The Case for Educating Inmates

Want safer streets? Let’s bring back Pell Grants for prisoners. Education behind bars reduces crime, increases employment and saves taxpayer dollars.

Five Figures to Consider

626,000 inmates were released from federal and state prisons in 2016
2 of 3 inmates are rearrested for a new crime within three years
$1 invested in prison education yields $4-$5 in savings in future imprisonment costs
97.5% of Bard Prison Initiative graduates do not return to prison
1994 is the year educational Pell Grants were eliminated for prisoners

At 1.51 million the population of America’s federal and state prisons is greater than that of 11 U.S. states.  (Include jails and the number of inmates rises to 2.2 million.) Imagine every resident of New Hampshire or Hawaii behind bars. That’s about what we’ve got. Then imagine that 95% of them will return to their communities after serving time. In 2016, 626,000 inmates (more people than live in Wyoming or Vermont) were released from federal and state prisons. Unfortunately most incarcerated individuals leave prison with the same challenges they faced before arrest – poor education, low job prospects and few community resources to help them turn their lives around. Unsurprisingly, two out of three previously incarcerated individuals are rearrested within three years.

Prison has traditionally functioned to punish offenders and to reduce crime through the threat of punishment and by removing law-breakers from the streets. Research demonstrates, however, that in order to be most effective at reducing crime, prison must do something to begin to rehabilitate the lives of those who pass through its gates. We have emphasized longer prison sentences – at an average taxpayer expense of $30,620 a year – in spite of evidence that longer sentences do not reduce crime rates. Lengthy, maximum sentences, as recently mandated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, simply perpetuate the vicious cycle of arrest and rearrest, which imposes significant costs on taxpayers, communities and families. Federal and state governments combined spend close to $80 billion locking people up each year.

How can we cut our incarceration expenses and heal communities? One way is to increase funding for prison education. A 2013 Rand Study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice found that that every dollar spent on prison education yields $4 to $5 in savings in future imprisonment costs.  When prisoners are offered significant educational opportunities, three-year re-arrest rates drop by 29%.

In 1994 Congress stripped educational Pell Grants from prisoners, although they had been a part of the program since its inception and represented less than 1% of the grant budget. As a result, accredited college prison programs dried up. At the time many in Congress argued that free education should not be a reward for going to prison, particularly when Americans outside of prison struggle to pay for college. After its efforts to reinstate prisoner eligibility for Pell Grants failed, the Obama Administration introduced the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, which has partnered with 66 colleges in 27 states to bring courses to 12,000 prisoners. In 2017 Representative Danny Davis reintroduced the Restoring Education And Learning Act to reinstate Pell eligibility for all incarcerated individuals. The bill has not been brought forward for debate.

Today most college prison programs, like the celebrated Bard Prison Initiative, which has a 2.5% return-to-prison rate, are privately funded. In New York, state representatives blocked Governor Cuomo’s effort to expand college programs. Ultimately, District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s department provided $7 million from bank settlement funds, which will enable New York to bring courses to about 2,500 inmates in 17 state prisons with partners from 17 colleges including Cornell University. Not all prisoners are prepared or intellectually able to participate in college-level courses. Currently 40% of American prisoners do not have their GED or equivalent (compared to 12% of all Americans), and a large proportion are learning disabled. In this case, an educational focus on a high school diploma or GED alongside vocational training has been demonstrated to reduce re-arrest rates.

Senator Claiborne Pell was right when he called diplomas crime stoppers. Money spent on quality prison education programs is money saved locking up repeat offenders. Let’s bring back Pell Grants for prisoners and encourage universities to re-establish accredited programs in prisons.