'A clear winner': How education in N.H. prisons can help people after release
Evenor Pineda didn’t graduate high school the first time around. But after landing in state prison in his 20s, he worked toward his degree through Granite State High School — part of a special school district for people serving prison time in New Hampshire.
“The first half of my sentence, I was in the mix,” Pineda, now 39, of Nashua, said in a recent interview. “You know, I was still kind of walking that fine line between these two worlds where, sure, I went to school and I participated in programs. But I also was very involved with the politics, you know, the gang life, and all that stuff.”
But over time, he decided he didn’t want to take part in that anymore, he said. Nor did he want his two children, with whom he maintained a relationship, to be around that kind of lifestyle when he came home.
He realized he had to “commit myself 100 percent to living on this side of the line,” he said. “And that’s where I found success once I committed, and I cut everybody else off that wasn’t on that same path.”
Pineda was released last year after serving 15 years for second-degree murder, for fatally stabbing another man during an argument in Nashua in 2005, according to a contemporaneous news report.
Readjusting to life outside prison has brought challenges, he said, but one place he’s had success is work. He obtained his commercial driver’s license and worked for the Department of Transportation, he said, and now works in sales for a food distributor.
Education was an important part of his journey. In addition to finishing high school, he took classes on computer skills, which he put to use in a clerical job he had while incarcerated and as part of a resident committee that communicated with prison leadership.
“Being in these classes, and trying to get recognition for my effort, the work I was putting in, moments that I was able to shine and share some of my knowledge … guys seeing that side of you, you know, it felt good and just pushed me more to want to learn more,” he said.
Earlier this year, proposed cuts to the N.H. Department of Corrections' education budget sparked discussions among legislators, advocates and community members about the impact of such programs.
DOC officials said Gov. Chris Sununu’s proposed budget would have forced them to gut educational programs for those behind bars. Lawmakers on the House Finance Committee restored most of that funding, however, citing the importance of education in helping incarcerated people successfully rejoin society.
Re-entry can be difficult for people leaving prison. Often, they end up re-arrested or reincarcerated — what criminologists call recidivism. Among state prisoners released in 2012, 46 percent had an arrest or probation or parole violation within five years that sent them back to prison, according to a recent U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics analysis.
Correctional education programs, like those Pineda participated in, are one effective way to cut recidivism rates, researchers have found.
“There is a large body of research demonstrating, over and over, again how effective participation in really any type of literacy, general education, vocation apprenticeship and especially college courses — how effective they are at reducing recidivism post-release,” said Amanda Pompoco, a research associate in the University of Cincinnati’s School of Criminal Justice.
Pineda said receiving his high school diploma felt like an accomplishment. He gave a speech at the ceremony, dedicated to his mother.
“She came from very humble beginnings,” he said — an orphan and immigrant who fought hard to get an education, learn the language “and to basically get a piece of the American dream. I wanted to dedicate that to her, because I squandered that opportunity. But, you know, I’m trying to salvage it now.”
‘A clear winner’
Correctional education can range from teaching literacy to college courses. Many programs help incarcerated people obtain a high school diploma or GED, or focus on career and technical skills.
And there’s a need — the prison population is, on average, less educated than the general public. That, combined with spotty employment history, lack of relevant skills and stigma of a criminal record, can make it harder to find legitimate work after release.
“When we think about who enters prison, often they have a number of educational deficits,” said Lois Davis, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank.
It’s important to address those gaps and provide opportunities to gain job skills as part of the rehabilitation process, she said.
“Ultimately, what you care about is that they are able to go back into their community and are able to be successful in finding jobs and taking care of their families. And also not reoffending, so from a societal perspective, we want a reduction in recidivism.”
In a 2018 study, Davis and three co-authors analyzed the results from dozens of prior studies and found that inmates who participated in educational programs were roughly 30 percent less likely to recidivate.
Studies have also found that correctional education is cost-effective, ultimately saving taxpayers money because fewer people return to prison — not to mention avoiding costs related to victimization, police and courts.
