Let’s get prison education on U.S. presidential election agenda

By Christopher Zoukis

In case there was ever any doubt, yet another groundbreaking study confirms our staunch belief that education is the key to reducing recidivism in America.

A report by The RAND Corporation, a respected research think-tank on public policy, sheds some interesting light on the grim reality of the failings of the United States prison system. The report says more than 2.2 million people were locked up in American prisons in 2013 – a number greater than the entire state population of New Mexico.

Not surprisingly, 40% of these released prisoners commit new crimes or violate their parole, finding themselves back behind bars within three years being released. A huge majority, according to the study, struggle with basic literacy such as reading and/or are learning disabled. Their work histories are poor, and so are their job prospects. Around a third of all state prisoners never graduated from high school.

Surprised? We knew this all along, but it’s time our political leaders started acknowledging the problem too. With the multitude of issues it’s hard to know where to start. Prison overcrowding and privatization; The 3-Strikes Law; Ban the Box; Pell Grants; Recidivism and its societal costs. The list goes on.

These topics need to be part of the conversation as our presidential election campaign rolls out across the country between now and Nov. 8. Outgoing U.S.president Barack Obama acknowledged the crisis briefly by reviving Pell education grant funding for prison inmates last summer. Its a great start, but it’s just one aspect of a failed system that must be addressed. As RAND researchers note in a recent article on the organization’s website, the jail-to-prison pipeline can only truly be broken through education. Their study, “Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education,” is the largest of its kind ever undertaken, reviewing decades of research on correctional education and outcomes.

“It really, for the first time, dispelled the myths about whether or not education helps inmates when they get out,” said Lois Davis, a senior policy researcher who led the study. “Education is, by far, such a clear winner.”

The report’s findings are noteworthy for a number of reasons, but especially since RAND is not an agenda-driven lobby group. The organization is fiercely nonprofit, nonpartisan and committed to public interest.

It shows that regardless of the education level of the inmates (from basic reading and math skills to those studying for college), access to education unfailingly is the solution. Inmates who take part in any kind of education are up to 43% less likely to reoffend and return to jail.

It also underscores what we at PrisonEducation.com know to be true; that education itself, rather than any individual unique qualities about the inmates who enrolled, makes the fundamental difference.

“Regardless of what you think about inmates, what do you want for your community?” asks Davis. “You have to understand that they all come back eventually. If you don’t rehabilitate them, how are they going to successfully rejoin society?”

Let’s hope our political leaders start paying attention to the case for prison education and all the other shortcomings in our penal system. The time for change is long overdue.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of <College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons> (McFarland & Co., 2014) and <Prison Education Guide> (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com, and PrisonLawBlog.com

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