Why Funding Needs to be Reinstated for Prison Education Programs

By Christopher Zoukis

"We must accept the reality that to confine offenders behind walls without trying to change them is an expensive folly with short term benefits -- winning battles while losing the war.  It is wrong, it is expensive, it is stupid." -- United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger

Prison education is the most cost-effective method of reducing recidivism -- the percentage of inmates that fall back into a life of crime, are rearrested, and re-imprisoned.  Recidivism has been draining the economy, overcrowding the prison systems, and causing more people to become victims of crime.  It's a problem, and prisoner education is the most cost-effective solution, infinitely more than incarceration alone.  Image courtesy cnn.com

Inmates, however, rarely have access to any kind of education because there is simply no meaningful source of funding for such in-prison programming.  Pell Grants -- need-based educational grants provided to low-income students -- were the only systematized funding source since 1965, but in 1994, when the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act and the Higher Education Reauthorization Act were passed by Congress and signed into law by the Clinton Administration, prisoners were restricted from all federal financial aid.  As a result, most in-prison educational programs were forced to shut their doors.  This resulted in a correlating increase in recidivism rates due to incarcerated students being shut out of the classroom.  The record 350+ in-prison college programs simply ceased to exist without a sustainable funding source.

Reinstating Pell Grant eligibility is the most logical step towards a better future -- not just for inmates, but also for the rest of society.  If American prisoners were again allowed to receive need-based financial aid, they would be able to:

Seek a Better Life: Correctional education provides better opportunities for those convicted of crimes -- as it does so for other disadvantaged groups -- and makes it possible for inmates to obtain employment upon release from a term of incarceration, the lack of which is the leading cause of former prisoners returning to crime.  Luckily, the research indicates that most prisoners can overcome the stigmatization of a criminal record, as long as they have been provided with education and training aimed at helping them to procure employment.  It should be highlighted that this employment, while a real quality of life improvement for the former prisoner, also benefits society in a plethora of seen and unseen ways.

Have a Healthy Focus for Their Energy: Prison society is like no other.  It is hateful, backwards, and plainly damaging to all subjected to it.  The idea of prisoners becoming "hardened" is not mere imagery or hyperbole, it is true and can be seen in many of America's incarcerated class.  As such, prisoners need something positive and productive to spend their time and energy on.  Prison education programs not only foot this bill, but they also impart pro-social, employment-focused, and critical thinking skills to the prisoner-students.  In prison disputes are solved with aggression, intimidation, and violence.  None of these are permissible outside of the prison walls.  Correctional education helps to socialize incarcerated students so that they are better able to adapt to a civil society.

Increase Their Self-Esteem: If nothing else, access to education provides those that enter the prison system -- socially, educationally, and socioeconomically disadvantaged persons, without a doubt -- with a remarkable tool: education.  And this imparted education can't help but raise their self-esteem and show them that with the proper education and training -- not to mention the personal growth obtained through struggling on school assignments -- that a life of crime is not the only life for them.  The education itself, and the experience of obtaining it, can literally open inmate student's minds to possibilities never pondered before.  Not only this, but with a college degree in hand, ex-prisoners will be qualified for a job which offers a sustainable wage.  And this could make all of the difference in the world.

Studies have consistently shown that prisoners with access to education find themselves in a better position upon release, with more drive -- and some would say ability -- to lead a law abiding life.  While some may still fall back into the criminal lifestyle (and, eventually, prisons and jails), research has proven that more will not if they are provided with meaningful academic, vocational, and rehabilitative opportunities while behind bars.  With each prisoner who succeeds and does not return to a life of crime, reductions will be realized in the burden on prisons, crime and victimization will decrease, and contributions will be made to the health of American society, as a whole, and the communities these former prisoners return to, in particular.