Learn more about JFF
Learn more about JFF
Center for Justice & Economic Advancement

Normalizing Education Resource Center


Best Practices for Building Post-Release Educational Pathways

Prepared by
 Rachel Pleasants McDonnell, Director, Jobs for the Future; Christopher Agans, Executive Director, NJ-STEP, Rutgers University; Machli Joseph, Director of Policy, Advocacy, and Outreach, Prison Cells to PhDs; Jennifer Seil-Simonson, Former Coordinator for Justice Impacted Communities, Des Moines Area Community Colleges 

For many people who are incarcerated, postsecondary classes offered by the facility in which they’re serving their sentences represent a first step on an educational journey that is likely to continue after they are released—one that could ultimately lead to an industry-recognized credential, an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, or even a master’s degree or a PhD. To facilitate the process of moving from incarceration to on-campus or online classes, colleges and their partners must develop structures and programs that are intentionally designed to support people who are navigating this transition. This brief offers practitioner-informed recommendations from Rutgers University’s New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons (NJ-STEP) initiative, the higher education in prison program at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) in Iowa, and Prison-to-Professionals (P2P) that can help colleges create pathways that honor and support students’ visions for reentering their communities and continuing their educations. 

Core Principles 

While state and local regulatory and educational structures will play big roles in shaping the specific nature of any individual’s post-release pathway, these two core principles should guide the overall planning process:  

  1. Build alongside, not for: Work with students to define their own visions for reentry and continuing education. Figure out what your college can do to create a straightforward process that enables students to achieve their goals in a way that works for them.    

  2. Reach out to people who have firsthand experience in navigating the criminal legal system for help in planning and supporting programs for individuals who are transitioning from incarceration.   

Recommended Practices

While there are many additional factors to consider when developing post-release educational pathways—including articulation agreements and credit transferthese core principles and recommendations will help colleges support students throughout the transition process in a way that prioritizes students’ agency to define their own success.