A Higher Purpose for Higher Education

A Higher Purpose for Higher Education

From the Indianapolis Star

Eliminating college education for prison inmates is an easy enough move to make, politically speaking. But does it make sense for the taxpaying public?

Not when history shows that convicts who take classes are substantially less likely to wind up back behind bars once they’re released.

The benefits appear to apply to the study of the liberal arts as well as vocational training. But Gov. Mitch Daniels wants the emphasis put on the latter area, with the rationale that it will lead to more jobs — certainly a key factor in staying free.

Unfortunately, he and the Indiana General Assembly have set up a fight over scraps when there is a very large hunger waiting to be satisfied.

At the same time Daniels, corrections officials, and legislative leaders are talking about the need to reduce the burgeoning and financially unsustainable prison population, the modest $9 million that had been set aside for college financial aid for inmates has been entirely eliminated from the new two-year state budget.

Contracts with six colleges that served nearly 2,500 prisoners in 2009-2010 have been canceled. Instead, the Department of Correction will spend $2 million on post-secondary education, targeted to specific jobs with Indiana employers.

Again, this measure of “thrift” comes in the face of undisputed value for all education, directly job-related or otherwise, in keeping out ex-convicts — and saving the more than $20,000 a year it costs to feed and house them when they return. Furthermore, there’s no measuring the costs these men and women will inflict upon individuals, on property, and on the quality of life in their communities via the acts that get them arrested all over again.

The liberal arts, says Laura Bates, an Indiana State University professor of English who has taught prisoners for a quarter century, have a “humanizing” effect that refines their thinking. In other words, it takes them beyond the day-to-day self-gratification that makes for anti-social choices.

Certainly, it doesn’t always work; but it is hardly a romantic notion that it does penetrate many hearts and minds. Experience backs that up, and so does research. A national study cited by The Star’s Dan McFeely in his article last Monday found that education behind bars reduced recidivism by 29 percent. The general recidivism rate is 70 percent.

While some experts on ex-offenders support the emphasis on vocational training, Bates tells McFeely the loss of broader educational opportunities is a “tragic loss for prisoners.”

It’s also consistent with the governor’s preference, in higher education overall, for business- and job-oriented curriculums over traditional humanities. While that is understandable given the urgency of Indiana’s economic plight, it runs the risk of cultivating a populace — and an electorate — lacking a broad understanding of human culture and the capacity for critical thinking.

In a democracy, those qualities matter far more than the next quarter’s earnings or the unemployment rate; and they matter to wrongdoers trying to become productive citizens as much as they matter to the rest of us. Their worth cannot be quantified, any more than freedom can; but they would seem to qualify for $9 million of a $28 billion budget, tight though it may be.

It’s time for state officials to remind themselves of the Indiana Constitution’s guarantee of restorative justice in corrections — and of an old saying: Pay now or pay later.

(Reprinted from the Indianapolis Star by permission)