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North Carolina’s Prison-Based College Program Shows Hope, Challenges to Incarcerated Individuals

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — A new study, co-authored by RTI International and the RAND Corporation, evaluated North Carolina’s Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education program. The pilot prison reform effort, established in 2013, provided individuals with the opportunity to take college classes while incarcerated and then work toward a degree upon release. The study found the program showed promise and provide North Carolina and other states with rich insights for planning future reentry initiatives.  

“The Pathways students we interviewed were motivated to participate in the program so that they could support themselves and their families after release,” said Michelle C. Tolbert, RTI’s Program Director of Adult Education and study co-author. “Prison-based education has been shown to reduce recidivism and give people a second chance at an improved life and career. We hope our study’s findings and recommendations provide clear guidance to North Carolina stakeholders on ways they can improve future reentry programs, and also provide a roadmap to other states who want to set up similar programs in their communities.”

The Pathways program, designed to help individuals obtain a postsecondary education degree or credential, offers college classes during the final two years of incarceration and continues support for degree or certificate achievement two years after release. A total of 201 students were enrolled in the program at the six participating prisons and classes were taught by instructors from local community colleges. Of those, 150 of the students completed the in-prison portion of the program and transitioned to classes at community colleges in Asheville, Charlotte and Greenville once released from incarceration.

The study highlighted key lessons learned including:

  • Incarcerated students need more opportunities to prepare for release;
  • Reentry supports—housing, employment, and transportation—are critical to participants completing their educational programs; and
  • Having three release communities made sense in terms of resources but created challenges for participants who were not close to supportive family members and friends.

Recommendations for improvement included:

  • Structure the in-prison component of the college program to allow enough time for students to build general credit and earn certifications prior to release;  
  • Train staff members (e.g., custody, agency, reentry and PPO staff) who will work with the students on an ongoing basis so that they understand the context and parameters of the program and can better support participants; and
  • Provide consistent funding across release communities to instill trust and improve communication between Pathways students and the local reentry councils.  

The project was supported by the Laughing Gull Foundation and the Vera Institute of Justice.