"Education is really a clear winner,” Davis said.
The 2018 analysis suggested that while all types of correctional education reduced recidivism, the effect was largest for college-level programming.
The research is less clear about why, exactly, getting education in prison lowers one’s odds of ending up back there, Pompoco said.
“We have a lot of ideas about why that might be,” she said.
Better employment prospects after prison are likely part of the answer, she said.
Formerly incarcerated people face higher rates of joblessness than the population at large — 27 percent in 2008, according to one study, about five times that of the overall unemployment rate at the time.
Some research has explored whether correctional education makes participants more likely to have jobs after their release, with somewhat mixed results.
A 2014 study out of Minnesota found secondary and postsecondary education in prison were associated with improved employment outcomes, while a 2017 study on a Florida vocational-education program found no statistically significant impact on employment within three months of release.
But education can also impart skills and habits that apply beyond the job market, which may also play a role, Pompoco said.
“There’s some good skills that we learn in terms of problem-solving and delayed gratification that, I think, also contribute to some of the positive outcomes that we see,” she said. “At least that’s my hope.”
For Joseph Lascaze, the classes he took while incarcerated — including high school refresher courses, training on things like computer skills and college correspondence courses — were about much more than job readiness.
In prison, teachers can become motivators and links to the outside world, said Lascaze, now an organizer with the ACLU of New Hampshire who is active in criminal justice policy work.
“That makes someone mentally feel connected to the community, but it also makes them feel as if they’re not an animal or some outsider,” said Lascaze. “ … You’re being interacted with as a human being by these teachers.”
Learning skills can also boost people’s confidence and show them a new path, he said.
“It starts to draw you away from that hopelessness, and starts to draw you away from that mindset that’s like, ‘Well, I’m just going to do my time and go home and continue what I’m doing, because I don’t know anything else.’ ”
In February, Department of Corrections officials told lawmakers that to meet their budget target, they would have to cut most educational programs, along with two transitional housing units.
According to the department’s presentation, the Corrections Special School District, which includes Granite State High School, would have gone unfunded, and state prison residents would no longer have been able to earn time off their sentences for completing educational and vocational training programs.
Four teachers would have remained to prepare residents for the High School Equivalency Test, along with one special education teacher to comply with a statutory requirement, but the prison would no longer have been able to offer high school diplomas.
The cuts would also have eliminated career and technical education, including courses on automotive repair, computer skills, accounting, marketing, digital literacy, hospitality and tourism, culinary arts, the building trades and cosmetology.
The DOC warned that the cuts could violate court orders that require the prison system to provide adequate vocational training programs, potentially opening the state up to a lawsuit.
The Department of Corrections’ leadership opposed cutting education and pushed for funding to be put back, according to lawmakers on the House Finance Committee and Lascaze, who was involved in advocating against the cuts.
The Department of Corrections did not respond to questions by press time.
Legislators restored funding for the transitional housing and educational programs, citing the positive impact they have on people returning to society and cost savings from lower recidivism.
“I don’t think prisoners can develop skills to lead a meaningful life if we can’t provide some training,” then-Rep. Lynne Ober, R-Hudson, who was chairing the Finance
Committee division considering the DOC budget, said in a March hearing.
Ober said the amendment restored about $5 million of the $6.3 million that was slated to be cut from prison education over two years. She said the DOC will use online courses offered by the Virtual Learning Academy, an Exeter-based charter school, for some of its high school instruction.
DOC Commissioner Helen Hanks told WMUR at the time that the restored funding would preserve 21 of 27 positions.
Pineda said the programs he took part in weren’t just about learning skills. They also helped him build confidence to “depend on myself more, and kind of dig deeper to work harder, knowing that I can reach new heights if I can apply myself and distance myself from all the negativity.”
He said he was troubled to hear that state officials were considering cuts to education earlier this year.
"That's the worst possible thing they could do,” he said. “There’s few shining lights in that prison."
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our race and equity project. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.