Effects of Attending College in Prison: Prisoners, Their Children, and Society

By Christopher Zoukis

We in the prison education industry understand the amazing benefits of providing educational programming to prison inmates.  We see the light in our incarcerated students' eyes.  We see the dawning of understanding and enlightenment.  And we read the research which shows that correctional education programming is the single most effective tool in our battle against recidivism.  While there is no magic bullet for controlling crime, prison education is the closest thing we currently have.  This we loudly proclaim to our incarcerated students' delight and politicians' exasperation.   Image courtesy ouroregon.org

All of this we've covered in significant detail in prior posts here at Prison Education News.  Today I'd like to discuss the ancillary benefits of prison education, those external to reductions in recidivism rates.  After all, prison education effects the whole person -- the incarcerated student -- not merely the statistical rate of former prisoners' recidivism.

In addition to a significant decrease in recidivism, those in postsecondary correctional education programming commit as much as 75 percent fewer disciplinary infractions than those not engaged in such educational programming, and have drastically improved self-esteem, communication ability, and self-reported hope for a better future.  Success improves the incarcerated students' belief that hard work will yield positive results, and it improves the relationship that inmates have with their families, in particular their children, both while serving their term of incarceration and, most importantly, upon release from correctional custody.  In short, the incarcerated students' outlooks on life -- and what is possible for them -- improves substantially as the level of correctional education increases.

In a tangible way, providing prison inmates with the ability to earn a degree has the potential to improve not only their personal outcomes, but also their children's.  Research has shown that when an incarcerated parent furthers their education -- and shares this accomplishment with their children -- their children then take pride in their incarcerated parents, desire to follow in their academic shoes, and make education a stronger focus of their lives.  As such, education provided to prison inmates influences their families outside of prison, and upon release, both the former, educated inmates and their children -- who have all furthered their educations -- influence their communities, which are often the most disadvantaged ones.  Simply stated, prison education helps to stop the intergenerational and cultural cycle of crime, however large or small.

Sadly, with the abolishment of Pell grants and other federal, need-based financial aid, the funding for such effective postsecondary correctional education programs has been slashed.  The positive impact of prison education has been minimized due to program closings, and any remaining offerings are limited, available to a very few incarcerated students who can afford to pay for it themselves.  This is a very sad statement about American electoral politics in the modern era.  We'd rather be tough on crime than smart on crime.  And this just aggravates crime and preventable victimization.

As prison education advocates we must do what we can to stop the march of defunding correctional education programs.  As program funding is cut, we can do less, and our incarcerated students increasingly stay the same people they were when they were jailed.  In fact, given the trend toward using control units and other restrictive housing, prisoners as a whole are likely to experience even more isolation and social failure upon release.  This means that their stay in correctional custody is influenced more so by the caustic and damaging prison culture than the prison classroom.  This means that we're releasing more dangerous, increasingly damaged people back into American society; the opposite of which should be occurring.

Don't allow this cycle of defunding to continue.  Make today the day that you do your part.  Speak with one person today about the truly revolutionary benefits of correctional education.  Try to make them a believer.  And if you succeed, ask them to do the same.  One voice by one voice, we can reverse this devastating defunding spiral.  And after we've stopped it, we can get back to work helping our incarcerated students to become better people, the people we know they can be.  And this alone will help make the world a better place one reformed, incarcerated student at a time.