensurate with need, achievement and ability. Through vocational programs such as plumbing, welding and small engines repair, inmates are provided with job related skills training relevant to employment opportunities available in the institutions and in the communities.

In all correctional programs, offenders interact in group settings that provide them with opportunities to learn and practice skills that might be required in work settings in the private sector. Examples of these skills are: problem solving, critical thinking, punctuality, interacting with others, being respectful of other people's opinions and feelings, and dealing with authority figures.

CORCAN is one of the most recognized programs. Through its five business lines: Agribusiness, Construction, Manufacturing, Services and Textiles, CORCAN provides offenders with work experiences and training which replicates private sector work environments as closely as possible. CORCAN programs are in place in 32 institutions across Canada, creating the equivalent of 2,000 full time trainee positions. Offenders receive training in the manufacture and provision of a wide range of products and services such as office furniture, clothing, shelving, agricultural products, metal fabrication, data entry, digital imaging and telemarketing. CORCAN products are marketed to the public sector: governments, non-profit organizations, and educational and health care institutions. CORCAN also offers community based short-term employment, job counselling, and placement programs.

Although vocational training is vital, this chapter will focus on academic education at the secondary and post secondary level or college. It should be clear that every offender responds favourably to vocational training or its opportunities.

Canada is extremely successful in conducting vocational training programs, however, I believe that men and women inmates who earn a college degree while under correctional supervision tend to lead law abiding lives more often than offenders who have not earned a college degree. That is, some may want to deal more efficiently with themselves, their families, and their community by embracing those values, skills, and knowledge that might help an individual make well-informed decisions. Once we're past the realities that not all offenders are educable, desire further education, and/or will never complete a college degree, it might be safe to assume that some, although fewer than expected, will advance themselves through education. Yet, it is argued that offender characteristics are stronger predictors of recidivism rates than the correctional mission or organisational affect itself (Clarke & Harrison, 1992). Some scholars question the efficacy of prison treatment programs casting doubts on studies showing positive outcomes of a college education for inmates (Andrews et al., 1990; Cullen & Gilbert 1988; Logan & Gaes, 1992).

The mission of correctional education

Some say that the primary purpose of education is learning and academic progress (Langenbach, North, Aagaard, & Chown, 1990; Lawrence, 1994). However, the philosophy of correctional education should also reflect the characteristics of the correctional environment and its students, especially since correctional settings are a closed and an abnormal environment (Reagen & Stoughton, 1976). The role of correctional education is to:

  • function as an agent of change for both the prisoner and the system;
  • maintain its integrity in terms of its basic commitment to freedom of inquiry; and
  • study, evaluate, and respond to all variables in the individual, the system, and society that are to be benefited by the educational concerns with process, product, and social reform (Reagen & Stoughton, 1976, p. 15).

The role of correctional academic education could:

  • relieve boredom of dead-head prison time;
  • give student-inmates a better understanding of society;
  • give non custody professionals an opportunity to monitor correctional operations;
  • keep offenders busy with positive pursuits;
  • give inmates an opportunity to experience values of a law abiding individual (teachers); and
  • alter behaviour preventing costly reincarceration.


Is there a fundamental and unresolvable antagonism between the keeper and the kept? Yet, many inmates want to improve their lot and if given a change, will do so as evidenced by many offenders who never return to prison, once released (Lowman & MacLean, 1995; Statistics Canada, 1994). Does correctional education reduce recidivism rates? Most of the evidence appears to be inclusive (Linden & Perry, 1982; Morrison, 1993). However, some researchers argue that there is no conclusive evidence correlating correction education to reduced recidivism while others go further and suggest that little can alter criminally violent behaviour (Cary, 1993; Cullen & Gilbert, 1988; Fogel, 1976; Palmer, 1991; Samenow, 1984). For example, Martinson (1974) argues that with few and isolated exceptions, rehabilitation efforts of advanced education that have been reported so far (1947-1967) have had no appreciable effect on reduced recidivism. Martinson's influence in corrections has frequently been associated with the shift from a treatment/rehabilitation orientation in corrections to a just deserts/justice orientation.

