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Outside Chance - Few opportunities exist for aspiring engineers inside U.S. prison walls. New Zealand inmates see a brighter future. + By  Jaimie N. Schock

Eric Jackson’s dream unfolds across five handwritten pages sent to ASEE from California Men’s Colony, a minimum- and medium-security state prison near San Luis Obispo. “I’ve been attracted to how things work and why since a little boy,” he writes in dense, slanted script. Starting with bicycles fabricated from abandoned parts and wooden go-carts powered by lawnmower engines, he graduated to welding jobs at seafood processing plants and aboard ships, and even taught welding at a community college. Then a separation from his wife, drug use, depression, and homelessness sent him on a downward spiral toward a robbery conviction. Now 53 and due for release in a few years, he wants to earn an engineering degree—but how?

If Jackson were incarcerated in New Zealand, the answer would be straightforward. With a policy that combines prisoner rehabilitation and filling gaps in industry, New Zealand boasts what may be one of the world’s most comprehensive prison technical education programs. Among them, eight prisons offer no fewer than 36 engineering courses. Together with on-the-job training and work release, these courses lead to various levels of qualification up to Level 4 certification, a government benchmark equivalent to finishing a first year of university-level engineering.

But comparable programs are rare in this country, if they exist at all. Numerous interviews and an extensive Internet search—prompted by queries to ASEE from Jackson and other inmates—turned up few prison education efforts offering postsecondary science and math, and none that offered university-level engineering. In general, Jackson and other aspiring engineers in the nation’s bulging penal system face an uphill struggle.

To some prison experts and educators, an opportunity is being missed. “If you’ve got a prison system that is largely uneducated, providing education makes a lot of sense,” says Ann Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute, part of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. John Linton, a U.S. Department of Education prison expert, told a conference last year, “An approach best described as ‘lock’ em up for a long time in a harsh environment and then dump them out when they have finished their sentences’ is leaving us with a large group of repeat offenders who are then requiring that more and more prison cells be constructed.”

Each of America’s 2.2 million prisoners—a more than sixfold increase in 30 years, with people of color now accounting for 60 percent—costs taxpayers an average of $22,000 to $25,000 per year at a time when many states face a budget squeeze. Some states are being forced by financial woes, or the courts, to release prisoners early or incarcerate only serious offenders. Despite already overcrowded prisons, Illinois plans to shutter 14 facilities. A year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court found that California’s prisons constituted cruel and unusual punishment and ordered the state to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000. Nationwide, two thirds of released inmates are arrested within three years.

Lack of Prior Schooling

Research has shown that inmates who receive education or job training while in prison are much less likely to commit more crimes—69 percent less likely if they earn an associate’s degree, according to a 2005 study. Yet only about 6 percent of inmates were enrolled in postsecondary education during the 2009-10 academic year, and 86 percent of those were in just 13 states. In part, these numbers reflect many prisoners’ lack of a high school education to start with, but prison education is also hampered by little or no access to the Internet, thus preventing distance learning, along with transfers, lockdowns, and scarce funds. Furthermore, a 1994 law makes state and federal prisoners ineligible for Pell grants.

“Now I agree that prison should not be easy or enjoyable,” writes Matthew Winter from Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock, N.Y. He, like Jackson, sought guidance from ASEE. “But I don’t see how offering inmates the chance to continue their educations would be a detriment to the current harsh environment of a maximum security prison.”

The 2,200 inmates who earned associate degrees and 400 who earned bachelor’s degrees in 2009-10 show that at least a small minority can advance, and a number of engineers and engineering students have, over the years, volunteered time to help. Steven Lanzisera and Erik Douglas, engineering graduates from the University of California-Berkeley, taught several classes at San Quentin State Prison. While Douglas taught pre-algebra and first-year-level chemistry, Lanzisera, now a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, explained statistics and probability by using examples familiar to engineers, such as manufacturing yield and materials tolerances.

EPICS collaborated with inmates to create a laser harp, which makes the sound of musical notes when the beams are broken.
EPICS collaborated with inmates to create a laser harp, which makes the sound of musical notes when the beams are broken.

