The Argument for College in Prison

By Christopher Zoukis

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The concept of providing a college education to American prisoners is nothing new. As  early as 1953, a few select prisons permitted such educational programming. But it wasn't until 1965, and Title IV of the Higher Education Act, that prisoners were permitted to obtain the funding of Pell Grants for their college studies. It was in the years that followed that an oasis of correctional education was achieved.

By 1973 there were 182 correctional education programs in U.S. prisons. By 1982, that number had jumped to 350 such in-prison college programs. The movement to offer prisoners the opportunity to learn and gain the skills required to leave a life of crime behind was at its height, but a sea change was in the midst.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act and the Higher Education Reauthorization Act. Collectively, these pieces of legislation barred prisoners from higher education by eliminating their eligibility for federal student financial aid. Most states soon followed suit. Some states, such as New York, entirely barred prisoners from higher education, even correspondence program that the prisoner or their family funded.

The correctional landscape was bleak, and has remained so for quite some time.

From that day on, those acts have decimated correctional education. In the 1960s, 1970s and even 1980s, prisons turned into centers for reform and education. By the 1990s, they were being filled with those caught in the web of the government’s ill-fated War on Drugs. And between 2000 and 2010, the Warehousing Era had begun. Corrections was no longer about correcting prisoners or helping them to reform their criminal ways, it was about housing prisoners as densely and cheaply as possible.

The argument against prison education is simple. Prisoners don't deserve an education. For some this argument holds water. After all, prisoners elected to break the law and be removed from society. So why should they receive a free taxpayer college education while behind bars?

Such thinking is absurd at best.

But the real issue isn't about what prisoners deserve. It's not about just desserts or retribution, although both should enter the equation. Prisons should be about public safety, about protecting the public and reducing crime, but they do neither. Instead, they have become a political tool for lawmakers to show how tough they are on crime and supportive of victims' rights. In a rather insidious turn, the lock-them-up political agenda has turned into a mechanism to support repeat crime, not reduce it.

The United States incarcerates 25 percent of the world's prisoners, even though we only house five percent of the world's population. This amounts to around 2.2 million people in prison and jail. Of those in prison, 95 to 97 percent will one day be released; around 600,000 prisoners released per year. Of those released, 70 to 85 percent will recidivate within three to five years of release. Virtually everyone fails. This is not success, and certainly not a fair exchange for the $80 billion spent on corrections annually. Clearly the current warehousing model is a failure.

The research on prison education is also clear. While it costs, on average $32,000 a year to incarcerate a single prisoner, it only costs $1,400 per year to provide that same prisoner with a college education while behind bars. Unlike the traditional recidivism rate of 70 to 85 percent within three to five years of release, prisoners who participate in correctional education programs at the college level realize significant reductions in recidivism:

      Prisoners who earn an associate degree: 13.7%

      Prisoners who earn a bachelor’s degree: 5.6%

      Prisoners who earn a master’s degree: 0%.

But recidivism rates don't tell the full story – not of the 2 million prisoners who have minor children, who are prone to follow in their incarcerated parent's footsteps. These numbers also don't tell the story about broken communities that foster crime and broken families. Or how the American dream is effectively out of reach of whole swaths of, well, Americans.

These are the tragedies of America's broken criminal justice system.

The long and short of the argument for college in prison is simple: prison education is both more effective and efficient than incarceration, not to mention a fraction of the annual cost of imprisonment, and its results are proven.

It's time we stop focusing on just deserts and punishments and start focusing on fixing people and improving public safety. After all, if incarceration isn't about public safety, why are we siphoning funds away from our institutions of higher education in order to support it?

 Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com