Opponents to correctional education argue that criminal tendencies learned on the outside cannot be “unlearned” on the inside, and, they add, offenders gave up their rights to amenities such as education when they took away the rights of others (Reagen & Stoughton, 1976).

Can we accept that offenders do have an after-life from correctional environments, and discount the idea that when they are confined they accept the inmate code, as argued by Caron (1978)? This code is, presumably, a guidebook on how to succeed in prison by not really trying to reform. In the face of such controversy, some researchers say that whatever categories the correctional administrators place a newcomer in, it will not mean very much, as a prisoner's true standing comes from fellow inmates (Lowman & MacLean, 1995). Perhaps there is some confusion with these thoughts as they relate to Clemmer's (1958) prisonization effect. The term prisonization refers to the longer inmates are incarcerated, the stronger their identification with inmate norms and values, and the more difficulty they would have adjusting to life once released. True, Clemmer suggests that inmates, like other social groups, have a culture which he defined as a mode of life or thought that is not peculiarly individual but which can be characterized as a shared set of attitudes that can eventually impact behavioural patterns and lifestyles. Part of this process includes learning enough of the culture to make individual characteristics of the environment -- an environment that produces a deprivation of liberty, a loss of worldly possessions, a denied access to heterosexual relationships, a divestment of autonomy, and being compelled to associate with other criminals or what Sykes (1966) refers to as the “pains of imprisonment”.

But neither Clemmer's perspective nor my studies examined prisonisation effects on student-prisoners. I am of the opinion that a student-prisoner learns a different set of values and norms than a typical prisoner.


On the other side of the controversy, researchers who examined the relationship between correctional education and recidivism levels abstracted a total of 97 articles published between 1969 and 1993. The results reveal “solid support for a positive relationship between correctional education and [lower] recidivism.” In the 97 articles, 83 (85%) reported documented evidence of recidivism control through correctional education, while only 14 (15%) reported a negative relationship between correctional education and reduced recidivism. The following statement of McCormick (1999) sheds some enlightment on what some inmates think about education:

We resent the walls, bars, uniforms, being told what to do, what programs we must take. None of us arrived by accident and if we are honest with ourselves, we'll acknowledge a whole series of destructive behaviours that preceded our committal to a monastery of the damned. In view of status and our chances of success upon release, the future doesn't look particularly bright. But until we come to terms with our individual reality -- separate the crime from the man, decide that the “I am” is capable of much more than what the label implies -- we're doomed to failure. Administration uses statistics to create the illusion of massive reform. But it's up to us to demand delivery. Enrol in courses. Ask for help from each other. Educated cons have reason to lift their heads. Whether the “man” wants to acknowledge it or not, educated prisoners get respect from everybody inside and outside the prison, and that's the one thing that can't be taken away from us at the gate.

Additionally, one study examined the recidivism data of 60 released inmates for a 3-year period in the United States (Stevens & Ward, 1997). Nonetheless, each participant had earned an associate and/or a bachelor's degrees while incarcerated in a high custody North Carolina prison. When the data were pooled with data from other states, it appeared that earning a degree while incarcerated significantly reduced recidivism rates for both men and women offenders. Specifically, of the 60 North Carolina released inmates, 5% (3, all men with associate's degrees) were returned to prison for criminally violent offences in the 36 months following their release. Women and men offenders who earned four-year degrees were not reincarcerated during the three-year period after their release, and, all but one of these individuals found employment relating to their degree. Also, the income of the degree-earning students was greater than their income prior to incarceration if employed, but most of them were unemployed at the time of their arrest and subsequent conviction. These findings are congruent with a study that shows individuals who received higher education while incarcerated have a significantly better rate of employment (60–75%) than those who do not participate in college programs (40%) (Center on Crime, Communities & Culture, 1998).

