Written by Joanna Hughes

A full three-quarters of Americans believe that the US prison system is in need of reform, according to a recent poll from the Justice Action Network. At the same time, the vast majority (91 percent of Republicans and 89 percent of Democrats, to be exact) also agreed that we should break down the barriers people coming out of prison face when it comes to successfully reentering society. One strategy widely believed to help facilitate the transition from a life of crime to law-abiding citizen? Education.

And yet with a Congressional ban on Pell grants for prisoners set to go back into effect with the imminent expiration of a pilot program introduced by President Obama during which thousands of inmates received funding for education, the outlook for the future of prison education is uncertain. Here’s a closer look at the prison problem, along with why advocates say educating prisoners may be the best hope of creating a truly rehabilitation-centered prison system.

The Prison Problem

The US prison system is plagued by pervasive problems.  For starters, there’s the mass incarceration problem. Reveals The Economist, “No country imprisons a larger share of its people than America. Its incarceration rate—693 of every 100,000—is nearly five times Britain’s, six times Canada’s and 15 times Japan’s.” Even worse? In some areas like Washington, DC and Louisiana, this number climbs to more than one out of every 100 residents.

Adds The Atlantic, “Today, like any other day, there are around 2.4 million people incarcerated in America’s federal, state and local prisons and jails. Together, the nation’s inmates would constitute the fourth biggest city in the United States, knocking Houston down a notch. Expand that grouping to everyone under correctional control, including probation and parole, and you’d have a metropolis of nearly seven million, second only to New York.”

Housing a prisoner isn’t cheap. In fact, the US spends more money paying for prisoners than it does on education. According to data shared by Mic, some states are spending five times more on keeping prisoners in prison than they are on educating their students.

And then there’s the alarmingly high rate of recidivism: More than two-thirds of people who leave prison will return.

Viewed through this lens, it’d be hard to argue that the system is working.

A Less Expensive, More Effective Alternative

Which begs the question: How can we fix it? For many experts, the answer is straightforward. Asserts clinical psychiatry professor James Gilligan in The New York Times, “Punishment fails. Rehabilitation works.”  In fact, continues Gilligan, “Getting a college degree while in prison is the only program that has even been shown to be 100 percent effective for years or decades at a time in preventing recidivism.”

The concept of rehabilitating prisoners is not a new one. In fact, it dates all the way back to the late 18th century, when reformers began to question whether a penitentiary system focused on harsh punishment, strict discipline and hard labor was the best approach. However, a century later, policies swung from the idea of rehabilitation back toward punishment. Many experts now say this was a mistake.

In a New York Times op-ed which proposes making prisons more like college classrooms, History and African and African-American studies assistant professor Elizabeth Hinton contends that the payoffs would be profound.  “This would be a boon to prisoners across the country, a vast majority of whom do not have a high school diploma. And it could help shrink our prison population. While racial disparities in arrests and convictions are alarming, education level is a far stronger predictor of future incarceration than race,” Hinton writes.

At the same time, Hinton says, it’s important to look beyond the value of educating prisoners for the benefit of the economy, and instead as a tool for fulfilling our social contract and ultimately building better citizens. She continues,  “If we believe education is a civil right that improves society and increases civic engagement, then the purpose of prison education shouldn’t be about training people to develop marketable skills for the global economy. Instead, learning gives us a different understanding of ourselves and the world around us, and it provides us tools to become more empathetic.”

The Role of Universities

“Mass incarceration is inextricably linked to mass undereducation in America,” insists Hinton.

Enter universities, which are beginning to recognize the important role they can -- and should -- play in helping incarcerated people gain access to education. In combination with the push toward diversity and inclusion on college campuses, Hinton says this heightened awareness and resulting action is a natural extension of the mission of higher education institutions. “It’s clear that education will continue to be a central part of criminal justice reform. The question we should ask ourselves is not ‘Will incarcerated students transform the university?’ The better question is, ‘Will colleges begin to address and reflect the world around them?’” Hinton suggests.

Still not convinced? The data is compelling. According to the Prison Studies Project, “Studies conducted over the last two decades almost unanimously indicate that higher education in prison programs reduces recidivism and translates into reductions in crime, savings to taxpayers, and long-term contributions to the safety and well-being of the communities to which formerly incarcerated people return.”

And insiders say educating prisoners is a gift that keeps giving. Just ask Chrisfino Kenyatta Leal, a former prisoner-turned-advocate who was once serving a life sentence. The 2011 valedictorian of the Prison University Project and graduate of The Last Mile, which offers technology education and career training programs in prison, attests to the profound ways in which prison education initiatives helped him change his life. “The more opportunities we in prison have to learn to value education and see possibilities for ourselves, the greater the chance we will break the cycle of incarceration not just for ourselves but for future generations to come," he says. 

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.
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