Updated June 20 at 5:16 p.m.

Aristides Henriquez spent 16 years locked inside a series of Massachusetts state prisons — and, all those years, locked out of educational programming that could have made his life better upon his release.

Henriquez wanted to take vocational classes the prison was supposed to offer, but all he did was sit and wait for a seat in a classroom or training program.

“I signed up for the welding program. Years and years and years and years went by, and they just never offered it,” the 42-year-old former prisoner said in a telephone interview from Florida, where he now lives with his mother.

The barbering program had no space for him, and neither did a college course, he said. All he got was “the run-around.”

The vast majority of the roughly 6,000 men and women incarcerated by the state of Massachusetts will be released eventually, and top state officials agree that educating prisoners is key to helping them survive and stay out of trouble when they’re freed.

“The best way to reduce recidivism and make somebody successful on the outside is through education,” said Department of Correction Commissioner Carol Mici in March at a roundtable discussion in Roslindale with about 20 corrections officials, volunteer educators and some formerly incarcerated men.

But in reality only a minority of state prisoners are getting into classes. An incarcerated person is nearly four times more likely to be on a waitlist than enrolled in a class that could help them find work upon their release, according to data obtained by GBH News.

Some 3,100 state prisoners — more than half of all those incarcerated in Massachusetts prisons — were waiting to get into academic, vocational or technology classes last fall, records show. About 850, or just 15% of prisoners, were actually enrolled in a class.

And instead of boosting programs, the state Department of Correction is moving away from in-person classes and relying more on online learning, the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting has found.

Last fall, the correctional department opted not to reapply for more than $2 million in state educational grants that support prison programs. Those state grants covered 80% of the DOC’s expenses for educational programs at a high school level or below, according to data compiled by a special legislative commission on correctional spending.

State prison officials declined to be interviewed for this story, and failed to respond to document requests for details on some of the programs. Corrections officials also declined to appear before the state Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee last December to answer questions about education.

Instead, the department sent a detailed statement Saturday saying that GBH News was missing critical context. They argue that many people in prison are not eligible for or even interested in taking classes, and others may be enrolled in social skills training or other pre-release programming that limits the time they have availble for classes. They also contend that the state is actively trying to expand educational opportunities.

The lack of education and training programs is seen as a key failure in Massachusetts to preparing prisoners for life outside the walls — even as officials tout such education as important for their success. Several current and former prisoners, like Henriquez, and their advocates told GBH News they wait for years for training opportunities.

Maria Valerio of Clinton says she requested data on waitlists because she was so appalled by the lack of opportunities for prisoners.

“Massachusetts is such a highly educated state ... and we have so much money that we’re putting into the prisons. And yet you can’t educate people,” said Valerio, a prison activist involved with the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ. “I think it’s disgraceful.”

Policymakers in several recent reports also point to structural racism in the system: the miniscule rates of inmates accessing college classes, almost no services for young prisoners with special educational needs and limited access to educational programming disproportionately affect prisoners of color.

Even those who got some training maintain it’s insufficient. Jose Bueno, 36, told GBH News he was released on parole last year after 16 years in prison, in part because the parole board concluded he had “completed vocational training.” But Bueno says he was repeatedly denied access to other vocational classes that led to a professional certification.

“I was on the welding program list for 10 years and ... I never got in,” he said. Instead, he went to work for a prison workshop that builds park benches and other commercial products. He says he learned useful skills, but he never received a certificate he was promised. “I was just, like, working in a sweatshop,” he said.

Bueno said he has no documentation to show a potential employer that he had been trained in the work. A year after his release, he says he is still bouncing between temp jobs while trying to get a foothold in the heating, ventilation and air conditioning industry. He says he can’t get stable housing until he gets a stable job.

“I’m hanging on by a thread, you know, and I don’t know where to turn,” he said.