Continuing along this line of reasoning, approximately 40% of the general prison population in North Carolina were reincarcerated within three years of their release (NCDOC, 1995). In this case, if the degree-earning individuals were typical of the general prisoner population of North Carolina, 24 former inmates (40% X 60) would have been re-confined instead of 3. The difference of 21 inmates saved North Carolina taxpayers $612,893 for the first year of their re-incarceration and each year thereafter. Canadian incarceration costs are much higher than North Carolina's cost. Reprocessing costs and the costs of their crimes are not available to include in the above the savings. Equally important, however, is that the prison population in North Carolina is similar to the Canadian prisoner population in both federal and Providential prisons, but, the release rate in Canada is 10 times that of North Carolina. Theoretically, if the 60 were 600 (at 40%=240), and the savings were 11 million dollars instead of $612,893 then Canada stands to gain financially in this area of social control. And don't forget the differences in daily cost of inmates and the prosecution costs, which would probably put the yearly savings over 16 mil-lion dollars annually. Doubled the second year. Additionally, the above study focused on those offenders who finished a college education in one region of the state. It did not examine prisoners who were involved in the educational process but did not earn a degree.

The average confinement time served in Canada is far different than in North Carolina. Can Canada educate its educable prisoner population in 44 months or less? In a word, yes, if Canadian policy makers reflect on “a core of new thinking” about education. First, however, offenders who do not have a secondary school education or its equivalent should be required to finish once they are under correctional supervision. It should be a requirement of their release. Correctionally supervised individuals who completed secondary school should have the opportunity at federal and Provincial expense to pursue a college program leading to a college degree. Masters programs and Ph.D. programs should be made available but at the expense of the individual. Those programs can be best accomplished through telecommunication. In summary, it is less expense to educate than incarcerate. Following are some “idealized” points to consider.


How many educational organizations will become obsolete? Certainly, many educational leaders have the courage to realize that non-traditional academic roles of that of a visionary and an agent of moral change is what is required of them if their organization desires continued success. A visionary might see that student demo-graphics and future student employment demands have changed, and as a moral agent of change a visionary leader might see that the role education plays in student advancement has changed, too.


The next step is to establish a centralized division or unit -- under the direction of a single educational director at the federal level and single educational directors at each Provincial level working in a collaborative governance of the educational enterprise. That is, it operates under a federal structure in which individual unit work co-operatively to achieve organizational goals, which include competency. This education correctional service administers, supervises, and operates both a secondary and university programs and reports directly to the commissioner of Correctional Service of Canada. Accreditation can be accomplished through one of the many educational institutions already established in Canada or it can create its own entity and apply for accreditation.


The collaborative governance of the enterprise should develop both secondary and undergraduate programs that facilitate completion at a faster pace and with greater curriculum consistency than traditional programs. These programs should include the policy that students enrol in a program as opposed to signing up for classes, depending on the student's academic level. Each program has sequenced modules (classes) structured in a logical progression to ensure that educational objectives can be met. Module sequences are not negotiable unless a student requires retaking a specific module. There could be four separate programs developed -- one at the secondary level, and three at the college (undergraduate) level. The secondary level program consists of required core courses as outlined by most secondary institutions. One of the three college programs is provided to accommodate general educational core requirements of a typical university, and two college programs take over after the general educational core courses are met (either through the general education requirement program or from other qualified educational sources). Of the two, one is a program leading to a baccalaureate degree with a major in behavioural science and the other program leads to a baccalaureate degree in business. More degree programs would make matters more complex. Classroom structure, formats, and grades (competency) should be consistent which will allow for easy movement from one program to another, and from one location (inside or outside of prison) to another.


The relationship between educational seat-time and gaining knowledge is a worrisome perspective. Many traditional students sit in classrooms for an entire semester and have difficulty in articulating or understanding the principles of a course. In a traditional college course, students are expected to sit in a classroom for approximately 45 hours a semester. For some reason, that amount of time has been designated as appropriate. However, many college educational programs have cut seat time primarily because student demographics and priorities have changed. Drawing on those strengths, a teacher can expect students to participate at an entire different level than traditional students and additional workload for the student will far make up the difference in seat time. For example, at one institution where I developed and operated a similar program as the one described, students sat in class for four hours, once a week, for five weeks to complete a three 3-semester hour (module), and after 12 modules received a baccalaureate degree (assuming the student qualified to enter the program). Student output in these programs were similar or greater than student output in traditional programs preserving classroom integrity.


