Prison Education: A Reward for Crime or a Tool to Stop It

By Christopher Zoukis  Image courtesy www.prisoneducationproject.org-

A National Network of Prison Education Programs

The 1980s were a period of expansion for prison education programs.  Through the vehicle of federal financial assistance, inmates were able to enroll in vocational and college courses in their prisons, programs offered through community colleges and state universities alike.  For a period, prisoners had a meaningful chance at learning a quality trade or even earning an associate's or bachelor's college degree during their term of imprisonment.  Over 350 in-prison college programs flourished, with professors teaching classes "live," in the prisons.

The Collapse: Congress Slams the Door on Education in Prison

All of this came to a screeching halt with the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.  The Act, a component of the anti-prison education agenda pushed in Congress and the Senate, imposed a ban on inmates receiving any form of federal financial aid to assist them in the pursuit of an education.  With the slashed funding, nearly every externally supported prison education program in the nation shut down, and the result was an increase in prisoner unrest, violence, and recidivism.  Colleges, prisoners, and prison administrators alike objected, and loudly so, but their pleas fell upon deaf ears.

Advocates for eliminating Pell Grants and other need-based financial assistance for prisoners claimed that those incarcerated shouldn't be given government funding to pursue education.  They advanced an agenda asserting that prisoners were taking funding away from traditional college students -- a patently false assertion -- and that offering college to inmates was a reward for crime.  Some even had the gall to suggest that people were committing crimes in order to go to prison, where they could obtain a college education.  It was a political firestorm like no other, and one based on emotion, not fact, logic, or empirical research.

How Does Prison Education Reward Crime?

The argument that prison education rewards crime is a flawed one.  There simply is no evidence that prisoners see education as a reward for their crime or that they willfully commit crimes in order to be sentenced to a term of imprisonment so that they can obtain an education while in prison.  This idea defies logic:

  • Pell Grants were available to inmates before incarceration.  If they qualified for need-based financial assistance prior to their term of incarceration, they still would while in prison (pre-1994).
  • Prison education is completely optional, and students must have the aptitude and drive to complete the studies.  There are no free rides in prison education, much like education offered to traditional college-students on traditional college campuses.
  • Educating prisoners doesn't reduce prison sentences or provide any legal advantages, it is engaged in in an effort to educate oneself so that employment and success is possible post-release.

It's unclear how prison education can be seen as a reward for crime.  If anything, it is simply a more productive way to serve a prison sentence.  Inmates are provided with various activities to spend their time in prison (e.g., sports, work assignments, reading, etc.), and education is simply one of the options available for them, a smart one at that.  Prison is so horrible, abusive, and abrasive that no one in their right mind would commit a crime so that they can go to prison and earn an education.  Such fanciful ideas are promulgated by those with no concept of America's prison culture, people unlikely to commit crimes themselves or know anyone who has done so.

How Correctional Education Prevents Crime

On the other hand, prison education has proven time and time again to have a significant impact on reducing recidivism rates.  Studies have shown that recidivism rates decrease substantially for those engaged in prison education programming.  The effects are consistent across the plethora of published studies -- prison education reduces repeat crime in an inexpensive manner, and resoundingly so.

There are many reasons that prison education should be supported by the American people and legislators:

  • Prison education keeps inmates engaged in productive activities while incarcerated.
  • Correctional education provides prisoners the tools required to obtain meaningful employment and live law-abiding lives after their release from custody.
  • Inmate education gives prisoners hope for a brighter, crime-free life and opens their minds to life possibilities never before fathomed, such as gainful employment, raising a family, and succeeding in a life removed from crime.

Punishing Prisoners In Spite of Potential Reductions in Crime

Opponents of prison education focus on the idea that prisoners should be punished for their crimes by creating increasingly harsh and oppressive prisons and restricting educational opportunities behind bars.  To some, the worse prison conditions can be made, the more benefit they have in being a deterrent to crime.  This belief is plainly erroneous considering that if inmates are further damaged by the prison experience, then they bring that damage with them into our communities, making them that much more dangerous and crime-ridden.  Plus, many who have entered prison never even knew that these educational opportunities (e.g., Pell Grants and other need-based financial assistance) were even available to them in the first place.

People turn to crime because they do not see any other option, or do not feel there is any other way.  Many are born into crime, the credit for their introduction to this lifestyle usually lies with their misguided parents.  Withholding education isn't a punishment to these people because they never saw education as an option.  For them, it is life as usual.  All prison education provides is an opportunity -- even a lifeline.  For some, this is the first chance they've ever had at stepping out of a criminal lifestyle and into something more respectable.

Education for Prisoners: A Smart on Crime Proposition

Research shows that the introduction of prisoner education greatly reduces the instance of repeat crime for program participants.  It's effective, cheap, and proven.  Yet, even though there are far more reasons to support it than withhold it, the American people don't support education in our nation's prisons.  This is a sad fact, one which will result in more victims, wasted lives, and crime on our city streets.

Reinstating prisoner Pell Grant eligibility should be the number one priority for those attempting to reduce crime, not for the prisoners' sake, but for the rest of us.