America's Prisons: A Road to Nowhere

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Image courtesy motherjones.com

By Ben Notterman / Huffington Post

Video of Henry McCollum's release shows the exonerated death row inmate making his way through a crowd of excited onlookers and into his family's car, where he could not figure out how to fasten his seatbelt. In his defense, many states did not begin mandating the use of seatbelts until well into the 1990s, by which time McCollum had already spent a decade in prison. Like most of the 650,000 inmates released from prison each year, McCollum brings no vocational skills or educational background into a world that must appear to him a strange and distant future, thrust on an unsuspecting present. From this perspective, the severity of punishment is never greater than at the time of release.

Finding employment and independence after leaving prison is extremely difficult; without a decent education, it is virtually impossible. Access to academic and occupational programming in American prisons has declined significantly over the past twenty years, while overall spending on corrections has exploded along with the country's prison population. Inmates are twice as likely to lack a high school education as the rest of us. Meanwhile, job skills are more quickly rendered obsolete by accelerating technological development, and education level is more determinative of income than ever before. As a result, a sentence of, say, three years - the average doled out for drug possession - probably does more to undermine one's employability than it would have in past decades, particularly as most prisons forbid access to computers and other staples of modern communication. Unable to secure income or sense of purpose, over 65% of inmates re-offend within three years, all but guaranteeing that our prison population remains many times larger than that of other nations of world. The financial impact has been immense. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, incarceration cost the public $75 billion in 2008.

Congress could take a major step toward reducing recidivism--and therefor mass incarceration--by once again allowing inmates to receive Pell Grants, the federal government's need-based financial assistance program for post-secondary education. Inmates were made ineligible for Pell Grants in 1994 at the height of "tough-on-crime" politics, by a relatively obscure provision of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. As most inmates quickly became unable to pay tuition fees, many of the college-level programs available to them disintegrated. Terminating inmate eligibility immediately reduced participation in correctional education programs by nearly one half.

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