One method to encourage education in the penitentiary is to have part (or all) of the educational process delivered inside prison and part (or all) of the educational process delivered outside of prison, thus program consistency is equally important. A student can take the same module or program at many locations throughout Canada. All individuals under correctional super-vision including those on parole can attend these educational programs thereby enhancing solidarity among students that will also aid in their completing the program. The advantages of having offenders engaged in an educational pursuit is that correctional supervision is shared through teachers and other students while meeting educational objectives and ultimately reducing recidivism levels.


The term “competency” no longer should suggest that a student have the capacity to do a job; consequently, educators and business leaders should stop measuring competency with learning outcome approaches. Grades are sometimes ambiguous indicators of performance. Students move into the next module by accomplishing the objectives of the last module. Most of those objectives have to do with application. Thus, gaining a competency in a certain module means that the student has met the objectives of the module. Rutherford (1998) somewhat agrees with this perspective and offers a modern definition for “competency” while providing a model for developing competency standards in educational institutions and businesses. Such standards teach students/workers not only job skills, but also how to apply, and adjust those skills in specific environments. Great and safe nations require a more competent law abiding work force, and one method of producing it is to educate those individuals within that nation who can utilize an education most.


Modules should include different methods of educational delivery in classrooms conducted by qualified educators, merged with a delivery system via computers, distance learning methods, and/or telecommunication programs. Distant learning methods work well but require full time qualified educators to be part of that system. In fact, those instructors should be the primary focus of the system. However, technology teaching must be part of the curriculum so students can compete for challenging jobs.

Yet, educational endeavours, for example, are caught up in technology, and think they need new ways of organizing teaching and learning (Ehrmann, 1995). Because some educators are pleased when lecturing as they witness the eyes of their students light up and respond as though they understand the material. The styles of delivery by some educators border the edge of a Hollywood production. An assumption, made by an awesome professor is that once a student hears the truth, prior beliefs will be irrelevant. The student may even get an A for the course. Yet, if we probe, we might discover that the original belief is still present and virtually untouched, says Ehrmann. In some cases students are further confused by the lecture. That's because they had used their hidden preconceptions to (mis)interpret what the teacher was saying. The students were never forced to become conscious of their prior beliefs, let alone to test them against new ideas. When educating adults, the problem is greater.

The result is what an artist might call “pentimento,” a layer of “learning” is painted over a pre-existing belief, but, after a time, the original belief about the content re-emerges, mostly untouched, argues Ehrmann. It's a style of teaching by broadcast, even though students are in the same classroom or watching telecommunication monitors. That's because the information flow is almost entirely from the faculty member outward to the students. Little fresh information flows from the students to the faculty member (or to each other). This kind of broadcast instruction may happen several times before ultimate graduation. And (surprise!) after that graduation it turns out that the graduate still does not understand (Ehrmann, 1995). It is eventually realized that broadcast teaching can be inefficient, even ineffectual, because instructors currently don't discover what each of their students already thinks.

Adult students have their own experiences and understanding of the social world, and their point of view may be right -- for them. That is, adult learners require help in understanding their own realities and theories about those realities. Central to this process of learning is critical reflection and testing new meanings through deliberate reflection on the evidence, on arguments based upon alternative points of view, and on critically examining assumptions (Mezirow, 1991). Faculty members should ask more probing questions in class (whether the students are in the same room or a hundred miles away). They should devise assignments that help students confront their beliefs and test their skills. Overall, I am suggesting that educational endeavours should become student-centred starting with the knowledge of the student in order to advance the adult learner. This is a method of teaching I call collaborative learning.


