Title: College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons
Author: Christopher Zoukis
Publisher: McFarland and Company
Genre: Social Sciences/Education
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Provide education to prisoners and they won’t return to crime. America accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population, yet incarcerates about 25 percent of the world’s prisoners with about 2.3 million men and women in U.S. facilities. Examining a wealth of studies by researchers and correctional professionals, and the experience of educators, this book finds an irrefutable conclusion: the likelihood of an undereducated prisoner returning to crime is high, but recidivism rates drop in direct correlation with the amount of education prisoners receive, and the rate drops dramatically with each additional level of education attained.
Presenting a workable solution to America’s over incarceration and recidivism problems, this book demonstrates that great fiscal benefits arise when modest sums are spent educating prisoners, instead of dedicating exponentially higher resources to confining them. Educating prisoners brings a reduction in crime and social disruption, reduced domestic spending and a rise in quality of life.
Hundreds of articles and studies about prison education, and many papers presented at academic and professional conferences, almost all come to the same conclusions:
- Prison education reduces crime,
- Prison education reduces recidivism, and
- Prison education will make an enormously positive impact on our national economy.
This is an idea that evokes a lot of controversy, because most people are more concerned with educating their own children than educating prisoners. And the idea of providing post-secondary education in prisons is a hard sell because most of the public is unaware of how it can impact our economy and the safety of our communities.
Let’s understand from the start: the concept of educating prisoners is not a “bleeding-heart, humanitarian, feel-good-for-the-imprisoned” kind of cause. On the contrary, it is an issue with huge impact upon the economic stability of our country, the protection of our communities, and a higher quality of life for law-abiding citizens.
Consider this: the US accounts for only 5% of the world’s population, but it holds 25% of the entire world’s prisoners. There is something wrong with this picture. With our prison population now at 2.3 million, we, as a nation, incarcerate far more people per capita than any other country in the world – almost double the next closest nation. Our state and federal prison population has increased almost ten-fold since 1970 and this explosive growth not only creates an untenable financial burden for state and national budgets, but also creates an impossible situation for our judiciary overburdened by high recidivism rates. In some states, like California, prisons are so overcrowded that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state had to reduce their prisoner population by tens of thousands because the state’s system was “incompatible with the concept of human dignity”.
The growth rate in federal prisons is even worse than that of the states. While state prison populations dropped in 2009 and 2010, federal prisons are bursting at the seams, and federal prison budgets are increasing by 10% a year to accommodate the ever-growing prison population. Lawmakers are calling for the creation of a second federal “supermax” similar to “the notorious Florence ADX in Colorado – a place where solitary confinement has been raised to a torturous art, and prisoners seldom, if ever, see another human being. Conditions at this ‘Alcatraz of the Rockies’ are so harsh that the European Court of Human Rights initially refused to extradite terrorism suspects to the United States lest they end up in ADX”.
Hundreds of studies and all the research in the field of criminology affirm that prison education is the least expensive and most effective solution to overcrowding and strain on the budget caused by recidivism. Nevertheless, despite overwhelming evidence, policy makers and the general public still do not support funding post-secondary higher education in prisons. Year after year, even the most basic correctional educational programs are further reduced. Computers are not allowed. The result? Increased prisoner unrest and violence, and even more money spent for additional security.
Today, higher education for prisoners is almost non-existent. And, as we shall see, our failure to invest in opportunities for correctional college education weakens the very fabric of our society. With proper implementation, the impact of prison education can be enormous – not just on prisoners, but on our entire society and our nation’s prosperity. Let us hope that greater understanding will result in wise legislative action for our common good.
“In response to the American public’s growing fear of crime and the call for more punitive measures…, many legislators and policymakers have promoted building more prisons, enacting harsher sentencing legislation, and eliminating various programs inside prisons and jails. But more than half these prisoners are in on drug charges and another 10% on immigration violations, so that more than 72% of our incarcerated population are offenders with no history of violence. With re-arrest rates averaging around 67% to 80%, it is clear that incarceration alone is not working”.
In the opinion of Chief Justice William Ray Price of the Supreme Court of Missouri, “We may have been tough on crime, but we have not been smart on crime.” He noted further, “For years we have waged a ‘war on drugs,’ enacted ‘three strikes and you’re out’ sentencing laws, and thrown away the key to be tough on crime. What we did not do was check to see how much it costs, or whether we were winning or losing. In fact, it has cost us billions of dollars and we have just as much crime now as we did when we started.”
Despite all the studies that confirm society and the nation as a whole will reap significant benefits, the idea of providing post-secondary education in prisons is a hard sell. The public appears to have a visceral, but understandable, reaction against the idea of higher education for prisoners. Why, people ask, should Americans pay to provide a college education for prisoners when so many law-abiding, tax-paying citizens struggle to send themselves or their children to school? It doesn’t seem fair. Honest people have to pay to receive an education; why should prisoners get it for free?
And besides, say some of the opponents to correctional education, if we provide a learning environment for prisoners, perhaps prison will seem less terrible and serve as a less effective deterrent to crime. However, the deterrent argument fails, because people do not decide whether or not to commit a crime based on the program opportunities available if they are caught and sent to prison.
Others believe that people who commit a crime have chosen to limit their opportunities and freedoms, including access to valuable privileges like education. Therefore, handing it free to people who break the law feels wrong, feels like a slap in the face of justice.
These are legitimate concerns, but there are strong, legitimate solutions.
Make no mistake. Despite the fact that I am a prisoner myself, I do not dispute the concept of getting tough on crime. I do not advocate creating a cushy environment for prisoners. And I certainly do not propose taking privileges from deserving, hard-working people to pamper prisoners. That is not what educating prisoners is about.
So why, then, should we care about educating prisoners, educating people who didn’t care about the victims they hurt, the communities they impoverished, and the society they endangered?
We care, very simply, because they get out. Almost everyone who is locked up now is going to be set free one day. If we treat prisoners like animals the whole time they’re locked up, that’s what we’ll get when they’re back on the streets: wild, dangerous animals. But if we educate these people, give them some positive reinforcement, and introduce the idea that they’ll have something to offer society when they return to their communities, that’s what we’ll get when they are free: people who have something to offer society.”