Sending Our Prisoners to College
At the heart of conservative thinking are the tenets of individual dignity, public safety, family values, and fiscal prudence. Yet far too often, society fails to apply these principles to the criminal justice system. As a result, our current correctional system is failing all of us. It is clear that something must change.
Generally speaking, our correctional facilities do too little to prepare prisoners for theirlives beyond prison walls. Not surprisingly, recidivism rates are disturbingly high. An estimate from the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicates that almost three fifths of those released from prison will be convicted of a new offense within five years of their release.
When prisoners do return to society, they are often ill-equipped to provide for, protect, and promote the prosperity of their progeny, leading to the further disintegration of the family unit. As millions of children and families have lost their loved ones to the walls of a jail or prison cell, we must be concerned with the criminal justice system’s ability to rebuild stronger families.
Additionally, our prisons are expensive. We currently spend $182 billion annually on incarceration without a clear return on our investment. This poor investment then detracts from other priorities, such as health and education.
No one should be shocked by these results; prisons are dehumanizing places that do not produce favorable outcomes for incarcerated individuals, families, or communities. If we want prisoners to treat others with human dignity when they re-enter society, we must practice these principles in our treatment of them.
There will always be individuals behind bars, including those who have committed serious and violent offenses. But it is important to recognize that roughly 95 percent of state prisoners—who make up the majority of the imprisoned population—will one day be released into our neighborhoods. The question of how they spend their time behind bars, therefore, is vital.
We have a choice to make: we can let incarcerated individuals sit behind bars—isolated and idle—or we can take steps to provide education to incarcerated individuals who, as a result, will be more employable, stable members of our society when they are released.
The idea of educating incarcerated individuals has been met with strong opposition from those who question why Americans should be taxed so that those behind bars—who have done something wrong—receive a benefit. This sentiment led to the elimination of Pell Grants for prisoners in 1994. Pell Grants exist to provide all students with financial need with aid for college. Without financial support from these grants, the number of postsecondary prison programs plummeted from 772 programs to just 8 within three years.
By the late 2000s, individuals on both sides of the aisle began to recognize that prison systems were not stopping the continuing tide of crime. A more effective solution was needed to address the growing prison population.
Finally, in summer 2015, the U.S. Department of Education announced the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program as part of the Experimental Sites Initiative. This program allowed some colleges to apply to pilot the use of Pell Grants to increase access to postsecondary education in correctional facilities, with the federal government evaluating the academic and life outcomes of those who received postsecondary education.
We are now over two years into the experiment. It is still too early to assess the initiative’s impact on recidivism rates. However, removing barriers has increased enrollment: from fall 2016 to fall 2017, enrollment at Second Chance Pell experimental sites increased by 236 percent. As of fall 2017, over 954 postsecondary credentials have been awarded, giving incarcerated individuals a better chance of obtaining employment through career technical certificates as well as two- and four-year degree programs. Both the Trump administration and many leaders in the Republican Party have expressed interest in the program.
Given these promising signs, policymakers should consider expanding postsecondary education programming to prisoners nationwide. Such programming brings gains for both prisoners and public safety, rebuilds families, is fiscally prudent, and acknowledges the individual dignity of those in prison.
How a society treats its prisoners is, in Winston Churchill’s words, “one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country.”
Historically, prison conditions have not been favorable to facilitating rehabilitation. Nineteenth century case law described the incarcerated individual as a “slave of the state,” allowing the administering of prisons to continue without judicial review of conditions. Even today, other than making sure the basic needs of incarcerated individuals are met, courts have been fairly hands-off in their approach toward prisons. As a result, our prison systems routinely subject individuals to extreme isolation and a lack of stimulation, and cut them off completely from their families and their communities. Prisoners are by definition deprived of liberty, but our system also denies their humanity.
Treating prisoners in the way we have—as the lowest of the low, without access to many of the things we value as integral to the human experience—does not serve our interests or uphold our values. Instead of focusing all of our attention on punishment, we should view prison as an opportunity to rehabilitate prisoners and reintegrate them into society so that they will succeed once they are released—with the idea being that re-entry begins from day one.
