Prison education, especially entire degree programs, can be a polarizing discussion. For one, there are states in which these educational offerings are funded by taxpayer dollars—many rightly ask why they should be paying for the education of convicted criminals. And furthermore, of all people to be given a free education, should it really be those in prison? There are countless law-abiding US citizens that can’t afford to pay for their college education—aren’t these the people that should be offered a free education? Don’t they deserve it, at least in comparison with incarcerated persons? Or is the question of who “deserves” it really the question we should be asking?
Education changes lives. All of us here at IU are here because we believe that earning a degree is the best way to set ourselves up for success in life. If we believe this, that education changes lives, rather than asking who deserves an education, shouldn’t we ask instead who is in the greatest need of having their life changed? The carceral system is a vicious cycle—recidivism rates, especially for men, are unbelievably high. And the prisons, although they use words like “correction” and “rehabilitation,” are not exactly confronting this problem.
Thinking of prison as a place for punishment is an unhealthy perspective, and yet it is one that many (including myself at one point) uphold, whether consciously or not. Individuals convicted of crimes should go to prison as punishment, not for punishment. And if we really believe in rehabilitation, shouldn’t we consider prison the place for it—so that those incarcerated are truly prepared for re-entry when their sentence ends? Thankfully, the glimmer of hope in this conversation lies in educational programming.
According to a 2013 Rand Institute Study, recidivism rates drop 48% for incarcerated persons involved in postsecondary educational programs.¹ Furthermore, a separate study done by the Vera Institute estimates that every taxpayer dollar spent on prison education leads to $4-5 taxpayer dollars saved because of the greatly decreased recidivism rates.² Although potentially costly in the short-term, these efforts are extremely cost-effective in the long-term—it is an investment worth making, both societally and financially.
There are many on the front lines in the fight against the massively and tragically flawed US prison system, and systematic changes need to be made. However, the role of prison education in this fight is not to overthrow the entire institution—rather, our responsibility is to the individual lives in that institution. The best way to take on the system is to help people make it out of the system. Prison education programs across the country are betting on themselves that they are the way out, and so far, the bet is paying off.
For more information on the prison education work being done here at Indiana University or across the country, please feel to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org!
¹ Davis et al., “Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education”
² Vera Institute, “A Piece of the Puzzle”