The Department of Justice recently issued a press release in which it laid out changes coming to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The changes appear to be a last-minute attempt to establish new programs designed to improve the abysmal rehabilitation opportunities currently available in the BOP.
The most significant change addresses perhaps the most important element of the prisoner rehabilitation process: education. According to the memorandum, the BOP will soon establish a semi-autonomous school district within the federal prison system. The prison school system will offer literacy classes, the ability to earn a high school diploma (instead of the more traditional prison GED), and even post-secondary classes.
It remains to be seen how all of this will be implemented. The incoming Trump administration does not seem to have any inclination to institute criminal justice or penal reform. But the Department of Justice as it currently sits appears to be quickly moving forward on the new changes. The BOP has already hired Amy Lopez, a noted educator from the Texas prison school system, to act as the initial superintendent of the BOP school system.
The Office of the Attorney General touted these new reforms as important and necessary.
"Helping incarcerated individuals prepare for life after prison is not just sound public policy, it is a moral imperative," said Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch. "These critical reforms will help give federal inmates the tools and assistance they need to successfully return home as productive, law-abiding members of society. By putting returning citizens in a position to make the most of their second chance, we can create stronger communities, safer neighborhoods and brighter futures for all."
Educating prisoners pays off in a big way. The rates of recidivism for prisoners who receive an education while incarcerated are significantly lower than those who don't. Lower recidivism rates mean less money spent by taxpayers for re-incarceration. It's an investment well worth making, both in terms of economic value and social value.
Establishing and operating a school district within the monstrously large bureaucracy that is the BOP is a tall order. In addition, educational programs in prison face unique challenges. According to Mary Gottschalk in her excellent book "Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics," challenges include "everything from the absence of any quiet space for studying, to deep tensions between prison educators and prison guards over the utility of educational programming for inmates."
Regardless of what ultimately becomes of a BOP school system, it is heartening to see that policy makers and high-level officials have recognized that there is a problem with our current incarceration system, and are making an attempt to do something about it. Let's cross our fingers and hope that the incoming "law and order" administration doesn't immediately undo these laudable efforts.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com