Education has a transformative effect on incarcerated individuals and how they view themselves. It affords individuals a glimpse at a new world of opportunities that they may not have been exposed to prior to incarceration. In the classroom, prisoners are seen as individuals worthy of investment; their teachers and coursework engender a sense that they have something to offer to society. Postsecondary courses take otherwise dead time and use it to engage prisoners in productive activity. They may also help incarcerated individuals learn how to better communicate their emotions, paving the way for participants to positively model how to treat others with dignity. When individuals are offered a postsecondary education, they become better equipped to participate in society—both within and outside prisons—in a productive manner.
In fact, postsecondary programming in prisons promises to be one of the more effective interventions at improving safety both inside and outside of prison.
Scholars and practitioners havefound that postsecondary education can positively promote safety behind bars by supporting a constructive prison culture that decries violence and applauds self-improvement. Good behavior is often a requirement of participating in postsecondary programming. For the prisoner-student, there is more at stake than losing commissary or other privileges; disciplinary issues can lead to removal from class. And for individuals who value their education, this incentive encourages them to practice positive decision-making behind bars. Even prisoners who are not taking classes benefit, as educated incarcerated individuals tend to provide a positive, stabilizing peer influence on the environment overall.
Practically speaking, postsecondary courses give incarcerated individuals something to do and help corrections personnel create a structured routine for participants. These factors reduce the chance that prisoners will fill their time with less productive (and potentially criminal) activities. Ultimately, postsecondary education can make the difficult job of corrections both easier and safer—for staff as well as those behind bars.
The transformative effects of postsecondary education do not stop behind prison walls; they also bring meaningful benefits to public safety. A recent study found that earning a postsecondary degree while incarcerated may reduce an individual’s chances of re-arrest by 14 percent and their chances of a return to prison due to a new offense by 24 percent. Though selection bias may come into play (i.e., students who choose to enroll in education programs may have characteristics that also make them less likely to re-offend), research has continued to identify such programming as a cost-effective model for increasing public safety. Additionally, a first-of-its kind random-assignment study that would eliminate the effects of selection bias is currently underway to help establish the potential impact that education can have on reducing recidivism and improving employment prospects for individuals who are released.
Families are the foundation of our society. They form the basic unit of our communities and are charged with fostering the development of future generations. Yet all too often when an individual is incarcerated, he or she leaves a broken family behind.
For any parent, the first task is to provide for the basic needs of their children: food, housing, clothing, and security. Without steady employment, this task is made all the more difficult, and dependents are often the ones who suffer.
For incarcerated individuals, a felony record is just one of many substantial hurdles on the road to securing a steady, livable income post-incarceration. Many individuals enter prison with a poor record of employment to begin with. Indeed, a 2014 nationwide survey found that only 49 percent of incarcerated respondents were employed full-time prior to their current period of incarceration. Sixteen percent of the incarcerated individuals surveyed reported working part-time, and 19 percent reported no employment at all. Incarcerated individuals who were more educated, however, were more likely to report full-time employment. For example, only 7 percent of individuals with associate’s degrees reported being unemployed, compared to 23 percent of those who had less than a high school credential.
A postsecondary education can help reverse these trends by equipping incarcerated individuals with the skill sets needed to succeed in our modern economy. When postsecondary programs exist and are well-implemented, research has found promising results for returning citizens. Recent meta-analyses suggest postsecondary programming has a positive impact on individuals’ chances of gaining employment upon re-entry. Moreover, a recent study featuring data collected on Minnesota prisoners provides evidence that earning a postsecondary degree behind bars is associated with higher total earnings and a larger number of hours worked once the individual leaves prison.
There is no question that individuals may face stigma because of their criminal record when they try to enter the workforce. Education can help mitigate this stigma by providing individuals with a route into the labor market and increasing their economic potential; a postsecondary education, therefore, can be a critical part of reducing the barriers to employment upon re-entry.
Perhaps just as importantly, providing incarcerated individuals with a postsecondary education can create positive expectations for the next generation. In 2010, scholars estimated that approximately 2.7 million children in America had at least one incarcerated parent. When estimates include all children who had a parent behind bars at any point in their life, the number of children jumps to over 5 million.
