How to Stop Revolving Prison Doors With Books

By Alice Hu / Harvard Political Review

Education reduces crime. This connection seems like common sense, and indeed it has been researched, analyzed, and affirmed countless times. According to a 2007 study by researchers at Columbia University, Princeton University, and City University of New York, higher education reduces the crime rates of both juveniles and adults by impacting social behavior and economic stability.

The effect of education on crime reduction is even more dramatic for a certain group within the population: the incarcerated. To many, the idea of convicts receiving a free college education behind bars is confounding and, more often, infuriating. When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced a plan to publicly finance basic college education programs in state prisons, legislators in Albany called it “a slap in the face” for law-abiding citizens.

While this response is understandable, the arguments themselves neglect the actual effects of college-in-prison programs. According to the U.S. Department of Education, inmates who participated in education programs had a 43 percent lower chance of returning to prisons than those who did not. By drastically reducing the recidivism rate of former inmates, education in prisons produces a tremendous social benefit for all members of society. Prison education programs not only save an enormous amount of tax dollars spent on prisons annually, but they also have a profound effect on thousands of families and communities. The current resistance to college in prison often rests upon political rhetoric rather than any factual evidence. Indeed, this type of language is perhaps indicative of a large, troubling trend in education and incarceration.

Revival of College In Prison

While college-in-prison programs may be a foreign idea to many, there were in fact 350 such programs in the United States in 1990. By 1997, however, only eight programs remained. The drastic cut was a result of the “tough on crime” policies of the 1990s, beginning with the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the largest crime bill in U.S. history. One of the provisions of this legislation overturned the Higher Education Act of 1965 and essentially eliminated all federal aid for higher education in prisons.

With high school dropouts disproportionately represented in prisons, this shift in policy meant that the vast majority of inmates are now released from prison without any post-secondary education. Compounded with a criminal record, this lack of post-secondary education makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for an inmate to find employment after his or her release. This is an important contributing factor in the United States’ staggering recidivism rate. According to a five-year study released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2014, about 76 percent of former inmates are arrested within five years of their release. The recidivism rate is even higher for inmates who were 39 years old or younger at the age of the release.  These high recidivism rates contributed to a staggering 82 percent increase in the national prison population from 1990 to 2002.

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