Prison Education in America: The History and the Promise

Prison Education in America: The History and the Promise

By Catherine Prigg

Concerned citizens began the first American prison system in Pennsylvania in 1787, and a clergyman, William Rogers, was the first educator (, 2012). Since then, there has been an ongoing national debate concerning what we should do with wrongdoers, including whether the criminal justice system should focus solely on punishment, rehabilitation, or a measure of both.

One side states that criminals do not deserve the privileged of an education. The proponents of prison education state that its value contributes to reforming corrupt character is more cost-effective than incapacitation (i.e., incarceration), and reduces recidivism more efficiently than any current mechanism employed. Regardless, there is “almost a complete disconnect between what we know and what we do” (Keller, 2014).

Even the United Nations, an international humanitarian agency, sees the inherent right to education. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the United Nations published after World War II, states in Article 26, “Everyone has a right to education.” Sadly, this sentiment doesn’t appear to fully extend to the U.S. political class or to the American people.

The Crumbling of Prison Education in America

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet a quarter of its prisoners (Aalai, 2014; Liptak, 2008; Zoukis, 2016). Despite the U.N. resolution, the American political system falters back and forth between the two sides of the prison education debate, and interestingly, it is not a partisan issue.

Before 1995, the country was home to roughly 350 in-prison college programs. Ten years later, that number had dwindled to just 12 (Neyfakh, 2015). In support of this closing down of in-prison education programs, Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson erroneously explained, “Some convicts have figured out that Pell Grants are a great scam. Rob a store, go to jail, and get your degree.” Senator Hutchinson’s statements were aimed at convincing the Clinton administration to make inmates ineligible for federal student financial aid, which was accomplished in 1994 (Cohen, 2016; Neyfakh, 2015). While an engaging sound bite, the idea that anyone would choose to rob a store so that they could get a free education is ludicrous.

Defunding Correctional Education Programs

Between 2009 and 2012, on behalf of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the non-profit RAND Corporation conducted a study in which they found that states reduced funding for prison education programs by an average of 6 percent. The study reported that states with large prison populations cut prison education funding by 10 percent, on average, while states with medium-sized populations slashed prison education budgets by an average of 20 percent.

According to Prison Legal News (Clark, 2014), “Congress failed to renew federal funding in 2011, 2012 and 2013 for a grant program that help[ed] [to] finance higher education courses for prisoners. The grants, known as Specter funds — named after correctional education advocate and late U.S. Senator Arlen Specter — provided money to state prison systems that helped underwrite a portion of the cost of postsecondary programs for prisoners.”

New York’s Attempt at Funding College in Prison

In 2014, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo decided that it was time to better prepare prisoners for life after incarceration by implementing a state-sponsored college program for New York state inmates. This innovative program was designed to cut New York’s crime and recidivism rates (Cohen, 2016). Perhaps unsurprisingly, this set off a wave of debate against his initiative (Bakeman, 2014).

Senator Mark Grisanti, a Buffalo Republican, argued that the state should increase financial aid availability to traditional students before providing free college to prisoners. Grisanti wanted to restore funding to extend the state Tuition Assistance Program to graduate students.

Assemblyman Kieran Lalor, a Hudson Valley Republican, declared that the state should reduce prison spending by 10 percent and then consider offering student loans to prisoners, not free college tuition. “The whole notion of rewarding bad behavior is completely backward,” Maziarz explained. “It should be — do the crime, do the time — not do the crime, earn a degree. It is simply beyond belief to give criminals a competitive edge in the job market over law-abiding New Yorkers who forgo college because of the high cost” (Bakeman, 2014).

Cuomo argued that the plan would help curb the state’s high recidivism rate and ultimately reduce the costs for the state, along with reducing crime and victimization. “It costs $60,000 per year to house an inmate in prison, and it costs an estimated $5,000 per year to provide higher education. Right now, chances are almost half that once he’s released, he’s going to come right back,” explained Governor Cuomo. “With the country’s highest rates of recidivism, solutions that reduce that rate are the best method for reducing overall costs” (Della Costa, 2015).