A young Black man poses for a photo sitting at a picnic table in a public park, with cars parked along the road in the background.
Jose Bueno, 36, says he spent years in Massachusetts state prison trying to get enrolled in vocational classes, but was repeatedly denied. A year after his release, he is struggling to land a job.
Paul Singer GBH News

An investment in tablets

At the roundtable meeting in March, Commissioner Mici sold the idea of educating Massachusetts prisoners with tablet computers, pre-loaded with educational materials that they can use to study on their own. The state has already spent $14 million on the devices, which started being distributed last year.

“When you’re in your room yourself, you can always be working on education. You don’t have to wait to go to that classroom Monday, Wednesday, Friday for an hour, because that’s unfortunately sometimes all you get in the department because of space, because of waitlists,” Mici said.

The department said in its statement to GBH News that "Tablets have not replaced any teachers for any of our programs and the goal is to accentuate the learning experience and offer more enrichment opportunities through programming on tablets."

But advocates and some current state prisoners said studying on a tablet falls way short of meaningful education.

Dwight Williams, an inmate at the state prison in Norfolk, told GBH News that it’s almost impossible to use a tablet in a prison cell. “The WiFi sucks,” he said. “You have to stand out in the hallway to get a signal.”

Ann Jacobs, former executive director of the John Jay College Institute for Justice and Opportunity at the City University of New York, said online programs can complement education. But she said they can’t do the work of a live teacher — especially for adult learners whose earlier school experiences often were negative.

“We want to get knowledge and experience that’s going to equip us to get a job, do fulfilling work and make a living in the community,” she said. “A tablet-based education that you do on your own in a cell doesn’t do any of that.”

Karen DeCoster, a former corrections education specialist with the state Office of Adult and Community Learning Services, also said most prisoners need to be in a classroom to benefit from education.

“More than anybody, they need the opportunity to learn social skills, to learn how to interact with each other, how to self-monitor and manage their behavior in group settings,” said DeCoster, who once oversaw educational grants to the DOC. “These are transferable skills for employment and further education.”

Lizz Matos, the executive director of the local advocacy group Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, says the purchase of tablets is a “welcome development.” But the scale of the investment compared to DOC’s overall programming budget “should make clear that programming and education have not been prioritized.”

“Tablets should be utilized to supplement out-of-cell programming, education, and vocational training that is robust,” Matos told GBH News in a statement. “We hope that DOC spending going forward will prioritize rehabilitative programming so that people can get out and stay out of prison.”

Prisoners themselves are begging for more training. In a report distributed in January by Prisoners’ Legal Services, men incarcerated in three state prisons complained that the DOC had cut back on vocational certifications for a series of programs — including welding, carpentry and plumbing — that could lead to stable jobs outside the walls.

“There are classrooms in almost every DOC facility that regularly sit empty hours out of each day,” prisoners wrote. “It should be the goal of the DOC education division to have learning activities occurring in every classroom, at every available movement time, every day.”

In the 2020 fiscal year, the state Department of Correction spent just 2% of its $732 million operating budget on programming for inmates, according to a legislative commission’s study of DOC spending.

That study also concluded that the state corrections agency can’t clearly account for how its resources are used, or the outcomes produced.

One side effect of the DOC’s decision to walk away from state educational grants is that it also spares the agency from oversight by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which has found major flaws in prison education programs.

An internal education draft report from 2018, obtained by GBH News, found that only 26% of incarcerated students enrolled in high school–level or below programs at five DOC prisons and five county jails made a “measurable learning gain,” like earning a high school equivalency certification. DeCoster, whose was based out of the state’s education department, said DOC officials bristled at such scrutiny.

“It was really questionable whether or not a curriculum was being followed,” she said. “They would show us a written curriculum, but then we would see no evidence of it when we went in to monitor. So we would try to have conversations around what’s really happening here. And people didn’t like being questioned.”

The department said in its statement that it walked away from the grants because the program was not really designed to be implemented in prisons and it required too much paperwork. Nevertheless, “The DOC continues to provide the same level services, classroom instruction, and programs to more than 800 learners without the grant.”

