College for Convicts? A Radical Solution for Maximum Security

College for Convicts? A Radical Solution for Maximum Security

The national deficit is a hot topic. Everyone agrees we have to spend less and cut the budget. Where people do not agree is on what to cut, what life-sustaining programs have to go, and what groups of people will get hurt. It’s a question of priorities. What is more important: our national education system? The military? Health Care? We can argue ad infinitum.

But if we said there was a way to save approximately $60 billion (that’s billions with a “b”!) every year without cutting existing programs, a way to save $60 billion while at the same time improving public safety and the welfare of society, would anyone listen? It has been proposed.

There are dozens of articles out there, many papers presented at academic and professional conferences, and many studies, all of which show it can be done: By providing post-secondary and academic education to prisoners, we can cut $60 billion from our national budget every year. And maybe a lot more. It’s a statement that evokes a lot of controversy.

The idea of providing post-secondary education in prisons is a hard sell because the public is often unaware of how it can impact our economy and the safety of our communities. Why, people ask, should American taxpayers pay to provide a college education for prisoners when so many law-abiding citizens struggle to send themselves or their children to school? It doesn’t seem fair. Honest people have to pay to receive an education; why should criminals get it for free? It’s a visceral and understandable reaction. And besides, say some opponents to correctional education, if we provide a learning environment for prisoners, perhaps prison will seem less terrible and serve less as a deterrent to crime. Others believe that punishment for crime should entail a loss of valuable privileges like education. Therefore, providing free education to a law-breaking individual seems to them like a mockery of justice.

Is it a mockery? Or is it actually the answer to a safer, more prosperous, more positive society for all our citizens?

Despite the fact that I am writing from within the walls of a prison where I am, myself, incarcerated, I do not dispute the concept of getting tough on crime. I do not advocate creating a cushy environment for prisoners. And I certainly do not propose taking privileges from deserving, hard-working people to pamper prisoners. That is not what this is about. So why, then, should we care about educating offenders, educating people who didn’t care about the victims they hurt, the communities they impoverished, and the society they endangered?

We care, very simply, because they will get out.

Let’s understand something from the start: the topic we are discussing here, educating prisoners, is not a “bleeding-heart-humanitarian-feel-good-for-the-incarcerated” kind of cause. Not at all. This is an issue critical to the economic stability of our country, the safety of our communities, and a higher quality of life for law-abiding citizens.

Think it through for a moment. Each year, approximately 800,000 prisoners are released, the vast majority of whom will offend again and be returned to prison – in addition to new, first-time offenders. Bottom line: we spend $30.1 billion to build more prison facilities every year. However, studies have consistently shown that when prisoners are educated and can obtain stable jobs, they do not typically return to a life of crime. Therefore, if we can educate the incarcerated and reduce recidivism by even 50%, we would not have to build those costly correctional facilities. And that is just the beginning of the fiscal benefits we’d see.

In addition to saving the $30.1 billion in construction and operating costs, we would release into society hundreds of thousands of people who would find employment, pay taxes, and contribute to our state and national coffers. These released prisoners would also support their families (instead of keeping them in state welfare systems), and they would become consumers who bolster our economy.

Having found some personal dignity, they would likely play a positive role as members of their communities rather than posing a danger, so our streets and communities would be safer. And what is most important, ex-prisoners who have experienced the personal transformation that comes with education are almost always determined that their children be educated, too. The result? Our criminal population would decrease more and more with every generation. At the end of the day, the benefits to our society – both fiscal and otherwise – would be incalculable.

Numbers tell the story. The United States has the largest prison population – by far – of any country in the world. With an incarcerated population of 2.3 million and growing steadily every year, our nation, which represents 5% of the world’s population, houses 25% of the incarcerated population of the entire world. What is wrong with this picture?

Within the prisons, overcrowded conditions intensify violence and hostility. And every year, about 800,000 of those angry prisoners, most of whom are young, are sent back into society. Do they come out to enhance our communities or to create fear and havoc?

