AG William Barr must do more to fix dismal prison conditions
Epstein’s death comes less than a year after high-profile mob boss Whitey Bulger was murdered while in federal custody, and has renewed interest in the safety of individuals behind bars. And unfortunately, suicides in prison are no rare occurrence. Acts of sexual violence are also common: Around 10% of former state prisoners reported an experience of sexual victimization during their last incarceration.
The simple fact is that all too often, survival in prison requires individuals to focus on just that — survival — rather than true rehabilitation.
Barr’s decision to oust the BOP chief from his role rightly signals the gravity of the Epstein situation. But simple leadership changes won’t make prisons safe across the country. And while efforts to address understaffing and overcrowding behind bars would certainly help, these solutions also fall short of fully transforming prison culture. We need to invest in solutions that give prisoners real chances to better their lives behind bars, and upon release.
Bringing post-secondary education to prisons is one particularly promising solution.
When prisoners are able to participate in educational programming, their minds are engaged, and their time is spent learning rather than just surviving. They have something to work toward — a goal that offers a fresh start and hope for a productive future. Education programs can also make life easier for guards. As prisoners’ self-perceptions, goals, and activities change, so does their behavior.
Prison safety improves with more education. Indeed, an Urban Institute study found that for facilities, the most commonly cited benefit of post-secondary education was a decrease in misconduct. And a more recent study of Ohio prison education programs found that those who completed college courses had a lower likelihood of engaging in violence during their time behind bars.
This is one reason why correctional officials have long supported educational opportunities for prisoners. The American Correctional Association and the Association of State Correctional Administrators have both endorsed legislation to allow more incarcerated individuals to participate in post-secondary education.
But the benefits don’t stop there. When newly-educated individuals reenter society, we see improvements to public safety. Study after study suggests that post-secondary education in prison may be one of the more effective reentry tools we have.
If Barr and members of Congress really want to improve the climate behind bars, and public safety in general, they should work to expand access to post-secondary education in prison.
The most straightforward way to do this would be to reinstate Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated individuals, an advantage stripped from them by a harsh 1994 crime bill. Pell Grants provide need-based financial assistance to individuals who seek to pursue a college education, and would help many prisoners get ahead.
Legislation that would lift the Pell Grant ban has already been introduced in both the House and Senate. Barr and other Republicans should all throw their support behind these bills. Pell Grant restoration and post-secondary education may finally bring us closer to the healthy prison culture our current system sorely lacks.
Image credit: Karl_Sonnenberg