Getting an education

The Department of Correction does understand how to provide inmates a quality educational experience — and sees its value.

Housed inside a pre-release center in Roslindale is what the state calls its School of Reentry. The program, launched in 2016, is meant to immerse prisoners nearing release in education and an array of social services not generally available systemwide.

“We found that around the DOC, a guy might get an educational program for an hour a day, or an hour a week. Whatever it was, it wasn’t enough,” the program’s co-founder Alan Spencer told a March roundtable of corrections officials, incarcerated students and some who had completed the program.

Instead, the School of Reentry offers six hours of daily classroom instruction in subject areas that lead to the equivalent of a high school diploma, or a vocational training program in computer programming. Lasting up to 18 months, the pre-release prison facility also provides counseling for substance abuse, mental health and employment.

Participants, sharing their stories at the event in March, said they were grateful for the chance at an education.

Roberto Rivera said when he was incarcerated at MCI-Norfolk, there was no education available, only waitlists. And Kenneth Gumes said he’d been in and out of Massachusetts prisons for more than 20 years before winning a spot at the Roslindale program in 2017 — which has helped him stay clean and sober.

“I never got any rehabilitation until they invented the School of Reentry,” he said at the roundtable. “The Department of Corrections didn’t do too much for me but house me and throw me back out in society.”

Kenneth Gumes says his life changed when he attended the DOC's School of Reentry and obtained a GED. He said he spent more than 20 years incarcerated over time and always before then just felt, "warehoused." He's been out of prison since 2017. He's here on June 13 at the Malden train station where he works part time helping others in addiction recovery.
Jenifer McKim/GBH News

State data show results are promising. More than 80% of students who have attended the program earned a high school equivalency. And of those released to the community from the program, only 9% ended up back in the criminal justice system.

This is far below the state’s 33% recidivism rate over three years. And also not surprising: Nationally, prisoners who receive education or vocational training are 43% less likely to be put back in prison in that timeframe and stand a better chance at finding a job than their peers who didn’t see such opportunities, according to a 2013 RAND Corporation report.

“We’re getting them ready to hit the streets. We’re getting them ready for life beyond here,” said Lisa Millwood, the School of Reentry’s director. “It gets started while they're here so that we're able to provide all the support, love and care that they need before they have to do it on their own.”

But the reach of the School of Reentry is limited. So far only 100 students have graduated. The school has room for just 25 people and has only run four cohorts since opening. The Department of Correction intends to double the capacity of this program, but that will still serve just a sliver of the total population.

"We are, in this state, world-famous for higher education, and yet we're not extending that even when the benefits of higher educational access for incarcerated people are so clear."
Mneesha Gellman, founder and director of the Emerson Prison Initiative

At the same time, officials from universities across the state tell GBH News they are practically banging on the prison doors trying to get in to teach eligible students.

Last fall, 213 incarcerated people in Massachusetts state prisons were taking some college-level courses from five colleges and universities running programs behind bars, according to a report from The Boston Foundation. That’s less than 4% of the total incarcerated population.

“It has been a missed opportunity,” said Mneesha Gellman, who directs the Emerson Prison Initiative and was a signatory to the foundation’s report. “We are, in this state, world-famous for higher education, and yet we’re not extending that even when the benefits of higher educational access for incarcerated people are so clear.”

One of the biggest barriers is the lack of dedicated learning spaces inside DOC prisons, the report found.

Basic needs such as classrooms, libraries, computer labs, and meeting space for office hours with professors would be available if prison leadership saw higher education as a priority, the report said. Authors also found that the DOC practice of suddenly relocating or reclassifying prisoners disrupts learning and enrollment.

Jose Bueno was one of the lucky ones: he got a college degree in prison. Bueno says he got into the classes taught by Boston University, but that was largely despite, not because of, the Department of Correction. “That was B.U. on its own. And I had a push for that. I had to get it on my own,” he said.

