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Education Behind Bars: How Education is Failing Incarcerated Youth

Nowhere are the failures of public education and the American criminal justice system more apparent than in the daily lives of incarcerated minors in the United States. Every day, about 60,000 youth wake up behind bars. The majority have been suspended or expelled from their community’s schools and have fallen behind several grade levels. One in three will need specialized education services while they are incarcerated. Young people of color suffer most in this system: Black youth are five times as likely to be incarcerated as their white peers, and Latino and Native American youth are two to three times as likely.

Unfortunately, the United States has failed to provide incarcerated youth with the bare minimum needed to meet state standards for public education, let alone with the resources required to meet any specialized needs. In fact, only 13 states provide the same educational services in juvenile detention centers as they do outside them. Classes are typically much larger in these facilities than in public schools, are likely to be organized by age rather than ability, and have curricula that are far less rigorous than those of community schools. When placed in solitary confinement, youth often receive little to no schoolwork at all. In one striking example from Los Angeles County, a student was found to have graduated with a high school diploma from the Challenger Memorial Youth Center without ever being taught to read.

In order to address the inequalities experienced by incarcerated learners, a formal method of transparency must be developed and rigorously implemented to ensure that public and private facilities are complying with states’ public school standards. Measures should be taken to address the specialized needs of incarcerated youth, and states should make it easier for incarcerated youth to re-enter community schools.

At first, it seemed that the Obama administration would effectively address the problems with education behind bars in the United States. In 2014, the Obama administration published “Guiding Principles for Providing High Quality Education in Juvenile Justice Care Settings,” which was jointly supported by the Departments of Justice and Education. These principles affirmed the government’s responsibility to ensure that incarcerated youth are given all the resources needed to re-enter the community prepared for “productive citizenship.” Still, in 2015, The Council of State Governments Justice Center found that 15 states did not hold their juvenile justice centers to the same standards as they did their public schools.

In November of 2016, the Obama administration hired Amy Lopez as the first superintendent of the Bureau of Prisons’ school district. This decision accompanied a series of reforms aimed at reducing recidivism and easing transition back into the community by offering a range of educational opportunities for incarcerated youth, including more opportunities for those with learning disabilities.

Unfortunately, this last-ditch attempt at reform came at the end of Obama’s term, and the Trump administration has since rolled back this marginal progress. US Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been a fierce advocate of punitive measures over rehabilitation for young offenders, supporting both the treatment of repeat juvenile offenders as adults and the implementation of youth work camps. In May 2017, Trump fired Amy Lopez, who seemed to be last hope for progress in the new administration. Although taxpayers save five dollars on incarceration costs for every dollar invested in education, Trump shows little interest in overhauling educational programs for incarcerated youth.

Critics of Trump’s harsh approach toward incarcerated youth point to evidence that education heavily reduces the risk of recidivism. Recidivism rates for the three years after an arrest are often as high as 75 percent. This number is staggering, but improved education for incarcerated youth may be a tool to lower it. Research has consistently shown that comprehensive reform of juvenile justice centers to include enhanced educational opportunities can reduce considerably the recidivism rates of juveniles. A 2013 RAND study found that inmates who participated in a correctional educational program had a 43 percent lower chance of returning to prison than those who did not, emphasizing that the costs of education far outweigh the costs of re-incarceration.

If reform cannot come at the federal level, it must come from states. Many juvenile justice facilities are not held accountable by their states and face no pressure to improve their quality of education. One of the first steps that should be taken at the state level is to require correctional education programs to obtain independent accreditation of curricula behind bars from a nationally recognized education accrediting commission. Accreditation determines whether an institution meets the minimum standards for quality, involves staff in evaluation, and creates a plan for improvement.

But increased transparency will have little impact without the support of qualified educators. Teachers are the foundation of every school. As a result, it is just as crucial that the juvenile justice system recruit qualified candidates and invest in teacher training programs that provide these educators with effective strategies for teaching in juvenile detention facilities. Teachers in detention facilities must be equipped to teach students who come from different educational backgrounds and who learn at different speeds. The Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings (CEEAS), based in Washington DC, is working with juvenile detention centers around the country to rethink how teachers are trained and curricula are implemented. CEEAS calls for “short, thematic units aligned with state standards” and a “technology-enhanced instruction and learning platform.” Importantly, CEEAS works with facilities to develop tailored recruiting practices to ensure quality educators are hired and retained. Institutions and teachers are then trained specifically to work with children with special needs.

The US Department of Education has found that in a class of 15 incarcerated youth, between 5 and 13 are likely to have a learning disability. Among those, attention deficit hyperactivity disorders and emotional or behavioral disorders are the most common. The rates of post-traumatic stress disorder are also much higher among incarcerated youth than their peers. The Northwestern Juvenile Project found that of the incarcerated youth surveyed in Chicago, 92.5 percent had experienced at least one trauma.

Unfortunately, fewer than half of incarcerated youth with a disability—learning or otherwise—report receiving special education services, even though the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) entitles them to public education that meets their needs. Currently, the bulk of the law is targeted towards traditional classroom settings, and the recommended practices are often unable to be applied in juvenile detention centers. This means that a concerted effort must be taken to implement IDEA in a way that effectively meets the needs of incarcerated youth. Screening for a disability should take place upon entry into juvenile detention centers. Once a disability has been identified, the facility—along with the student’s parents and a representative of the school agency—must work to develop an Individualized Educational Program for that student, as required by the Department of Education.

Finally, there is a dire need for an easier transition back into community schools. Upon release, many young people face credit transfer difficulties and delays in the transfer of records necessary to re-enroll in community schools. Two-thirds of formerly incarcerated youth never re-enroll in school, and the ones that do have an especially high drop-out rate. In 2008, the youth unemployment rate for high school dropouts was 54 percent. The rate for dropouts who were formerly incarcerated is even lower.

Fortunately, there are methods to ease the transition that have been shown to work on a smaller scale and could be implemented nationwide. Better technology may be the first place to look: The database Infinite Campus includes a student’s personal information, class schedule, and assessment history and was successfully used in Kentucky to ease the re-entry of incarcerated youth into community schools in different districts. The state of Maine has a comprehensive model for a student’s transition to a community school, which includes assembling a “reintegration team” 10 days before their release, cross-agency collaboration, and a deadline-driven transfer of their records. Reintegration into community schools post-release is the final piece of the puzzle that must be improved in order to enhance the educational opportunities of incarcerated youth.

Education is critical to the development of all children and teens, particularly those in the juvenile detention systems. Incarcerated youth deserve quality education, and there are clear pathways to achieve this. Policymakers must work with state education agencies to establish an actionable plan to address the glaring failures of education for incarcerated youth. Neglecting to provide necessary services in juvenile detention facilities blatantly disrespects the rights of this vulnerable population and does a great disservice to the entire country.