Prison Education Basics 104 (A Little History Explains a Lot -- or does it?)

By George Hook

A near universal belief is that education is an essential ingredient to minimizing recidivism.  Equally universal is the belief that federal and State prison education programs are too generally unavailable.  Some might state that Uncle Sam and the States are "criminally negligent" on this score.  Others might even delete "negligent" and assert that the "criminality" is specific, targeted and intentional.  Those making such assertions would not just be suffering prisoners, who might expect misunderstanding, at least, and even targeting.  Educators and administrators may be numbered among the jury as well.  Primarily, the educators and administrators are the ones more vocal, among them sociologists and criminologists, who do the statistical and other research, the most distressed and making the clarion call to reform.

Prison education is expensive.  Although the students and facilities are readily available, the teachers' availability and access to them is quite problematic.  Usually, teachers have had to stand up before their students and lecture.  That means having teachers enter the prison facility.   Many, if not most, teachers from traditional backgrounds would be very wary about teaching in any prison environment or to persons regarded to be potentially, if not patently, dangerous, generally, if not so specifically, by the teachers individually.  Transporting groups of prisoners beyond the prison walls is substantially more bothersome, and, potentially more risky and dangerous.  Admitting teachers to prison and transporting prisoners to outside classrooms, both, have usually been substantially more expensive than the general public, as represented by their political voices in government, could tolerate.  So the more acceptable alternative has been the correspondence course curriculum.   

Whatever the manner of course deliver, however, all courses cost money to create and administer.  Such funding has to come from federal or State, private charitable, or individual student or student family sources, as very few, if any, teachers may be expected to volunteer sufficient time and effort to provide meaningful curricula under such trying circumstances at their own expense.  After all, almost everyone has to earn a living.

Prisoners used to be able to receive Pell Grant funding for college courses on the basis of financial need. As many prisoners have little or no income, this source of funding soon permitted upwards of 90 percent of the nation’s prisons to offer higher education programs, while accounting for less than one percent of total Pell Grant expenditures. Nevertheless, "tough-on-crime" advocacy became a nationwide vote-trapper for political office seekers, resulting in eventual passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which eliminated Pell Grants for prisoners, and effectively ended post-secondary education for prisoners.  

Current law provides that "no Federal Pell Grant shall be awarded…to any individual who is incarcerated in any Federal or State penal institution…" [20 USC 1071a(a)(6)] and that "no incarcerated student is eligible to receive a [federal] loan…" [20 USC 1091(a)(5)].

The Bureau of Justice Statistics asserts a recidivism rate of approximately 62% and 67% based on studies conducted, respectively, for 1983 and 1994.  Apparently, there are no later time comparables available from the Bureau of Justice, although 2007 Bureau data permits derivation of a 54% recidivism rate.

While these percentages are insufficient to establish any meaningful conclusion, common sense alone suggests that the absence of educational opportunity in prison is likely to increase the rate of recidivism, that the prisoner who attains educational and occupational facility while in prison will be less likely to fail upon return to society and therefore less likely to return to prison than the prisoner who does not attain such facility.