If 70% to 85% of those released into society are re-arrested and returned to prison within five years, obviously, they have been up to no good. The important question is: why?
Why are these young people back into a life of crime, endangering our streets and frightening innocent citizens? For one thing, because prisoners are the most under-educated population in our society. Most cannot read above the 6th-grade level. When they hit the streets, they are totally unqualified for jobs. They do what they know to survive.

All the research in the last two decades provides strong evidence that post-secondary correctional education enhances job opportunities for released prisoners and that ex-prisoners with good jobs become contributors to society instead of destructive forces. Every study in the field indicates that education is simply the single-most effective tool for reducing recidivism. Period.

And the higher the educational level achieved, the lower the rate of recidivism: For prisoners who attain an AA degree: 13.7% recidivism. For prisoners who attain a Bachelor’s degree: 5.6% recidivism. For prisoners who attain a Master’s degree: 0% recidivism! Zero!

In a word, education reduces both crime and recidivism (re-arrest and return to prison), improves safety for our society, and has an enormously positive impact on our fiscal strength. Clearly, not all prisoners can be educated. And we can’t help anyone who doesn’t want to be helped. But the number of prisoners who are beyond rehabilitation is relatively small; most are eager for education and can turn from crime to live a productive, law-abiding life.

The massive burden on state and national budgets created by the current high rate of recidivism is money we drain away from educational institutions, programs, scholarships, and schools, especially the state and community colleges. If we can reduce recidivism and, thereby, reduce prison populations, we’d have the fiscal resources we need to maintain educational standards that allow us to compete in the Western world. Each time a new prison is built, funding for a post-secondary institution is lost; for every new prison guard hired, funds for scholarships are reduced; every security camera mounted inside a prison means a student can’t get textbooks.

In many states, the prison budget exceeds the budget for higher education. California has built 21 new prisons in the last 20 years at a cost of $5.3 billion each. They need another $4.8 billion a year to house the state’s prisoners. That’s $10.1 billion a year for just one of our 50 states: California alone!

Where is the logic in this? It costs ten times less to prevent crime than to imprison offenders! That’s right. It costs $2,000 to $3,782 to provide a college education to an incarcerated student, compared to $32,000 to $40,000 for trials and incarcerating that same individual. Ten times less.

A 1000% return on investment. Would any business-minded person turn that down?

Again, this reflects only the cost of complex, high-tech prison construction and operations; utilities, food, medical supplies, and sanitation systems for the prisoners; administrative and staff salaries and benefits. It does not include the increasing costs of crime increasing from one generation to the next, the cost of supporting prisoners’ families, and the loss of very significant revenue from employed ex-prisoners who now pay taxes to local, state, and federal governments and who spend consumer dollars, thereby creating jobs for others. Educated workers provide greater productivity than unskilled illiterates. Productivity stimulates business and the larger economy.

So how much does it all add up to? No one, to my knowledge, has ever calculated the total package. They should. Because the cuts our government has made in funding prison education betrays not just the prisoner population, it betrays the public good.

Providing post-secondary education to prisoners has nothing to do with being “soft on crime.” It is our most effective and least expensive method of getting some control over crime and reducing the crippling fiscal burden that crime imposes on our national budget.

Arguments against increasing education within prisons typically focus on the lack of available funding. This is short-sighted thinking. The investment we’d have to make in education is so small when compared to the savings and revenue increases we could achieve by reducing recidivism. If we were to systematically expand correctional educational programs and install college courses in prisons, we could be saving billions of dollars. Many billions! It is mind-boggling.

It’s been studied. It’s been shown. It’s been ignored.

No matter how much correctional education can save taxpayers and support our national economy, still policymakers and the general public do not support funding post-secondary higher education in prisons. Year after year, correctional educational programs are further reduced. Computers are not allowed. The results? Prisoner unrest and violence. Then we need even more money for additional security.

Despite all the evidence, we have spent far more on prisons than on higher education in the last 20 years. What does that say about our priorities as a society? Our failure to invest in opportunities for correctional college education weakens the very fabric of society. The cost to our nation, in the end, is incalculable.

Prison education is a concept whose time has come. It is time to stop studying the issue and stop discoursing; it is time to start the ball rolling and do something about it.