One of the most pressing issues facing America today is the high social and fiscal cost of crime and incarceration. People living in high-crime neighborhoods are often victims or witnesses to crime. These neighborhoods are home to families that must live with depreciating property value as well as poor quality school systems and high rates of truancy. The United States has the largest prison population in the world; imprisonment disrupts nearly 7 million American families every year, imposing dire financial ramifications. For parolees, high rates of recidivism only hurt communities more.
Studies show that incarceration is often linked to a lack of education. High school graduates and individuals who have earned GEDs are significantly less likely to commit crimes. Recognizing this important dynamic, in 2003, then San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey launched the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department Five Keys Charter School (FKCS): a high school for adult inmates inside the county’s jails.
FKCS is a public school, accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges and completely funded by the San Francisco United School District based on the level of enrollment. This secure and scalable budget allows the staff to meet the complex needs of the students with features such as special education and improved access to technology. Prior education programs in the San Francisco county jails were run by third party providers; not only were they small and underfunded, but their structure was not compatible with the needs of prisoners.
FKCS has a comprehensive curriculum, catering to a variety of skill levels. Courses range from literacy training and ESL to high school algebra and physics. Community college dual-enrollment and vocational training are also offered. All students are required to take a class in restorative justice, which trains inmates in conflict resolution and personal accountability.
Employing over 200 staff members while serving over 8,000 students annually, the program offers a teacher-student balance that helps inmates who need remedial tutoring in reading, writing, and math. Integrated classrooms, designated classroom space, and innovative teaching methods motivate students, and have actually reduced the amount of violence in prison.
Since its founding, FKCS has expanded to a women’s prison in San Francisco, as well as to several facilities operated by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. Ten community learning centers have opened throughout the Bay Area, allowing inmates who have been released to complete coursework needed for graduation. There are also plans to offer online classes to parolees released to rural areas.
The system has been extremely cost effective since the cost of rent, food, medical care, and security are already covered under the prison budget. FKCS students have a recidivism rate of 28%, compared to the California state rate of 58%–a data point reflective of the enormous progress the initiative has realized. 90% of students report enjoying school, and in the 2013-2014 school year, over 58% of students improved their reading and math skills by an average of two grade levels.
Offering an innovative model to end the school-to-prison pipeline, FKCS has the potential to transform corrections across the country.