Against the Grain: A Study of North Carolina's Plan to Provide College to its Prison Inmates

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2008-04-22

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This study uses theories of organizational resiliency and distributed structure to analyze the development and maintenance of postsecondary correctional education (PSCE) in North Carolina. The study uses bounded case study methodology to focus on the partnership between the North Carolina Department of Correction (NCDOC) and the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS) that provides PSCE to over one-third of all inmates in North Carolina. First, the study examines why North Carolina expanded access to PSCE at a time when other states restricted access. The findings indicate two reasons: (1) legislative (House Bill 50) and legal factors (Small v. Martin) mandated that the NCDOC and NCCCS work together to provide PSCE to the incarcerated population, and (2) the state's culture and values emphasize education for everyone, including inmates, helping to develop widespread support for PSCE.

Next the study explores how North Carolina currently provides access to PSCE using data acquired from interviews, document review, and direct observation. The two agencies demonstrated a pragmatic approach that emphasized vocational versus academic PSCE, programs that could be completed within the amount of time remaining on a prison sentence, a funding structure that avoids burdensome legislative oversight, and an awareness of the balance between the local level units of the two agencies and the central system offices. 

The study concludes with an analysis of North Carolina's PSCE using Coutu's (2003) theory of organizational resiliency and Brafman and Beckstrom's (2006) theory of distributed structure and questions whether distributed structure contributes to a better understanding of organizational resiliency. Results indicate that the longevity and breadth of North Carolina's PSCE appear to be a case of organizational resiliency and that characteristics of distributed structure likely contributed to the resiliency of such programming, however the newness of such research indicates a need for further exploration.

This study has numerous research and policy implications, and offers guidance for states that would consider expanding their PSCE offerings. The study also identifies multiple directions for further research.

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