America's prisons are quickly becoming a drain on local, state, and federal budgets. It's estimated that as many as 30% to 40% of federal prisons are now over-capacity -- a number that some believe will exceed 50% within the next 10 years[i] -- with state prisons suffering from similar problems.[ii]
Many believe this overcrowding is the result of an increase in crime. But crime rates have consistently fallen in the past two decades. Violent crime is at an all-time low, and property crime is not far behind.[iii] So while an increase in crime isn't the problem, the problem isn't simply a lack of prison space either.
The problem lies with recidivism -- prisoners or probationers exiting custody or supervision and returning to a life of crime (and being arrested for doing so). It's recidivism that keeps our prisons full.
The Purpose of Prisons: Punish, Rehabilitate, or Both?
Prisons are designed to be a punishment for some type of crime. But by their very nature -- or at least the ideal of their purpose -- they're also meant to be a place of reformation and rehabilitation. By placing someone in prison as a punishment, it's believed that they'll be motivated to avoid engaging in criminal conduct in the future, thus turning their life around and placing them back on a law abiding path.
But we know that this reformative ideal is often unfulfilled. Most people do not break the law in the first place because of a sense of corrupt morals. They break the law because they know nothing else or are born into a culture in which breaking the law is an acceptable norm, and once they exit the prison system, they're given even fewer opportunities to be productive members of society. Without opportunity, they can often feel as though they have no choice other than to go back to breaking the law. And the truth of the matter is that many, many doors are closed to them. Thus the appeal of returning to a criminal lifestyle.
Pell Grants and the Funding of Rehabilitation
One of the paths toward a better life was taken away in 1994, when the Clinton Administration signed into law the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which overturned the Higher Education Act of 1965. Up until this point, the Higher Education Act of 1965 qualified many low income persons -- incarcerated or not -- with need-based financial assistance. This federal funding was available primarily through the use of Pell grants, which funded over 350 in-prison educational programs, many of which led to associate and bachelor's degrees.
Pell grants were one of the few avenues of funding available to prisoners seeking an education while incarcerated. They provided the necessary financial support for the in-prison college programs. Funds were never distributed directly to the incarcerated students, but instead to the institutions of higher education providing the course instruction. Sadly, with the 1994 restriction on prisoners receiving federal financial aid, these programs collapsed, leaving the dependent incarcerated students with no meaningful avenue of education, rehabilitation, or reformation.
Without that education and training, prisoners have been left with reduced opportunities to gain valuable life and work skills which could have been used when re-entering the workforce, less incentive --and less opportunity -- to return to the educational system either while in prison or upon release, and fewer activities within the prison system that focus on rehabilitation and the reformation of damaged character.
The Fallout of Enhanced Pell Grant Eligibility Restrictions
Since 1994, studies have consistently shown that without meaningful educational and rehabilitative programming, more and more prisoners are becoming repeat offenders:[iv]
- Within one year of release, as many as 40% of former prisoners will be rearrested.
- Within three years, this figure increases to 50% to 60%.
While these numbers certainly can't be attributed to the single factor of Pell grant eligibility restrictions imposed on prisoners, they are a direct symptom of an illness in America's criminal justice system. Significant recidivism rates are a symptom of a broken prison system; a prison system which does not fix people, but hardens them and entrenches them deeper in their criminal and asocial ways.
A lack of formal education has been directly linked to the increase of initial and repeat crimes (in this case, by someone who has already been sanctioned by a court). As such, those from socioeconomically disadvantaged areas and populations tend to resort to a life of crime. The most cost-effective, proven method of alleviating this criminal persuasion -- or option, if you will -- is to enhance educational opportunities for said disadvantaged populations, which then results in meaningful, sustainable employment. This employment enables former prisoners to take responsibility for their lives and makes it more advantageous to not engage in crime, but to be a law abiding citizens and community members.
Lest we appear offender-focused, it cannot be forgotten that general society -- the American taxpayer -- also pays dearly for the shortsighted elimination of Pell grant eligibility for prisoners. The abolishment of Pell grants for prisoners has had a negative impact on local, state, and national economies as well as harming the prisoners they used to assist. Due to a lack of educational and rehabilitative programming in America's prisons, each new prisoner becomes less likely to contribute economically to the state and country, and more likely to be a drain on already overburdened state resources by becoming involved with the criminal justice system over and over again.
And there you have it. The single most cost-effective, proven method of reforming damaged character -- and reducing recidivism -- was thrown away due to it being an unpopular political position. While the elimination of prisoner eligibility for Pell grants did not in itself restrict educational and rehabilitative programming for prisoners, it defunded the programs upon which the prisoners relied. And with no funding, the programs had no choice but to shut their doors. And this left prisoners to sit in prison, warehoused in crowded, dirty cells, to brood, not grow; to become more damaged, not reformed.
Renewing the Use of Pell Grants in Prison
While the purpose of prison is still to punish the offender and deter initial and repeat criminal behavior, the effects of decisions on how to treat prisoners cannot be ignored, for they can either create reformed former wrongdoers, or create a new, more dangerous population of repeat offenders. Unfortunately, the decision to stop funding prison education programs has had numerous negative consequences. These negative consequences have included:
- Increased recidivism, which assures an increase in victimization;
- Lower post-prison employment rates, which affects the economy in ways that hundreds of studies have measured and verified; and
- Continuation of the intergenerational cycle of crime, which leads to new generations of prisoners as fatherless children grow up and follow in the footsteps of their incarcerated parents.
The simple truth is that while prisoners are punished by the elimination of in-prison educational and rehabilitative programming, society as a whole receives the blunt of the blow. It is the prisoner who remains trapped in the cycle of crime and recidivism, but it is society that must pay the price, both in terms of increasing criminal justice and policing expenses, and in escalating victimization. It's attacking ourselves in spite of ourselves. It might feel good to make prisoners' lives just a bit more caustic, but, in the end, these are our neighbors that we're damaging. And these future neighbors will one day be released back into the society in which we live.
For the good of society and America's prisoners, it's time to put Pell grants and other forms of need-based financial assistance back on the table and once again offer in-prison educational and rehabilitative programming to those who seek it. That is the only chance we -- as a nation -- have of resolving our current prison crisis. This is the only chance we -- as a nation -- have of reforming those who break the law and transforming them into law abiding citizens. If not, the cycle of crime and victimization will continue on, forevermore.