And then DOC staff told him that the degree disqualified him from the prison’s vocational classes, classes he believes would be more useful to him now that he is desperate to get a job with no real resume.

Bueno said he considers his college degree a huge accomplishment. “That is the one thing in my life that I am truly proud of,” he said. “It built up my confidence to where I know I can learn how to do anything.”

But he said that it has been no help in trying to find a job since leaving prison.

‘Hollowed out’

Massachusetts pales in providing college classes to prisoners compared to some nearby states. In Maine prisons, the per-capita rate of inmates taking college classes is four times higher than Massachusetts, based on data provided by the Maine Department of Corrections. And in New York’s prison system, the rate is two times greater than Massachusetts, according to New York state numbers. (New York has far more prisoners than Massachusetts, and Maine has far fewer.)

It wasn’t always like this. In the nearly four decades that former prisoner Joseph Jabir Pope was incarcerated inside Massachusetts prisons, he says he watched the state gradually abandon education programs.

“The programs that are available, for the most part, ... are hollowed out,” Pope told state lawmakers last December at a Joint Judiciary Committee hearing on criminal justice reforms.

In 2004, a corrections reform commission created under then-Gov. Mitt Romney documented how prior administrations had rolled back educational programs in state prisons.

In 1991, Gov. William Weld moved the corrections agency from Health and Human Services to what is now the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. The move came in the midst of a tough-on-crime approach and marks what prison reform advocates say was DOC’s shift from a rehabilitation model to one focused on punishment.

“[T]he DOC cut back in-prison education and programs significantly, which resulted in the layoff of 36 full time teachers and the elimination of several vocational programs,” the Romney-era report stated. “The Commission heard repeatedly that since the deep program cuts, the demand for education and programming has greatly outweighed the supply.” The 19-year-old report went on to criticize the changes, saying that it failed to reflect “’what works’ in successfully preparing offenders for law-abiding lives post-release.”

A screengrab of the 2004 Romney report shows the commission criticizing the Department of Correction for cutting back on in-person education and programs significantly.
In 2004, a corrections reform commission created under then-Gov. Mitt Romney documented how prior administrations had rolled back educational programs in state prisons.
Commission on Corrections Reform 2004 report

There’s renewed hope for expanded opportunities for college education behind bars with the return of federal Pell Grant funding for the incarcerated. The federal money, which was taken out of prisons under President Bill Clinton, will be restored this July. But only if corrections agencies remove barriers. For one thing, the programs need to meet federal criteria for prisoners to receive the grants. The department says it is expanding college classes, but the physical infrastructure in prisons provides limited classroom space.

State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, a chair on the judiciary committee, told GBH News that the DOC has a track record at the “superintendent level” of resisting expansion of college programming inside its walls.

“There’s just this cultural sort of opposition to more education,” he said. “When colleges have tried to expand in some of our prisons, they’re just either met with silence or opposition.”

Eldridge also said many programs are lacking in real-world needs.

“Why aren’t there programs to train people to go into clean energy or solar installation, higher-level trade jobs, computer programing?” he asked. “Those are jobs that clearly the workforce is in need of.”

WATCH: Reentry school preps inmates to leave prison — if they can get a spot

Aristides Henriquez, who said he is unemployed and seeing a mental health therapist for PTSD, agrees. He said people returning home from prison need these skills to build stable lives in their communities. Otherwise, they are tempted to fall back into selling drugs or other criminal activity.

“You end up doing such a long time and it’s like, at least if you could learn something there, you would have a fighting chance when you get to the street,” said Henriquez. “You get back out here and you're stuck not knowing anything — the same as you went in. And then it becomes a reoccurring thing, going back into the prison system.”

Have a tip or a comment about education in prisons, or reentering society after prison, in Massachusetts? Reach out to the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting at investigations@wgbh.org.

Correction: A previous version of this story said that Mneesha Gellman was a co-author on the report, but she was a signatory.