Three Steps To Help Returning Citizens Gain Second Chances Through STEM


As we observe Second Chance Month, which recognizes the formerly incarcerated, this April, it’s time our country finally charted a new course for justice-impacted citizens returning to society.

Everyone deserves a second chance, and the groundwork must be laid long before people leave prison. All people who are incarcerated need meaningful career learning, mental stimulation and strong support services to fully reintegrate into society. Yet, far too few prisons provide these necessities, and far too few returning citizens are prepared to thrive post-incarceration.

Today, the U.S. system of incarceration actively prevents returning citizens from contributing value to our society. This is not the problem of a few: The Prison Policy Initiative reports that almost 2 million people are incarcerated in the U.S. Recent studies report that 1 in 2 U.S. adults have a justice-impacted loved one, and “nearly 4 percent of U.S. children younger than age 18 are separated from a parent because of incarceration.” By stigmatizing justice-impacted parents and removing opportunity, incarceration denies children promising futures.

But we can change this. One way of doing so is a strong system of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education in prisons.

With our colleagues at Education Development Center (EDC), Prison-to-Professionals and other partners, we build pathways to STEM careers in prisons through the STEM Opportunities in Prison Settings (STEM-OPS) initiative. These pathways are vital for both returning citizens and our country’s STEM economy. Currently, the U.S. has a critical STEM workforce shortage. The STEM industry tries to address its growing workforce needs, but people who are, or have been, incarcerated are largely overlooked.

For people in prison, high-quality STEM education provides a direct route to productive and stable livelihoods, as well as a pivotal way to contribute to societal and national well-being. Providing educational opportunities in prison, including STEM education, saves significant taxpayer money (education is 4 to 5 times more cost-effective than incarceration) while providing a respected way forward for justice-impacted people: A true second chance.

In our STEM-OPS network, we have many successful STEM professionals who began their careers in prison — because they had access to STEM education. Unfortunately, they are in the minority. To expand STEM opportunities to all, here are three steps, as part of a more comprehensive strategy: 

1, Get rid of false narratives about STEM ability:

There is a false belief that people in prison cannot succeed in STEM. Such biases pre-exclude untapped talent from participating in and contributing to STEM progress. If we create prison-to-STEM career pathways, justice-impacted people can contribute to STEM — supporting their families, communities and country. And STEM fields urgently need returning citizens, as lack of diversity is impeding national progress. Diverse lived experiences yield divergent thinking key to innovation. Opening up a new stream of talent into STEM fields will enable the workforce to use different lenses to view complex problems, ask different questions, pursue unique approaches and see solutions that would escape a less diverse STEM workforce. By excluding any population, we diminish what we can achieve. By seeking out those who have direct lived experience with our myriad societal and ecological problems, including incarceration, a truly diverse STEM workforce can produce creative solutions for rapid economic growth and stability.
2. Make the technology in prison equitable with that on college campuses:

We must ensure equitable access to information and communication technology in prisons, as states prepare to implement the $2.75 billion Digital Equity Act. The act focuses on advancing “digital equity among populations most impacted by the digital divide,” the very populations who are overrepresented in prison. A new study found that 92 percent of jobs require digital skills, that having such skills improves the economy and “states that target resources toward digital skill building could generate measurable monetary benefits.” The majority of justice-impacted people can only access antiquated technology and are not prepared for the 92 percent of jobs that require technology skills post-release. It’s key to tap the Digital Equity Act to provide justice-impacted people with the digital access and training they need to succeed in the workforce.
3. Expand the Chips and Science Act workforce development funding to prisons: 

The Chips and Science Act has highlighted the U.S. struggle to stay competitive as a global STEM leader. The worldwide chip shortage cost the U.S. an estimated $240 billion in 2021. For our country to remain competitive in the worldwide STEM economy, we cannot afford to under-educate anyone, nor discourage STEM interest. Yet amid plans to support STEM learning ecosystems to advance Chips and Science Act goals, prisons are being overlooked. Across the nation, our prisons could and should be essential parts of STEM learning ecosystems. Chips and Science Act funding has a tremendous potential to increase STEM education opportunities and prepare returning citizens to “make more in the United States” and help revitalize their communities.

We can make a strong, successful second chance a reality for all returning citizens. These citizens are our sons, our daughters, our parents and our friends. They are future innovators and solvers of our nation’s challenges. 

Robust STEM education and careers present a vital way forward for them — and for our nation. We can start this April, we can start today.

-------------------THE HILL