Support for Education from the Catholic Church

In early 2015, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, one of the most influential conservative figures in the state, showed his support for prison education by delivering a speech at the Bard Prison Initiative program’s 12th commencement ceremony. “We have an opportunity and an obligation to use smart methods — and advance innovative new programs — that can improve public safety while reducing costs. As it stands, too many individuals and communities are harmed, rather than helped, by a criminal justice system that does not serve the American people as well as it should. This important research is part of our broader effort to change that” (Della Costa, 2015).

Visceral Reactions to Education for Prisoners

In July 2016, the U.S. Department of Education released a brief stating that spending for correctional education outpaced K-12 spending (Ujifasa, 2016). However, on the campaign trail, President-Elect Donald Trump said, “Vocational training is a great thing” and lamented, “We don’t do it anymore.” He promised to “expand vocational and technical education” in his first 100 days in office (Goldstein, 2016).

But does this mean this will also occur in the prison education system? All across the country, citizens are heatedly against funding a criminal’s education when they themselves go into deep debt to fund their own. “Education is a privilege, and if you commit a crime, that entitlement is revoked” (Aalai, 2014). Many feel that criminals should do time for the crime, not for a degree. There is a fear that by educating criminals, they will become better criminals, and the political system responds to these emotions.

The Connection Between Prisoners and Literacy Rates

There is a tremendous amount of research that proves that these fears are unfounded. Inmates who receive an education behind bars are 43 percent less likely to return to a life of crime after release (Keller, 2014). “There’s a strong connection between illiteracy and incarceration. A recent national study found that 85 percent of all juveniles who come into contact with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate. So are 60 percent of all prison inmates.

Another study concluded that inmates have a 16 percent chance of returning to prison if they receive literacy education, as opposed to 70 percent for those who receive no education. According to the study, this equates to taxpayer costs of $25,000 per year per inmate and nearly double that amount for juvenile offenders. Other research suggests that 75 percent of inmates have an education at or below the 12th-grade level, and 19 percent are completely illiterate” (Maximino, 2014; Rosario, 2016).

“The issues that arise from mass incarceration and high recidivism rates are well known. According to a presidential report from the Council of Economic Advisors titled ‘Economic Perspectives on Incarceration and the Criminal Justice System,’ released in April 2016, a family with an incarcerated father is 40 percent more likely to live in poverty. About 65 percent of prisoners haven’t completed high school, with 14 percent possessing less than an eighth-grade education.

Children whose parents are incarcerated are at higher risk for antisocial and violent behavior, mental health problems, school dropout, and unemployment. Education, vocational programs, skill building, and other programs are all vital tools for ensuring that prisoners returning to their communities can lead productive lives. Access to these opportunities will help break the cycles and factors that can lead to further incarceration” (Zoukis, 2016).

Paying for Prisoners to Go to College?

A common question is, “Why should the American public pay for prisoners to get a free college education when they have to pay for their own children’s education?” This is a very understandable argument. After all, many outside of prison have had to pay their own way through college. And it is clearly true that hardworking, law-abiding, intelligent kids deserve a free college education. So why?

The answer is that education is the best mechanism that we know of to reduce recidivism. Ninety-seven percent of the nation’s prisoners will be released and will reside in our neighborhoods. We need to ask: “Do we want these prisoners to succeed when they return to our communities?” The thoughtful answer is “yes” — we want and expect released prisoners to become law-abiding, taxpaying, contributing members of our communities. That will not happen without interventions addressing the issues contributing to their poor decisions.

“Inmate education is a cost-effective intervention that puts prisoners on a different path that generates hope and employability” (Taylor, 2015). The RAND analysis “found [recidivism has a] notable effect across all levels of education, from adult basic education and GED programs to postsecondary and vocational education programs.”

While it might not feel like just desserts to provide an education to prisoners, the research shows that education reduces recidivism better than anything else. Released prisoners fail at astounding rates. It is expected for them to return to a life of crime. But by providing them with an education — in particular, one focused on job skills in demand in their communities — they will have a chance to support themselves, their families, and their communities. It is just that simple. This smart-on-crime policy must not be cast aside in favor of more tough-on-crime political rhetoric and policies.


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