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November 07, 2015

Pennsylvania awarded $1M federal grant for prison education system

Improved Reentry Education a unique award among nine grants distributed nationwide

Prisons Education
110715_PAinmate Michael Perez/AP

Inmate Hakiem Burke applies vanish to a cross that is part of a chair carved out of walnut for Pope Francis to use during his planned visit to the prison next month, Monday, Aug. 24, 2015, at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia. Francis plans to meet on Sept. 27 with about 100 inmates and some of their relatives during a two-day trip to the city.

Inmates serving time in Pennsylvania prisons will soon have a bevy of new educational opportunities after the state announced it has been awarded a $1 million federal grant to reduce recidivism rates and facilitate reentry into the workforce.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf spoke Friday about the significance of the Improved Reentry Education award, a three-year grant issued to the state's Department of Corrections, led by Secretary John Wetzel.

"In order to truly make our system fairer and less costly, we need to create opportunity for young offenders to keep them from re-entering the system," Governor Wolf said in a statement about the grant. "These funds will help Secretary Wetzel and Department of Corrections to bolster their efforts to reduce recidivism and prepare offenders for the world outside their walls."

The Department of Corrections will prioritize the funds to assist adult offenders aged 25 or younger who are considered to have a medium to high risk of reoffending.

According to Wetzel, Pennsylvania prisons will partner with state agencies, community colleges and universities, local workforce development boards and employers to achieve several outcomes that will boost the career potential of prisoners upon release.

"Ninety percent of state prison offenders return home. With help from this grant, the DOC now will work to incorporate a career pathways approach through better program delivery and assessment of offender education levels, skills and career interests," Wetzel said. "That assessment will help us to enter offenders into programs that are geared toward careers that best suit those levels and skills and that also meet employers' recruiting needs."

Despite state recidivism rates dropping to a historic low in recent years, the importance of educating prisoners to lead successful lives remains a crucial challenge in the face of sobering statistics. Forty-two percent of state offenders do not have a high school degree and the average reading level for male and female prisoners is below the 10th-grade level. An alarming 81 percent of state offenders report as having no applicable skills that can be applied in a work setting.

Goals of the initiative will include increasing education and industry-recognized credentials, boosting employment placement and retention, and promoting transitional support into the community. The grant will empower the DOC to revise its assessment practices of state offenders – factoring in aptitude, interest and ability – to help steer them toward individualized training programs.

The impact of the grant could be far-reaching. Statewide, 1 in 28 adult Pennsylvania citizens are either incarcerated in a state prison or a county jail (those under some form of supervision, such as parole or probation, are also included in that figure).

Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro A. Rivera shared in the state's anticipation of the program, emphasizing how the new opportunities will level the playing field for those seeking to reconstruct their lives.

"Education can be the one true equalizer, and with the growing focus on the improving people's transition from prison to their communities, providing knowledge and skills will ensure our neighbors' transition back to our communities prepared to contribute to the commonwealth and themselves. This initiative means Pennsylvania can set the standard.