WU works to reduce recidivism, to host national decarceration conference

| Contributing Reporter

While hundreds of journalists, social workers, formerly incarcerated individuals and policy makers will convene at Washington University over the weekend to rethink and transform nationwide criminal justice, another group of the University’s professors has been focusing their efforts on a continuing education program for local prison inmates.

The Danforth campus will host the inaugural Smart Decarceration Initiative national conference beginning this Friday. The conference, organized by professor Carrie Pettus-Davis of the Brown School of Social Work and Matt Epperson, assistant professor at the University of Chicago, aims to reduce recidivism rates by easing prisoner reentry into society.

Within three years of release from prison, around 72.5 percent of men and 62.9 percent of women are re-arrested, according to the Department of Justice. Prison education programs, including the initiative Wash. U.’s program is modeled upon, have the potential to decrease that rate to as low as three percent.

“The Smart Decarceration Initiative has the goal of substantially reducing reincarceration rates and ameliorating social disparities in the criminal justice system to promote social well-being,” Pettus-Davis said. “We’re organizing the conference to develop an actionable roadmap for decarceration in this country.”

Redefining Justice in America, the keynote event of the conference, will be open to the public on Friday in Edison Theatre at 6 p.m. The event will feature a conversation between a Minnesota prosecutor and a man who wrongly spent 24 years in prison based on prosecutorial misconduct.

Reducing recidivism is in the national spotlight, with the Obama administration deciding this summer to reopen Pell Grant eligibility for prisoners.

Meanwhile, a different group of Washington University professors is leading the charge in rehabilitation by teaching University College courses in a local correctional facility.

“The country moved away from prison-based college courses for a while, so a lot of groups like the Wash. U. group are becoming reengaged and even funding it themselves,” Pettus-Davis said.

“There are significant studies that have shown taking college courses in prison lowers recidivism rates from 60-70 percent [depending on the state] to 20-22 percent,” Margaret Garb, a history professor and the leader of Washington University’s prison education program, said. “In some programs, like the Bard College initiative our program is modeled upon, the recidivism rate is 3-4 percent.”

Wash. U.’s program for prisoners began last fall and is rapidly expanding. By the spring, Garb is hopeful that prisoners will be taking three courses per semester and be considered full-time University College students, while also having jobs in the prison.

“We’re actively recruiting professors and trying to mirror what’s happening on campus. Last fall I taught the U.S. history survey here on campus and in the prison. They had the exact same reading, same paper assignments, same final exam. The guys do all the reading, they work very hard and take it very seriously,” Garb explains.

With renewed Pell Grant eligibility for prisoners, academics are excited about the rehabilitative possibilities.

“I don’t think we should measure our program simply on recidivism rates. There are a whole bunch of effects that are profoundly beneficial to our students, to the culture in the prison and to the larger society,” Garb added. “Studying the liberal arts enriches your life, no matter who you are. It gives you a broader view of yourself and your relationship to your community and it deepens your experience in life.”

According to Robert Henke, a Washington University performing arts and comparative literature professor who co-directs the prison program and teaches in it, the courses have had a noticeable impact.

“We’ve already had one person out, and he’s already enrolled in the University College. There’s something at stake for the prisoners. One of them came up to me early on and said ‘I’ve got to succeed in this class; there is no other option,’” Henke recalls.

Pell Grants and prisoner education will be major discussion topics at the Smart Decarceration Initiative conference this weekend. But for educators and policy makers, developing the perfect mix of policies to reduce recidivism and better rehabilitate prisoners is no small feat.

Organizing the conference isn’t the only contribution to the rehabilitative landscape Pettus-Davis has been making lately. Her work is ongoing at the Concordance Institute for Advancing Social Justice, a recently launched research-policy partnership where researchers, ex-prisoners and social workers are developing a more effective model for re-entry.

“As a researcher-practitioner-client team, we’re sifting through and figuring out how to bring together the highest quality program to create this academy model. We’ve reviewed so far over 4,000 programs from around the world that have been tested with vulnerable and marginalized populations,” Pettus-Davis said.

“In the medical field, the time between scientific discovery and adoption and practice is 17 years,” said Pettus-Davis. “With the Concordance Academy and the Concordance Institute, we’re trying to accelerate the feedback loop between research and practice into immediate, real time.”

The conference will run from this Thursday, Sept. 24 to Sunday, Sept. 27.