Education Opinion

The Schooling of Incarcerated Young People

By Ted Price & Richard Vitolo — June 15, 1988 7 min read
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In the current movement for school reform, few proposals have addressed the status of the education provided to minors in correctional institutions and its relationship to mainstream public education.

Indeed, the major reports issued recently say nothing about correctional education.

And because researchers have not systematically studied such programs, the effects of specific philosophies and methods on incarcerated minors remain unclear.

According to September 1986 statistics from the U.S. Justice Department, approximately 82,000 juveniles were in correctional settings nationwide; this figure has now grown to about 90,000. An even more telling statistic is the annual number of admissions and discharges--more than 625,000--to such facilities. In Los Angeles County, as many as 50,000 young people go through the juvenile court and correctional system annually, with approximately 4,200 minors in a county facility on any given day.

The correctional system provides the last chance for these youths to turn around their lives, a final opportunity for the community to attempt some measure of rehabilitation--or habilitation.

Coming to the system with a scattered history of educational achievement, most of these students function well below the average pupil in their respective communities. Certainly, their needs are great. But the available evidence demonstrates that for this group of America’s young, education remains the most effective tool for promoting--and achieving--a return to the mainstream.

As Michael Gerber, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, has written, concerned educators should be "... working to forge a vision of schooling for the 21st century--one that will regard each child as an individual and will reclaim human beings society might otherwise throw away.’'

Given the constraints of a system that must provide for the secure detention and supervision of juvenile offenders, correctional programs must address the educational and vocational needs of these young people. And the correctional-education community itself must assume the responsibility for relating the reform movement’s proposals to the requirements of its programs.

These educators have several options:

  • Develop their own study and recommendations for reform,

  • Adapt the major reform reports to their programs, or

  • Develop their own standards and practices while waiting for reform groups to address their special population.

In wrestling with these options, they must also evaluate the existing educational philosophy and programming for juvenile offenders in detention facilities.

To this end, we propose a bill of educational rights for incarcerated young people that seeks to establish minimum standards for protecting their rights and assuring them of an education program designed to meet their needs.

1.Incarcerated young people have a right to a public education fostering their development as productive members of society.

Through legislation similar to the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, P.L. 94-142, federal policy should mandate education for all juvenile offenders.

Currently, their right to an education is often unprotected--whether they are detained in a county jail, intermediate confinement facility, or state or federal prison. Yet education remains the key to helping them become successful citizens.

2.The curriculum must emphasize the core subjects and skills.

A sound program includes instruction in basic academics and skills for independent life.

Reading, writing, and mathematics serve as prerequisites for vocational skills. And by mastering vocational skills, these young people improve their chances of successfully rejoining mainstream society.

Several teaching strategies can reinforce the schooling of these students: adapting the curriculum to individual needs; developing relationships of trust between teachers and students; engaging students in life-based activities; and providing students with an ungraded, competency-based system for awarding credits--allowing them all the time they need to master the curriculum.

Success is more likely to occur when staff and students have a voice in making policy and implementing programming.

3.Every incarcerated young person is entitled to a thorough educational assessment.

Students in correctional settings are commonly grouped without regard to individual differences. Most often, such factors as the nature of the offense committed or gang involvement dictate groupings in a detention facility.

Through the assessment of individual skills and abilities, educators can recognize and address appropriately differences in learning styles and needs.

4.The educational program must focus on affective development.

Character development must be infused throughout the curriculum. Both the educational and the institutional program must foster the growth of a positive self-concept--the absence of which underlies lives of crime or delinquency.

The emphasis on affective development should also include teaching about establishing and maintaining appropriate relationships.

5.Incarcerated handicapped young people are entitled to special-education services.

The courts and the U.S. Education Department’s office for civil rights have held that P.L. 94-142 entitles incarcerated minors to special-education programs if they are qualified.

These young people also have the right to receive other services to reinforce their education: Such supplemental programs as Chapter 1, counseling, tutoring, and remedial instruction should be available to all students who cannot acquire basic skills through the regular curriculum.

6.Incarcerated young people are entitled to receive an education from state-certified teachers.

Programs for juvenile offenders are often provided in a haphazard manner--more often meeting the needs of local institutions or agencies than those of the students. By adhering to standards established by the state teacher-certification process, we can provide a program consistent with educational standards in the community.

7.The educational program should meet recognized community standards leading to a diploma.

When a student receives a certificate or a diploma from the correctional facility, he should be able to readily transfer that credit into a program for further education or job acquisition. And the institution’s programs should be sanctioned, monitored, and accredited by professional organizations--not only to ensure their merit, but also to give students a sense of working within an established system.

Requirements defined by the regional education-accreditation agencies throughout the country provide the best guidelines for correctional educators in recognizing and meeting community standards.

And in cooperation with the U.S. Justice Department’s office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention, the American Correctional Association has adopted standards for juvenile-detention facilities that address educational programming and establish policymaking responsibilities in other areas. The requirements for licensing or accreditation created by such private groups provide another set of appropriate standards institutions might choose to follow.

8.Young people returning from incarceration are entitled to transition support services.

To assist with reintegration into schools, vocational training, or job placement, community groups, school districts, and probation departments should provide counseling, sponsorship programs, and other forms of support.

Because correctional educators best understand the needs of juvenile offenders--as a group and as individuals--they should coordinate the efforts of the involved agencies. A number of local programs linking correctional education, vocational education, and related work experience with, for example, mental-health services appear to be working.

9.Incarcerated young people are entitled to protection plural in ms. from institutional experimentation.

Federal and state statutes regulating participation in experiments and research protect all citizens. But incarcerated minors exposed to experimentation may not possess a full knowledge of their rights.

Such situations need to be monitored carefully. Juvenile offenders have the right to exclude themselves from research programs that have not been adequately tested and proved to be valid.

10.Incarcerated young people are entitled to a board of education.

Governance of education for young offenders is not clearly delineated in many states and communities. Neither the local agencies nor the courts that often assume this responsibility are equipped to operate an educational program meeting state and local standards.

We believe these students deserve the representation of a duly recognized board of education in every community.

In setting the course for reforming correctional education, groups evaluating these programs must move immediately to ensure that an education--with appropriate support services--is provided for these young people, and to establish an advisory board qualified to oversee the development of programs and the implementation of standards in correctional facilities.

With the hope that a national commission will soon be assembled to study the needs of incarcerated young people, we offer this bill of educational rights as a set of standards against which proposals for reform may be measured.

A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 1988 edition of Education Week as The Schooling of Incarcerated Young People


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