Inmates who receive higher education in prison are less likely to become re-offending prisoners, according to the independent public policy research organization RAND.
UCF’s Florida Prison Education Project offers undergraduate education classes to incarcerated individuals in Central Florida.
Director of FPEP Dr. Keri Watson said that during fall 2017, FPEP started offering in-person classes at the Central Florida Reception Center, but then the program moved into other colleges such as Zephyrhills, Polk and Lake County. FPEP is now working to develop a secure server to launch their pilot online program. Watson said that online classes could alleviate some of the commuting for teachers who travel to the prisons.
“We are hoping through our partnerships with our state college partners, that we can extend online learning to help people finish their A.A. or maybe get their B.A.” Watson said. “Right now, we are in the early planning stages.”
Although online classes haven't started yet, FPEP's graduate research intern Sarah Hubert said that inmates will have to go through an application process, but the prison system has the final call on who is eligible for the program.
In January 2020, UCF ranked among the top 20 in the nation for the best online bachelor’s program, according to U.S. News & World Report. It is this dedication to online learning that Watson hopes to provide the inmates.
Watson said directors are looking into methods to develop secure servers for online learning because the inmates will not be in the same online classes as UCF students.
“It would be separate classes; it wouldn’t be the people who are incarcerated would be in the same online class with our students who are not incarcerated,” Watson said. “It would be a secure lock-down browser, type of intranet if you will.”
UCF alumna and FPEP’s program coordinator Ariel Collier said online classes can offer educational opportunities for those incarcerated.
“UCF has kind of perfected online learning, and I think that our audience can expand a lot,” Collier said. “Right now we have 150 students, and I’m pretty sure we can spread more knowledge about higher education in prison, so that’s the goal.”
Hubert said that expanding the program online could provide educational access to prisoners across the state, rather than hindering prisoners to limited resources.
As the program grows, different degree programs will be added. Watson said she's met with various deans and departments across UCF to see where there's interest and a need.
Some potential programs include criminal justice, technical communication and hospitality, all of which Watson said have traditionally hired people with criminal backgrounds.
“We have a lot of tourism in Central Florida. Hospitality is a huge employer in this part of our state,” Watson said. “We also want to really be aware of the market and job opportunities, and we want to look at where there is a need in our state and in our location for employment.”
In order to raise money to buy supplies for the program, FPEP holds a book sale on the last Wednesday of every month. Some supplies includes paper, pencils, charcoal, erasers and sharpeners for a foundations of art class being taught at the prison.
UCF students can donate books to the prison libraries or buy books the prisons may have banned.
Junior marine biology major Courtnee Curry said she saw members of FPEP selling books while walking back from class and connected with some of the volunteers. She said she hopes she can get involved and volunteer in the future.
Curry has family impacted by the system and said that an education can leave a positive impression on inmates.
“I think it helps shape you as a person and shape your interests, and I believe [education] pushes you toward beneficial things,” Curry said.
Curry is not the only one who said there's a connection between education and re-incarceration. Although FPEP is funded by grants and donations, Hubert said spending money on prison education can actually save taxpayers money in the future.
“From a financial perspective, it is just a good choice,” Hubert said. “Every dollar you spend on prison education is four to five dollars you’ll save in the future because our taxes go to the prisons in the United States.
Hubert said she is a believer in second chances, but FPEP also provides a first chance to many prisoners.
"A lot of people have never even had a first chance because they were brought up in a system where they maybe weren’t taught how to be successful in our society,” Hubert said. “Maybe they didn’t have access to education, maybe they were exposed to violence very young.”