Opinion: Invest in higher education for prisoners
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently signed an executive order, creating a bipartisan task force to improve the criminal justice system. If this is to be a successful initiative, increasing access to correctional post-secondary education should be a priority. More than almost any other intervention, it can change the lives of those behind bars and improve the safety of those beyond prison walls.
One surprising group of people that supports offering more post-secondary education programs in prisons is correctional staff. Correctional staff’s primary concern is to be able to perform their jobs safely and maintain security in prisons. Luckily, correctional education is one of the easiest interventions to implement that can improve prison management.
In fact, correctional staff are already seeing positive results in prisons that offer post-secondary education programs. Staff report fewer problems with disciplinary infractions among inmates who participate in these programs, and research confirms these reports.
In a study of Texas inmates participating in Lee College programs, for example, 147 prisoners enrolled in vocational programs had only 13 rule infractions among them, as compared to the 115 infractions that took place during the three months preceding their involvement in the program. Generally speaking, facilities that offer higher education run more smoothly and with less violence than those without similar programs.
These results make sense. Educational opportunities give individuals in prison tangible benefits to strive for, including computer access and classroom time, which become valuable tools to wield in prison management.
Researchers have also found that providing post-secondary education in prisons helps break down racial barriers and improve communication among inmates. Most importantly, these programs give incarcerated individuals the chance to participate in something that matters beyond the day-to-day of prison life, something that enables them to see a new vision of themselves.
Given how beneficial education can be to prison security and prisoner well-being, education should be more readily available across facilities. Right now, however, post-secondary education in prisons is limited, and most prisoners are forbidden by law from accessing Pell grants to help fund their education.
A few facilities, including some in Michigan, have been lucky enough to be part of a pilot program called the Second Chance Pell Experiment, which provides funds for inmate education and vocational training. Although 200 schools from 46 states and Puerto Rico applied to be a part of the experiment, only 67 were given access to funds. And of those prisons that do offer post-secondary education programs, many have waiting lists for enrollment.
One concern that staff may have about these programs is that some courses require computer access, which poses some risks. However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that keeping computers out of prisons is not a viable way to prepare inmates for the outside world. Solutions like a restricted internet connection (RIC) and monitoring software have made it possible to bring computers into prisons while minimizing risk. The city of Philadelphia, for example, has created a pilot program using RIC on tablets to provide post-secondary education and other services. By working closely with correctional staff and applying innovative technology solutions, partner colleges in these endeavors can ensure that education programs don’t threaten inmate, staff or public safety.
It’s time we expanded the reach of post-secondary education in prison. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, “Every dollar invested in prison-based education yields $4 to $5 of taxpayer savings in reduced incarceration costs.” And as correctional staff know, those savings start while individuals are in prison — with less violence and increased positive behavior. Given the benefits of post-secondary education in prisons, inmate education is well worth the investment.
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