3 Reasons to Reinstate Prisoner Eligibility for Pell Grants

By Christopher Zoukis  Image courtesy prisoneducation.com

There are many "smart on crime" reasons to reinstate prisoners' eligibility for Pell grants and other need-based financial aid.  When we look at the benefits of educating prisoners we see reductions in recidivism, increases in pro-social thinking, enhanced post-release employment prospects, and strengthened ties to children and communities.  The list goes on and on.  Today, I'd like to touch upon the ideas that funding prison education programs is not a reward for crime, improves the economy, and reduces the number of victims (more specifically, new victims of repeat offenders).

Not A Reward for Crime

Perhaps the most important reason to reinstate prisoner eligibility for Pell grants and other need-based financial assistance actually concerns the refutation of arguments to defund it.  The argument goes something like this: The prisoner broke the law, so they should not be rewarded with a college-level education while they serve their term of incarceration.  The problem here is that prisoners don't see educational restrictions as a punishment, but life as usual.  Prisoners usually come from an educationally disadvantaged population.  They are poor, have very few employable skills, and often don't even complete high school.  Telling a person like this that they cannot go to school isn't a punishment to them, it is life.

The vast majority of those in American prisons feel as though they never had any meaningful access to education prior to their criminal lifestyle, even if the public school system was open to them.  Often they feel as though their only option was a life of crime.  This has a lot to do with the families and communities they grow up in.  Restricting an education from a person like this -- a person who desperately needs the life-saving tool of education -- is plainly cruel.  It's setting the already disadvantaged prisoner up to fail.  If we do so, we shouldn't be surprised when they do.

Preventing inmates from obtaining scholastic financial assistance clearly doesn't punish prisoners, it punishes us, the American people.  Restricting funding for prison education programs merely prevents those who want a better life after their release from prison from obtaining one.  When these tools are restricted -- either by means of banning prisoners from educational pursuits or by refusing to fund such programs -- we are really hurting ourselves much more.

Improved Economy

Only one-tenth of one percent (0.01%) of Pell grant monies was spent on prisoner education -- a miniscule fraction of total program expenditures.  Yet, those against prisoner education claimed that this was a drain on the national economy.  These fear-mongers couldn't be further from the truth.  According to the Journal of Healthcare Law & Policy:

 

          "Every dollar spent on education yields more than two dollars in savings from avoiding reincarceration alone.  This is significant in an era of state budget pressures when our national (state and federal) corrections budget consumes more than $50 billion a year."

 

Educated prisoners are more likely to be able to obtain employment post-release.  This directly results in not only reductions in corrections spending -- since they will no longer be in prison, but functioning as a law abiding citizen in society -- but also results in increased local, state, and federal tax revenue due to the working, former prisoner earning money, spending money, and paying taxes on both.

The result of these educated prisoners obtaining a higher education and not returning to prison is a loss leader.  While yes, it does cost money to educate a prisoner, it costs so much more to incarcerate them.  Some have suggested that it costs ten times less to educate a prisoner than incarcerate them.  As such, while we will have to pay it forward, we will also reap the magnified benefits.

And this doesn't even bring into account the costs of law enforcement, trials, post-conviction motions, probation, parole, and so forth.  It costs tens of thousands of dollars to incarcerate a prisoner for a single year.  According to the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, a single trial can cost the government tens of thousands to over a million dollars, depending on duration and complexity.  Simply stated, the cost to educate America's incarcerated class is frankly inconsequential when compared to the cost of crime and recidivism.

Fewer Victims

Finally, for every crime there is an additional victim beyond that of the instant victim of the crime -- the American taxpayer.  It is the responsibility of the federal and state governments to protect and care for their citizens.  They do this through the promulgation of civil and criminal laws and their enforcement.  While prison education won't stop the initial crime, it can stop repeat crime.  Correctional education reduces the number of victims by reducing the number of recidivists.  Rather simply, the fewer repeat offenders, the fewer instant victims of crime, and the less burden on the American taxpayer.  Prison education is a clear example of a simple way that the government can protect its people.

But we all understand that crime is not merely an economic burden, but an insidious social one, too.  As crime continues, the toll on the lives of victims is incalculable.  And it becomes even more so as victims then, at times, become perpetrators of crime.  This is especially the case when the crime victim is either young or impressionable (i.e., sexual or physical assaults upon children).

Funding Prison Education Programs is Smart on Crime

Regardless of your stance on inmates and how they should be treated, the fact is that prison education directly results in reductions to crime, victimization, and criminal justice expenditures.  Prison education also promotes pro-social growth, tax revenue, and the health of American society and the communities former, educated prisoners return to.  While it might not feel good to educate a prisoner, it is clearly smart and beneficial to all.

The arguments against prison education are based on retribution; justified or not.  People who break the law should be chastised for their misdeeds.  But they should also be provided with tools to fix what ails them; what drove them to engage in crime in the first place.  Prison education is one such tool.  It just happens to be the least expensive, most effective tool to reduce recidivism and its many hidden costs and burdens.  But without adequate funding, prison education programs will not be available to those who desperately need them.  Based upon this principle, every man, woman, and child in America should demand that Pell grants and other scholastic financial aid be reinstated for prisoner usage.  To do so is plainly smart on crime, even if it takes a bit of thought to understand why.