Many of these children suffer from the trauma of a missing parent and the feelings that accompany it: depression, anxiety, fear, sadness, and confusion. Moreover, having a parent in prison can lead to many negative collateral consequences for children—a child may suffer from familial financial instability, for instance, or struggle with poor mental health, have trouble in school, and even be placed in foster care. If we invest in education for the incarcerated parent, that education can help to mitigate some of these harms. After all, parents who experience a transformation in prison often extend that transformation to their children. And instead of passing on a legacy of crime and incarceration to their children, prisoners can return to their families and encourage their own children to pursue higher education.
We know that a parent’s educational attainment and subsequent expectations regarding their child’s education are two factors that promote a child’s likelihood of pursuing a postsecondary education. While some employment sectors may not require a postsecondary degree for upward mobility, on average, higher education translates into higher earnings and may bring additional positive returns for physical wellbeing. Thus, by providing incarcerated parents and other family members with an opportunity to start earning their postsecondary degree behind bars, we can create a chain reaction that helps rebuild the family unit and leads to a stronger, thriving society.
While public safety and family values serve as the moral compass of public policy, fiscal prudence stands as a crucial accountability metric for government intervention. And as far as guaranteeing the wise stewardship of taxpayer dollars, prison postsecondary programs are one of the greatest investments we can make.
The true cost of crime is nearly impossible to quantify but includes the direct fiscal costs to victims as well as law enforcement. Society may spend over $1,000 per reported crime for judicial and legal costs alone. Incarceration can result in an additional fiscal burden of tens of thousands of dollars per person incarcerated each year. Crime also comes with indirect costs, such as the subsequent economic toll on local businesses as individuals decide to move away from areas where crime frequently occurs.
In comparison, postsecondary education courses taught by a local two-year institution would cost an average of $3,660 toward tuition and fees for a full-time incarcerated student over the course of one academic year. Individuals who have the financial means necessary will pay for their own coursework. In states selected to participate in the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, eligible incarcerated individuals may have their education costs paid through federal tax dollars. When individuals are released, those who demonstrate financial need may apply for and receive Pell Grant funding under the same conditions as any other student who wishes to pursue a postsecondary education.
These costs are far smaller than those presented by the status quo. In terms of money spent upfront, it can cost over 10 times more to incarcerate an individual for one year than to educate an individual over that same year. And in the long run, research suggests that the projected reduction in future incarceration costs alone may outweigh the initial investment in an individual’s education behind bars.
When one factors in the potential benefits of fewer crimes, higher individual earnings, increased employment, and healthier, stronger families, the benefits of this investment are likely to far outweigh the costs. In contrast, a failure to support such programming is knowingly wasting an opportunity to bring forth positive returns on taxpayer investments and to increase the efficacy of the criminal justice system.
Many people, and especially conservatives, have an instinctual bias against paying for prisoners’ education. Yet the reality is we already pay a high cost—fiscal, social, and personal—because we do not educate most prisoners. Indeed, the cost of an education is insignificant when compared to the costs our society suffers from criminal activity.
Postsecondary education may require an upfront investment, but it’s one that will reduce the fiscal burden of government in the long run.
Our correctional system is in crisis. Ten thousand individuals are released from prison every week, many of whom are wholly unprepared for the world they will enter. Our public safety, families, and economy are undermined when released individuals resort to crime. We have tried building more prisons, increasing sentences, and making confinement more punitive. But time and again, this “tough on crime” approach has not worked. Instead, it has proven not only a fiscally wasteful policy that threatens public safety and family cohesion, but an affront to basic human dignity.
Supporting prison education does not mean being “soft on crime.” Rather, it is one of the clearest, cheapest, and most effective methods to get control over crime and make our correctional facilities safer. It paves the way for new family legacies based on education, productive labor, and prosperity, creating positive generational effects for years to come.
Conservatives should lead the way on repairing our broken criminal justice system. Study after study has identified the provision of postsecondary education in prisons as a promising approach to preventing crime and to facilitating future economic opportunity. The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program has created an opportunity to provide much-needed educational programs to incarcerated individuals. And, by expanding access to prison education programs, we can move toward an approach that embraces redemption, compassion, and second chances—and benefits society as a whole.
Nila Bala is the associate director of criminal justice policy for the R Street Institute and a former Baltimore public defender. Emily Mooney is a policy associate for the R Street Institute’s criminal justice team. This article was supported by a grant from the R Street Institute.