By Christopher Zoukis
Ah, prison! That place where men and women go to realize the error of their ways and be fully rehabilitated. It’s where education is offered, training in life skills is provided, and community-minded citizens help out with reintegration programs… right? What we just described is the idealized version of the American prison system. Sadly, far from being a place of rehabilitation, our prison system is where dreams of higher education go to die.
Maybe that sounds a bit dramatic; but, as we learned in the Prison Studies Project, 21 states have no prison education programs, and 13 have just one. That is not a good start for inmate reformation. Now, the Prison Policy Initiative has released findings proving that incarnation can block an inmate’s higher education – for life.
Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) was co-founded in 2001 by persons concerned about how mass incarceration affects society as a whole. PPI is a non-profit and non-partisan organization that focuses its energy on research and advocacy.
In October, Lucius Couloute, a PPI team member, policy analyst, and Ph.D. candidate, published Getting Back on Course: Educational exclusion and attainment among formerly incarcerated people. It is already known that the average education level of inmates is below high school diploma or GED obtainment. Couloute’s report points out what happens when you place a poorly educated young adult/grown adult in the prison system. “While incarcerated, and even after release from prison, we find that people rarely get the chance to make up for the educational opportunities from which they’ve been excluded — opportunities that impact their chances of re-entry success.”
The Getting Back on Course report further pointed out that when compared to the general public, former inmates are eight times less likely to obtain a college education and are twice as likely not to have high school credentials.
Of course, this funnels us right back to one of the roots of our prison education problem here in America. That good old school-to-prison pipeline.
It’s no mistake that the school-to-prison pipeline keeps popping up when we talk about prison education. The pipeline is a significant factor in starting young people down a dangerous path of lost education and a life of crime. With harsh-zero tolerance policies, students striving to do well often get swept up in the policy, putting their time in school at risk and their future in jeopardy. The victims of the pipeline more often than not find themselves swept up in the equally punishing penal system, where a traffic ticket, losing your dog, or catching a fish out of season can put you behind bars.
Going to prison while lacking education is, for a very select few, a chance to join a prison education program and leave with a college degree. However, for many others – thousands and thousands of others – entering prison with low education means a lifetime of never being able to reach the goal of higher education, a better salary, or a stable life. And when you don’t have those things, a life of crime looks very attractive because no matter who you are at the end of the day, you have to eat and pay your bills.
PPI’s Getting Back on Course report highlights one of the (many) problems with our current prison system and shows that once again, the way out of it all is education.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.