Educate Prisoners with Life Sentences and on Death Row

By Christopher Zoukis

Prison education is a controversial subject due to strong emotions on both sides of the issue.  But it's also an issue that has been the subject of a significant amount of published research -- all of which supports the education of prisoners.  According to the research, prison education has a marked effect on reducing recidivism, the likelihood of a released inmate returning to crime, and, eventually, prison.  Enhanced access to prison education has proven to benefit society through reduced corrections costs, lowered crime and victimization, and improved community and public safety.

Almost all of the public discussion concerning prison education focuses on the substantial reductions in recidivism that educational programming in prisons produces.  While certainly a vital component of the public dialogue on the issue, it causes lesser, yet relevant, components to fall by the wayside.  For example, should prisoners that are unlikely to be released from custody due to a life sentence or death penalty sentence also have access to educational opportunities?  Should state or federal funding be used for these prisoners knowing that they may never be able to use this education outside of prison?  Should such programming be barred from them since they will never have a chance to recidivate, and, thus, this vastly important social benefit of prison education becomes a non-issue?

They should, and for several reasons.

Reductions in recidivism dominates the public's dialogue on prison education.  It is the correctional education's primary lobbying and belief conversion point.  But outside of reductions in recidivism, prison education fulfills additional goals, and, thus, providing education to inmates with life sentences and death sentences has merit for a number of reasons:

  • ·         Reductions in Prisoner Violence

Research in this area has proven that prison education reduces instances of prison misconduct and violence -- a serious prison culture and administration problem that costs correctional authorities, and through them American taxpayers, many millions of dollars every year on enhanced security components and inmate misconduct adjudication.  Inmates need a healthy outlet for their time.  Allowing them to continue their education on the inside gives them a tremendously productive and pro-social activity.  This can transform minds and impact all who pass through the prison system, not solely those who engage in educational programming.  Such achievements also lower the risk of staff and inmate injuries due to violence and stress related illnesses.

  • ·         Culture of Education

Education is as much a culture as it is a higher pursuit, and recidivism rates for prisoners are strongly affected by the number of inmates that engage in educational programming.  The best way to encourage inmates to seek education is to create a culture of education within the prison itself.  While each and every inmate will have an impact on the culture of the institution, the more positive impacts by program participants, the more positive the prison culture becomes and, thus, the period of incarceration for the entire prison population.  Every inmate should feel that education is in their future so that the entire prison is, at best, motivated to pursue an education and, at worse, feel as if they can let their guards down and live a healthy life in prison, not one characterized by violence, strife, and power plays.  In prisons where lifers are allowed to participate in education, many go on to act as teachers and tutors for fellow inmate-students, increasing productivity of education programs at little or no cost.

  • ·         Uncertain Future

Though uncommon, all prison sentences -- including those with life sentences or on death row -- can change at any time.  Appeals may be successful, and commutations or pardons could always come.  While these are not common scenarios, the goal of prisoner education is to prevent all prisoners from pursuing crime upon their release from custody.  If an inmate is granted release for any reason, education could help ensure they lead productive, crime-free lives post-release.

  • ·         Reductions in Corrections Costs

One of the main reasons that prison education is such a valuable tool is that it drastically reduces prison costs -- costs imposed on state and federal governments, and, thus, American taxpayers.  While most of the focus is on security and control of the institution, studies have shown that education does something very simple to keep costs down -- it keeps prisoners engaged in a healthy, productive project.  The busier the inmate is -- and the more productive and pro-growth activities that they engage in -- the less prison violence and misconduct.  And this saves taxpayer dollars due to reduced need for supervision and enhanced security apparatuses.

  • ·         Human Rights

Finally, in many ways, education is a basic human right.  Regardless of a person's stance on prisoners and criminal punishments, the opportunity to better oneself should never be taken away, regardless of the person's circumstances or poor choices.  Indeed, most international compacts and treaties specifically support prison education as a basic right.  While it is punishing to the individual to restrict them from becoming a better person, it is so much more a punishment, with potentially devastating consequences, to society and all others that the person comes in contact with and influences.  Prisoners have the potential to become both forces for good (through prison education programming) and forces for evil (through regular prison and criminal cultures).  We have to provide prisoners with the tools to fulfill the former.

Providing Prison Education to Those with Life Sentences

There is an argument to be made that governments have the right to withhold financial aid and educational opportunities from those that cannot put such instruction to use outside of the prison system, just as there is an argument to be made that allowing access to education is still valuable even for those who might never be released from custody.  Yet, no matter a person's stance, some type of prisoner education should still be available, and when considering the benefits of providing an education for prisoners, preventing those with life sentences -- and even those on death row -- from receiving an education seems to be counterproductive for a safer, healthier, and more equal society.