From Shackles to School: Should Prisoners Have Access to Education?

by Meghan Keates

By Meghan Keates

I’m a huge fan of TED Talks, and the other day I watched one in particular that left me thinking. In an emotionally charged speech entitled “How we’re priming some kids for college – and others for prison,” urban sociologist Alice Goffman states that there are two major institutions in the U.S. which guide today’s youth on the path to adulthood: college and prison.  

As she explains, the contrast between the two couldn’t be starker. “Young people on this journey are meeting with probation officers instead of with teachers, they’re going to court dates instead of to class; their junior year abroad is instead a trip to the state correctional facility.” It is a disturbing reality for too many of today’s young adults, who find themselves in prison – in many cases, for minor offenses – and are eventually released back into society lacking in both skills and education.

These are the facts: at this moment, there are over 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States.  On average, it costs the government over $30,000 per year just to house a single inmate.  At the same time, the majority of states annually spend less than $10,000 per student on K-12 public education.  Two-thirds of prisoners are rearrested within three years of release.  And even though integrating education into a prisoner’s sentencing has been proven to drastically reduce recidivism rates and increase the likelihood of meaningful employment upon release, Pell Grants have become nearly impossible for inmates to obtain due to the damage of the Tough on Crime era.

The Path to Mass Incarceration

On June 19th, 1986, Len Bias, a first-team All-American college basketball forward at the University of Maryland, died of a cocaine overdose. This tragic event caught the media’s attention and quickly became politicized during the midterm elections. Seeing an opportunity to recover from their soft-on-crime reputation, Democrats introduced a bill which pushed for mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. This bill became a catalyst for the Tough on Crime era.

The Tough on Crime movement caught steam when Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. This law increased funding for new prisons and created mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders. The majority of mandatory minimum laws only apply to drug-related crimes, leading to inflexible sentencing and a drastic increase in state and federal prison populations.

The Clinton administration’s signing of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 led to the devastating loss of Pell Grants for prisoners and overly harsh punishment for nonviolent offenders, meaning that more people were given prison sentences, and less were being educated. The Department of Corrections shifted it focuses on punishment.

More and more funds were taken away from educational opportunities and instead were being allocated to building in-demand prisons, pushing drug-related crime laws, and more. By 2003, Congress created, increased or expanded nearly 40 mandatory minimum sentences. It seems that Tough on Crime was the one policy that everyone could agree upon.

The incarceration rate in the U.S. has grown by 700% because of the laws Congress enacted during the Tough on Crime Era. The majority of whom are expected to be rearrested due to a lack of education and support upon release.

Public vs. Private

To accommodate such a high volume of prisoners, private facilities emerged, which attempted to ease the burden on Government-run prisons. What initially appeared to be a positive change, resulted in a correctional system which ultimately relies on hindering educational opportunities for inmates.

There are stark differences between public and private prisons. Public prisons are government owned and have one intent: to house and rehabilitate. The latter, private prisons, are quite the opposite. These corporate owned institutions have a different end goal in mind, and that’s to profit from each and every individual sitting in their cells.

The business model of private prisons offers ZERO incentive for educational programs, mostly because it costs them even more if prisoners leave prepared for reintegration into society. Why? Because they not only have to fund program costs, but the implementation of educational opportunities in the rehabilitation process ultimately confirms that detainees are less likely to return within three years of release. It means less funding from the federal government, less profit gain for their shareholders, and an unwanted plug on the stream of cash cows coming through their doors.

Since 1980 California Built 22 Prisons and 1 UniversityThe time and resources which were being invested into public and private prisons were not resulting in a decrease in crime OR recidivism rates. Instead, we’ve seen an astounding 2.3 million people fill prisons across the U.S., leading to $39 billion annually for the average U.S. taxpayer. I believe that it is education – not incarceration -which can improve public safety.

Politicians appear to agree. The Obama Administration has selected sixty-seven colleges and universities across twenty-seven states to participate in the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, which aims to “create a fairer, more effective criminal justice system, reduce recidivism, and combat the impact of mass incarceration on communities.” It has been proven that incarcerated individuals who participated in correctional education were 43% less likely to return to prison within three years than prisoners who didn’t participate in correctional education programs.

The Pell Grants, or a subsidy from the federal government which financially supports students pursuit of a postsecondary education, will help inmates gain employment, support their families, and ultimately turn their lives around.

Turning Inmates into Students

The best way to decrease recidivism rates is to provide inmates with marketable skills that will help them build careers upon their release. We’ve all heard it before; the path to success is through hard work and education. This would involve re-starting prison education programs which were nearly erased for inmates during the Tough on Crime movement.

Efforts have been made in the past. For instance, The New Yorker reported on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2014 prison education proposal by saying:

New Yorkers pay about $60,000 per inmate per year — a considerable burden, given that 40 percent of those who are released return within three years, most for economically driven crimes. But inmates who attend privately financed college classes before release fare much better. A prison education program created by Bard College in 2001 boasts a remarkable recidivism rate of 4 percent for inmates who merely participated in the program and 2.5 percent for those who earned degrees in prison. Also, research has shown that the public saves $4 to $5 in reimprisonment costs for every $1 it spends on prison education.

This program would have cost $1 million, a very small piece of the state correction’s budget of $2.8 billion to finance college education programs behind bars.

$60,000 to house an inmate is a lot of taxpayer money. You’ve heard the statistics: 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States and another 7 million on probation or parole.

You do the math.

What’s the best way to make up for this loss? Turn detainees into marketable employees through education so they are well equipped to become taxpaying citizens upon release, instead of falling into the vicious cycle of imprisonment. Give young “adults” the opportunity to earn their high school diploma and a higher education.

Do not let the label “prisoner” dehumanize an individual and sway you in favoring limited educational resources for detainees. They are incarcerated citizens, and the vast majority will once again join the masses and be labeled as simply: citizens.

So you may ask, why education?

I ask, why not?

Final Thoughts
  • Should prisoners with long-term or life sentences have access to education?
  • Should prisons practice transparency, and allow the community where these prisoners will eventually be    released-to play a role in the decision-making process?
  • How will President Obama’s Pell Grant impact Federal Pell Grant availability for low-income families?

View Alice Goffman’s TED Talk below:

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helen dowling September 12, 2016 - 7:36 pm

My son is doing the last part of a7 yr revoke and has done everything he can to use the Pell grant second chance act and Oklahoma dept of correction wont allow him said it may be next spring really! James mother! Odoc is a pile of crap ! He’d love to go yo school !

karen September 12, 2016 - 11:22 pm

Yes, all should have the opportunity, including those with long-term and life sentences. The upside far outweighs the downside for everyone when it comes to education within prison!


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