Less-formal instruction occurred in a 2006-to-2008 collaboration between Purdue University’s Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) program and Indiana prisons. Together, students and inmates at the Indianapolis Women’s Prison produced information kiosks to serve the poor and homeless in Lafayette, Ind. While prisoners built the structures, students installed electronic equipment, including a touch-screen with access to a computer database of social services and a handset to call the Lafayette Crisis Center. Some two dozen students joined with inmates in a woodworking program to create learning aids for schoolchildren, including a 10-foot dinosaur; a laser harp, which makes the sound of musical notes when the beams are broken; a wind tunnel; and a Mars rover robot. Meanwhile, male inmates at the Westville Correctional Facility worked with EPICS students to build fiberglass shells for soapbox derby racers.

EPICS’ ties with the prison were severed when a statewide prison restructuring resulted in contracting out education services. “It was a wonderful relationship,” says EPICS Purdue program coordinator Pam Brown. “It’s just sad that it ended.” While useful to the inmates as vocational training, the program also expanded their understanding of engineering concepts, especially the design process, helped them interpret computer-aided designs, and showed them how engineers work.

It was not, however, the kind of training geared toward professional qualification. And William Oakes, EPICS director and associate professor of engineering education at Purdue, questions whether a formal program should even be attempted. “I don’t think it’s realistic,” he says, with government at all levels cutting budgets. Implementation would be daunting, he adds, although teaching could succeed with gifted prisoners despite their often rudimentary math skills.

Theory Plus Apprenticeships

“Engineering is one industry sector where there has been quite some success in prisoners obtaining post-release employment.”  – Rachel Bulliff, National Prisoner Training Coordinator in New Zealand. - New Zealand’s Corrections Inmate Employment program incorporates both engineering theory and hands-on projects. PHOTO COURTESY NEW ZEALAND CORRECTIONS
New Zealand’s Corrections Inmate Employment program incorporates both engineering theory and hands-on projects.

New Zealand’s Corrections Inmate Employment program at least puts prisoners on track toward becoming full-fledged engineers. Its training incorporates both engineering theory and hands-on projects, and typically covers maintenance and use of equipment such as portable power tools, trade calculations, comprehension of metals and fasteners used in mechanical engineering, and mechanical assembly. At Christchurch Men’s Prison, inmates can complete up to 5,000 hours of apprenticeship alongside classroom studies, putting them on a par with university engineering students. Training for female inmates stops short of that but still prepares them to compete for skilled automotive jobs on their release.

“Engineering is one industry sector where there has been quite some success in prisoners obtaining post-release employment,” says Rachel Bulliff, national prisoner training coordinator. If ex-inmates manage to become full-fledged engineers, their criminal records won’t prevent them from applying for one of the six engineering-related licenses available.

In this country, the licensing and employment picture is more complicated. Oakes, for one, says that without more corporate and university support for ex-offender hiring than now exists, “just giving them education in a vacuum is not going to be sufficient.” State licensing laws for engineers vary from state to state. Whether a license is granted or revoked often depends on the severity of the crime, how long ago it was committed, whether it had to do with the engineering profession, recidivism, and whether or not a former inmate can persuade a licensing board that he or she has been rehabilitated.

Many states ask applicants if they have a conviction, but leave the ultimate decision up to the licensing board. Missouri, which follows this procedure, has several licensed engineers with felony records. Kentucky is relatively restrictive, barring anyone with a conviction that includes “violence, sexual misconduct, fraud, or deceit” in the previous 10 years.

Some companies are willing to ignore the stigma often attached to ex-convicts seeking employment. Cascade Engineering, a manufacturing, technology, and consulting firm based in Grand Rapids, Mich., has a nondiscrimination policy regarding ex-inmates and hires them regularly, though typically in nonengineering, entry-level positions. It’s a “win-win for businesses,” says Kelley Losey, director of Cascade’s consulting division, explaining that when provided with the right support systems, prisoners can turn out to be more devoted employees than people who haven’t been incarcerated. Once a person is hired, the criminal record is kept private.

The company collaborates with Butterball Farms, a specialty butter producer, and nonprofits Hope Network and Goodwill in helping prisoners make the transition to the workplace. They’ve already challenged 30 Grand Rapids-area employers to hire two “returning citizens” each and keep track of their progress for two years as part of a study the collaborative plans to publish with Grand Rapids Community College. Furthermore, the group is asking 100 companies to “Ban the Box,” or eliminate a field on application forms that requires a checkmark if a person has a felony conviction.

This kind of tolerance could help Eric Jackson make a new start. Once released, he hopes to gain certification as a welding inspector and, from there, set out to realize his dream. He knows money will be a problem but writes, “I’m up for it, there’s no victory without challenge.”


Jaimie Schock is an editorial assistant at ASEE.




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