In its waning days, Obama administration officials announced plans to expand education efforts in federal prisons and to provide more direction and oversight to the programs previously run separately at each facility.
Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced in late November that for the first time, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) had hired an education specialist as superintendent of a planned “semi-autonomous school system” within the BOP. Lynch prominently noted Amy Lopez, a veteran prison educator, was relocating from Texas to become the new point person for upgrading BOP educational programs.
Lopez was previously director of instruction for the large statewide educational school district Texas created for inmates in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and had also held a number of other correctional education posts in Texas.
More background on outgoing DOJ officials’ plans for creating a new, more centralized BOP education system came in a January 9 memo from then-deputy attorney general Sally Yates. It noted research has found inmates in educational programs are 43% less likely to be re-imprisoned than inmates not taking part in educational programs while incarcerated—meaning every dollar spent for inmate education can bring savings four to five times larger by trimming re-incarceration costs.
So, the Yates memo declared, the Department of Justice and BOP need to do “all we can to ensure every inmate has access to a quality education,” thus cutting recidivism and promoting public safety. It further noted DOJ had recently evaluated BOP’s education system, using its staff and an outside consultant, seeking ways to improve programs for adult literacy, special education, high school diplomas, and post-secondary education.
According to Yates, DOJ’s evaluation showed an urgent need for BOP to develop a comprehensive strategy capable of transforming the structure, operations and governance of its education system. Her memo set three tasks for BOP in achieving that goal: developing a more centralized structure while improving how finances and personnel are allocated within the system; starting a pilot program for education technology; and devising a new BOP policy on educating inmates with learning disabilities.
The Yates memo also noted the BOP’s hiring of Amy Lopez to serve as the first-ever superintendent/Chief Education Administrator for BOP education programs, calling it one of the critical first steps in making the agency’s educational offerings both high-quality and consistently implemented throughout BOP institutions.
Before being fired for refusing to defend the Trump administration’s executive order curbing travel to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries, Yates had publicly predicted the new administration would follow the directions set in her memo for revamping BOP educational programs.
Recent developments, however, though little publicized, may signal a marked change in plans for BOP and DOJ. Just a few weeks ago, Lopez was apparently fired, though DOJ says it wasn’t at the instigation of either Yates’ successor, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, or Lynch’s successor, Attorney General Jeff Sessions—who while in the U.S. Senate occasionally voiced skepticism on the effectiveness of prison education programs.
BOP officials are noncommittal on what led to the change, or the education plans of new officials at BOP and DOJ. All of which leaves uncertain what, if anything, remains of the plans outlined for BOP education programs by the departing Obama administration officials.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com and PrisonerResource.com.