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Building a Reentry Education Continuum

Helping incarcerated adults and youth successfully transition to education and careers post-release

People released from prison or jail face one of the hardest uphill climbs to productive life in American society. Most hope to return to the mainstream but lack opportunities, particularly in education, to enable them to earn a living wage and build successful careers. For those being released after long prison terms, a lack of knowledge about current workplace technology and job searching in the digital age can be an obstacle in itself. The inability to find a job and create a stable life leads many formerly incarcerated people to commit new crimes, violate the terms of their release, and end up behind bars again.

There are approximately 2.2 million adults incarcerated in the U.S., and 700,000 people leave federal and state prisons each year—meaning no community is isolated from the challenges of reentry.

Research shows that education and training can significantly reduce incarcerated individuals’ likelihood of committing another crime, and increase their chances of finding employment. Although reentry education is well documented as an evidence-based, cost-effective approach to preparing incarcerated adults for release, education services offered by correctional facilities often are disconnected from community-based education programs and other support. This lack of communication and coordination can make it difficult for adults to complete their coursework and earn a degree or credential as they transition in and out of the criminal justice system.

Creating a Framework and Toolkit to Connect Education Programs Across the Continuum

With funding from the U.S. Department of Education, RTI developed the Reentry Education Framework, which promotes an education continuum spanning facility- and community-based reentry education programs. It has five critical components—program infrastructure, strategic partnerships, education services, transition processes, and sustainability. RTI also developed an online Reentry Education Tool Kit to help education providers implement the Framework.

Our experts recommended that, to build or strengthen a reentry education continuum, providers need a solid program infrastructure, including adequate resources and capacity. Partners, such as correctional facilities, employers, and community-based organizations, are also essential. Reentry education providers should work closely with their partners to support students as they transition in and out of the corrections system. They also should collaborate on a strategy to ensure their reentry education continuum is sustainable even when faced with fluctuating resources, staff turnover, and other changes.

The central focus of the Framework, clearly, is education. Education services offered in correctional facilities typically include adult education, career and technical education, and postsecondary education. These services should be evidence-based and aligned with community-based education programs. They also should use advanced technologies to enhance instruction and improve students’ digital literacy skills.

In addition to developing the Reentry Education Framework, RTI examined the experiences of correctional facilities that have found secure ways to provide their students and instructors with access to advanced technologies. As outlined in our policy report, technology can enhance instruction and help position students for positive opportunities after release—all without compromising safety or security.

Reducing Recidivism through Stronger Reentry Education Services

Reentry education reduces recidivism rates, saves taxpayer dollars, and creates safer communities. Our Reentry Education Framework is helping pave the way for these positive changes. The federal government provided grant funding to programs to implement the Framework. These programs reported positive outcomes and their experiences were used to improve the Framework.

The demand for education among incarcerated people shows signs of growth. The U.S. Department of Education is currently testing the use of Pell Grants by adults in federal and state prisons, a sign that the federal government sees education as an important option for people preparing for release. Our research is part of a broader effort to ease this transition. We hope to inform initiatives that strengthen and expand reentry education so that more formerly incarcerated adults can become productive members of society.