Initiative aims to use education to reduce recidivism among local inmates

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In the United States, more than 2 million people are incarcerated in federal, state and county correctional facilities. An additional 4.7 million are on probation or parole, and according to the National Institute of Justice, three-quarters of convicted offenders are likely to be re-arrested within five years.

"Recidivism rates continue to rise and that increase is something that is of particular concern in Centre County where we have three correctional institutions in our own backyard," said Efrain Marimon, referring to State Correctional Institution (SCI) Benner Township, SCI Rockview and the Centre County Correctional Facility (CCCF).

To help combat this rise, Marimon, an instructor in Penn State's College of Education, has established the Restorative Justice Initiative (RJI), a project that aims to build partnerships between Penn State and local correctional institutions to provide education programming to incarcerated individuals while also raising awareness for this forgotten population. Marimon serves as the director of RJI, leads the Prison Education Program of the project and teaches in the local correctional facilities.

"The idea of prison education is not new," Marimon said. "It's something that's operating at multiple campuses around the country, but it is new for Penn State. We now have partnerships with CCCF and SCI Benner."

Marimon, a licensed attorney and former social studies teacher, spent much of his time in the past two years contacting coordinators of prison education programs across the country to learn more about how they operate.

"I had a lot of questions," he said. "What are their ethical standards? What does the programming look like? What is their curriculum like? What components, if any, are accredited? I'm trying to get a feel for what are the different types of structures in which these programs exist."

As part of his research, Marimon visited Boston University, which has hosted a prison education program since 1972. College of Education Dean David H. Monk accompanied Marimon on the visit, which allowed them both to see firsthand the different types of classes that are offered as well as to meet one-on-one with the faculty members who teach those classes.

"Visiting Boston University gave me a window into what the program could look like here," Marimon said. "Right now, I think our program is much broader, especially since we're working with the jail."

"The idea of prison education is not new. It's something that's operating at multiple campuses around the country, but it is new for Penn State. We now have partnerships with CCCF and SCI Benner."

— Efrain Marimon, instructor of education, Penn State

Marimon is referring to CCCF, where he and RJI graduate student volunteers have been observing re-entry courses that the institution offers to inmates and providing feedback since fall 2016.

"The idea of the jail is focusing more on impacting recidivism rates and reintegration programs," he said, explaining that he and the volunteers work with the counselors and education specialists at the jail to review and update curriculum and make suggestions regarding programming.

RJI is an umbrella that includes two pieces — a student organization (sRJI) and the prison education program, Marimon explained. The student organization, which was officially recognized by the University last fall, primarily comprises graduate students from multiple disciplines across Penn State.

"Initially, we wanted to get involved in the local population here and so we partnered with Centre County Correctional Facility and just kind of asked 'how can we be of help?'" said Lindsey Fullmer, a doctoral candidate in the College of Education's counselor education program who also serves as sRJI's coordinator of volunteer placements. "With authorization through Penn State as well as training requirements at CCCF, we are able to observe their re-entry programs and really engage with not only the individuals who are incarcerated but then also with the counselors who are teaching the curriculum, in hopes that we can find strategies to make it better and grow the curriculum."

Fullmer and her fellow volunteers work with the inmates in a classroom setting. They also work with CCCF counselors to revise and expand course offerings that meet the specific needs of the inmates, including a new legal education course taught by Penn State Law students with supervision and support from Marimon.

"The [legal education] course doesn't provide advice but instead basic legal education to help individuals," Fullmer said, explaining that most inmates are assigned public defenders who have large caseloads, are often overworked and have limited time. "We're trying to give them basic skills in legal education. 'What does my sentence mean? What does it look like for me? What options do I have?' These are questions that they don't always know to ask or how to ask."

RJI also has graduate student volunteers who are teaching a creative writing course that is offered to female inmates, and assisting CCCF counselors with their Pride and Choices Program and the re-establishment of a job skills course. Additionally, Marimon co-teaches a new course on entrepreneurship with Jack Matson, professor emeritus in the College of Engineering, and Thomas Brewster, CEO of CentrePeace, a nonprofit organization that provides work for inmates of CCCF.

"A lot of people we work with struggle with the development of their identity, particularly how it relates to who they are physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally, and are asking themselves questions like 'who am I?' or 'how did I get here?'"