This core of new teaching goes beyond educational delivery strategies. A new study on the impact of computers on mathematics learning shows positive results. The study, involving almost 1,200 secondary students in British Columbia and Alberta, found that students using computer courseware achieved higher test scores and levels of comprehension than ‘control' students using traditional approaches. The test group used The Learning Equation Mathematics (TLE), computer courseware developed by ITP Nelson in co-operation with participating Ministries of Education. Learning outcomes were measured on Alberta's provincial grade nine achievement test, based on the common western mathematics curriculum (Computers and Learning, 1999). The results among adult learners should be greater.

Keltner and Ross (1995) argue that computer and information technology is taking on increasing importance in the work-place and in society, and that educators and policymakers are redoubling their efforts to bring technology into the classroom. Furthermore, computer technology does not necessarily suggest Internet access. CD ROM databases and computer programs do not require accesses to the Web to be instructional.

However, the point is that if grade school children are better prepared for a transition from an industrial to an information age, then individuals who can not compete with school children will fail more often.


As educational programs get underway, assessment methods should be in place to determine the effectiveness of those programs. That is, the utility of non-traditional forms of assessment is an important issue. This thought is consistent with Stecher, Rahn, Ruby, Alt, and Robyn (1997) who argue that recent changes in assessment practices may hold great promise for educators especially vocational educators. The authors suggest a focus of program definition, implementation, and administration; the quality and feasibility of the assessment; and the potential usefulness of the assessment approach for educators. My own experience suggests that non-traditional method of assessment for adult educators and learners are more accurate.


As appealing as getting “tough on criminals” may sound, civilizations historically have utilized every method imagined to control criminal activity, and yet crime continues to flourish. One assumption a civilized society can make is that the severity of punishment has not always guaranteed the results sought: justice and efficient crime reduction, argues Glaser (1997). Canadians have taken the initiative of critically examining and, eventually eliminating capital punishment in response to their findings that death might not be an answer to control crime in a moral nation. In Canada's quest for justice and control crime, change is pervasive, and education is an efficient agent for societal change. Offering individuals under correctional supervision a student-centred advanced educational program provides an avenue for those offenders who want change, an opportunity to advance themselves and ultimately the community. An educated population can protect a just and safe community from terrorism that might surface from both inside and outside its borders. Education is the new millennium's power and currency, and the wealth of a nation must be distributed to more of its population. It is time that policy makers commit to combating crime by helping violators help themselves. Barth (1990) argues, and rightfully so, that each educational enterprise faces the task of constructing an effective educational and intellectual community around a unique set of issues and individuals. To this end, educating offenders to become productive members of society without compromising custody in a short period of time may seem like an impossible task, yet, consider the alternatives.

Traditional notions may have been successful for traditional students, but might produce failure for adult students. This thought is congruent with Boyett and Boyett (1998) who argue that educational organizations must foster “communities of practice” (informal networks in which students and teachers exchange ideas and experiences). A visionary might see that the relation-ship between the educational organization and the student has changed. For instance, the role of educator has changed from lecturer to facilitator. As a moral agent of change knowledge and its priorities are different. For instance, the educational process should become student-centred by beginning with what the student knows as opposed to beginning with what the organization knows. Pedagogy and curriculum should emphasise application, and theoretical concepts might become guideposts as opposed to the other way around.

There are no utopia educational systems. Rather, the way to improve schools is through “preserving what is valuable and reworking what is not,” suggests school reform writers like Tyack and Cuban (1995). In this way, progress is measured by whether the definite problem at hand has been resolved or lessened. Effective reform begins with a well-defined problem to address, and remains flexible to the circumstances of the situation it is applied to.

An interesting guide about educational reform comes from Tyack and Cuban who suggest the following:

  • No master plans for the fixing of all problems will be accepted. We cannot leap into a perfect educational system, but must work to make things better bit by bit.
  • Involve teachers, parents, and administrators in the process of reform (especially teachers) and make sure that the “answers” are to questions that are being asked by those involved.
  • Move in small steps.

Tinker! I think a colleague, Paul Friday, summed it best with his thought that there is no better way to gain knowledge than from the experiences of others nor a more effective way to achieve our own altruistic goals than through the information we, as educators, transmit to the leaders of tomorrow!

1 University of Massachusetts, College of Public and Community Services


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