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Providing Education to Inmates: Smarter Criminals or Smart Solutions?

Providing education to inmates lowers recidivism. Yet, the government won’t invest in educating inmates even if it saves money in the long run. But, why?

Currently, most Department of Corrections are not about reintegrating but about punishing. The deplorable incarceration and recidivism rates indicate a different approach is needed. Many inmates have turned to education as a part of the solution.

Free College Education Program for Prison Inmates.
Free College Education Program for Prison Inmates. Image Source: Prudee1/Wordpress


The Facts & Stats Behind Education in Prison

Statistically, inmates have had much less education than those outside of bars. One study shows 41% of incarcerated individuals did not finish high school. That is 23% higher than general population rates.

Reflected in the rest of the US, these rates have a strong racial component. 44% of Black prison inmates and 53% of Hispanic do not have a high school diploma or a GED. Only 27% of white inmates in State prisons don’t.

These are just some of the benefits of acquiring education in prison:

  • Connects people with the outside world
  • Provides a distraction from conditions inside the prison
  • Helps establish goals to keep inmates motivated to improve
  • Increases the likelihood of inmates receiving a job post-release
  • Cuts government recidivism costs
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A separate study by the US Sentencing Commission showed:

  • Ex-offenders who didn’t complete high school were rearrested at the highest rate of 60.4 percent
  • Released inmates who had a college degrees were rearrested at a rate of 19.1 percent
School to Prison Pipeline Infographic
School to Prison Pipeline Infographic. Image Source: ACLU

Giving Inmates Access to Prison Education

Getting an education prior to incarceration may not be feasible for some individuals. Many have proposed increasing access to education from behind bars. Research by the RAND Corporation showed individuals who participate in any educational program are 43 percent less likely to return to prison.

Any push to support inmates creates a lot of resistance. Such resistance led to the lack of programs in prisons today. Opponents have argued that programs:

  • Waste taxpayer’s money
  • Give convicts a competitive edge over law-abiding citizens
  • Encourage protests and escape; defeat the purpose of serving a sentence
  • Make smarter criminals

Full Disclosure

CIW Chaffey College Graduation 2017
CIW Chaffey College Graduation 2017. Image Source: Prison Rideshare Network Non-Profit Transportation Services

These reasons are ridiculous and offensive. They treat those behind bars as if they are not people. It restricts access to education for people who want and need it.

They seek to punish rather than offer people avenues to reintegrate with society. This exact perspective is at the heart of why recidivism is so high. If society systematically tells it doesn’t want you, where else are you supposed to go?

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Let’s look at the least despicable reasoning: the economic component.

Is Giving Inmates Access to Education Cost-Effective?

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo received such criticism in 2014. He proposed a bill to divert $1 million of the $2.8 billion state corrections budget. The bill was for financing college education programs behind bars. There would be an upfront cost for implementation. The long-term savings on the decrease in recidivism would be worth it.

Data by the RAND Corporation indicates every $1 spent providing educational opportunities equals $4-5 saved from reincarceration costs.

The government is not the only one to benefit from such programs. Prisons and jails often benefit too. Education curtails violence in prisons. One study by Arizona State University reported savings of up to $40,000 per semester for the New Mexico Corrections Department. This is due to the Prison English Program.

Liberating Minds: The Case for College in Prison
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A Parting Word on Providing Education to Inmates

To quote Gov. Cuomo:

“Someone who leaves prison with a college degree has a real shot at a second lease on life because their education gives them the opportunity to get a job and avoid falling back into a cycle of crime.”

If the Department of Corrections intends to correct the problem of mass incarceration, the first step must be improving inmate access to education. But, it seems the costs of mass incarceration and recidivism are much more lucrative for DOCs than successful re-entry into society.

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N. L. Sweeney
N. L. Sweeney is an English Creative Writing graduate from Western Washington University. His work has been published by Flash Fiction Magazine, Niteblade, Defenestration Magazine, Jeopardy Magazine and Inroads: Writers in the Community. He currently writes editorials and feature news pieces for Prison Rideshare Network. When Sweeney's not writing, he busies himself with petting furry animals, learning Chinese and making friends in local tea shops.