— Anay Pope, graduate assistant

Because sentences at CCCF are generally shorter than those of inmates at SCI Benner, the focus of RJI is different from traditional prison education programs.

"Centre County is concerned with recidivism rates so our focus is more on re-entry and what can we do to help these people [transition back] into society and be successful," Fullmer said.

"The objectives [in the jail] are very different than the objectives in the prison," Marimon said. "At SCI Benner, we focus more on 'traditional' educational programing by providing opportunities for individuals who have earned their GED to continue their academic endeavors by taking college-like courses."

In spring 2017, RJI piloted two unaccredited college-level courses at SCI Benner. A volunteer faculty member from the College of the Liberal Arts led a philosophy and ethics course and a graduate student from School of Visual Arts taught an art education class. Both classes were popular with the inmates and enrollment reached capacity.

Because the program is growing quickly, the College of Education helped Marimon secure some much-needed help.

"Through the generosity of the college, I was able to partner with the Office of Multicultural Programs to get graduate student support for this program," he said.

Anay Pope, a first-year doctoral student in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, collects data and compiles reports, and meets with community partners to support RJI. She said she's seen firsthand the impact RJI has on the incarcerated individuals it serves.

"Our students are in genuine disbelief that someone who is not obligated to care about them actually cares. That care is motivation," Pope said. "What they do with that motivation, I am not responsible for but to see someone become motivated to be who they want to be, that's big."

"A lot of people we work with struggle with the development of their identity, particularly how it relates to who they are physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally, and are asking themselves questions like 'who am I?' or 'how did I get here?'" she said. "I'd like to think the care we have challenges their thoughts or feelings of worthlessness and nudges them to see themselves as deserving of more than what they have now."

When observing classes, Fullmer said that some of the inmates are very open and will approach her and other volunteers at the end of class to talk and thank them for being there and helping to provide the education.

"The responses we have gotten further prove that there is a need for these types of programs," Marimon said.

It is that need, combined with a belief that education is a tool used to empower others, that drives Marimon and RJI volunteers to serve this population.

"When I was a teacher in Philadelphia not only did I see the linkages between the school-to-prison pipeline, but I witnessed the sad reality incarceration has on students’ lives, their families and communities," he said. "As educators, we can help combat these social injustices to ensure everyone has access to a quality education and for those who are incarcerated, making sure the opportunities are there for them when they are reintegrated into society."

"We are not 'yuppie liberals' with savior complexes. I do this work because I truly believe everyone deserves investment and everyone has a gift to give the world. The cure to cancer may be locked away in a jail cell because of a series of unfortunate events. RJI is here to find that cure."

— Anay Pope

Fullmer said she had a similar experience working in a psychiatric residential facility. "A lot of the clients I served had experiences with incarceration," she said. "One of the challenges was always recidivism because we were finding that re-entry was just a significant challenge and, often times, it was left to us as service providers to kind of pick up the pieces."

For Pope, working with and helping underserved populations is part of who she is.

"My mom raised me to love and care for everyone so to me this work is natural," she said.

"We are not 'yuppie liberals' with savior complexes," Pope said about RJI volunteers. "I do this work because I truly believe everyone deserves investment and everyone has a gift to give the world. The cure to cancer may be locked away in a jail cell because of a series of unfortunate events. RJI is here to find that cure."

Monk also believes in the importance of overcoming impediments that block the development and utilization of valuable skills.

"There are tremendous human resources present within the inmate populations of these correctional facilities. It is in the society's interest to develop and utilize these resources effectively. It is a winning result all around," he said.

"Efrain has proven himself to be very skilled at building the kind of partnerships this initiative needs in order to succeed," Monk said. "We're excited to see what the future holds."

As RJI enters its second year, Marimon is optimistic that the program will continue to grow stronger and attract more graduate student and faculty volunteers. It is his hope, he said, to eventually add a research component to the RJI umbrella and for the program to be self-sustaining. Until then, he said, he will continue to work to raise awareness for the educational needs of incarcerated individuals.

"To me, it's common sense," he said. "Penn State is a land-grant institution and RJI is part of our commitment to our community, to Pennsylvania and to our beliefs about the power of education and what that means for individuals.”

Media Contacts: 

Jessica Buterbaugh

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814-865-1005

marketing communications specialist,
College of Education

Last Updated July 19, 2017