Prison changed Jose Bou’s life in a way he never expected.
While serving a 12-year sentence for drug trafficking, Bou earned a bachelor’s degree from Boston University through a special program for incarcerated students. Since his release seven years ago, Bou has become a community college professor and a mentor to others caught up in the correctional system.
Inmates like Bou are a rarity in Massachusetts; higher education degree programs have long been available to just a small number of prisoners in a few correctional institutions at any given time. Now, that’s about to change: A new consortium of more than a dozen Massachusetts colleges plans to help make the chance to earn a college degree accessible to more inmates throughout the state.
Bou says the initiative could transform many more lives.
“We need a real education,” said Bou, 43. “It’s nice to give them work skills and fatherhood skills, but I need a piece of paper that puts me close to equal footing with the rest of the workforce.”
The Educational Justice Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was recently awarded a $250,000 grant from the Vera Institute of Justice and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to develop a “pipeline” for incarcerated people to get their degree.
The grant funds the development of a partnership between participating Massachusetts colleges and law enforcement agencies to offer college courses behind bars and ensure that inmates graduate, either while still in prison or after their release. It’s not yet clear how many students the program will reach. The colleges involved in the initiative represent a broad spectrum of higher educational institutions in Massachusetts, from community colleges to members of the Ivy League.
Research has shown some of the benefits of bringing college coursework into prisons. Inmates who participate in higher education programs are 43 percent less likely to return to prison than those who don’t, according to a 2013 study by the RAND Corporation. The Bard Prison Initiative, which brings college classes to hundreds of inmates in New York state, reports even more dramatic results: Its incarcerated students have a 4 percent recidivism rate, compared with a rate of 60 percent for the general prison population.
Earning a college degree, increasingly required for middle class jobs, may also improve the daunting odds that inmates face in trying to reenter the workforce. Employment opportunities for former inmates tend to be poorly paid and difficult to find, according to a 2007 study by Devah Pager, a professor of sociology and public policy at Harvard University, who found that former offenders received one-half to one-third the responses of those with identical résumés.
“Providing access to postsecondary education is so important,” said Margaret diZerega, project director at the Vera Institute’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections. “Because it not only benefits this generation of people leaving prison, but also can impact the next generation because it becomes more likely [their children] follow in their parents’ footsteps.”
Each college and university in the consortium, leaders of the initiative said, will maintain its own standards regarding the rigor of the entry process and coursework, so that incarcerated students can earn a genuine diploma from that institution. Degree offerings are left up to each college, but will probably focus on the humanities.
Professors will travel to the prisons to teach in person, said Carole Cafferty, co-director of the Educational Justice Institute. The consortium may also explore different remote teaching methods, such as secure educational tablets or secure video connections between campus and prison-based classrooms.
Classes will probably not be offered to inmates of county jails, said Cafferty. Turnover at those facilities, which normally hold people awaiting trial or serving short sentences, is too quick to allow time for the pursuit of a degree, she said.
If students have not completed their degree by the time they are released, continuing their studies will become part of their discharge plan. During their stay, they will receive many of the same resources as students on campus, including career services and mentoring.
The program, which will be free for participating inmates and funded primarily by the schools, may also save taxpayers money in the long run: A 2014 RAND study found that for every $1 invested in prison education that leads to reduced rates of re-arrest, the government saves $4 to $5 in costs associated with incarceration.
Proponents say participants will profit in ways that are difficult to quantify.
“The benefits [of higher education] are powerful and sustaining,” said diZerega. “I’ve seen men and women begin to believe in themselves in ways they never have before, and begin to shed the negative labels they’ve internalized.”
College coursework has been offered in prisons for decades. BU started its degree program for inmates in 1972, according to the program’s website. Other colleges have extended-learning opportunities for prisoners on a “piecemeal basis,” Cafferty said, usually with a focus on vocational education programs such as carpentry and culinary arts.
“Historically, people always said vocational education programs are the way to go with this population,” Cafferty said. But today, nearly two-thirds of jobs will require some form of secondary education by 2020, according to a 2013 study by Georgetown University.
For Bou, majoring in English turned out to be a gateway to a new career.
After completing a master’s degree in criminal justice from BU, he went on to become a professor in his hometown at Holyoke Community College. He is a relentless advocate for bringing higher educational opportunities to those behind bars, using his own story as an example of how serious academics can improve lives. Bou said he hopes the consortium will make his achievement — a rarity in Massachusetts — more common.
Bou graduated a decade ago with a 3.98 GPA, valedictorian of his class of 12 inmates at MCI-Norfolk, graduating from the BU program.
“I quit school, I quit relationships, I quit family,” he said. “This was the first thing I ever finished.”
He said the degree made it impossible for him to consider re-offending.
“When the wool is pulled from your eyes after getting an education, going back to prison is never an option,” he said. “And you want to make it not an option for others, too.”
Institutions participating in the new consortium include Boston University, MIT, Cambridge College, Clark University, Emerson College, Framingham State University, Harvard University, Mount Wachusett Community College, Roxbury Community College, Stonehill College, Tufts University, University of Massachusetts Lowell, and Wellesley College.
This story has been updated to eliminate a reference to pre-release centers.