By Christopher Zoukis
Do you believe that education is right and not a privilege? According to a poll on debate.org, 69 percent of respondents say education is a basic human right, while 31 percent said it is a privilege. Now let’s get a little controversial. Assuming that the majority of Americans see education as a basic right, should it be provided free of charge to prisoners?
The knee-jerk reaction is “yes.” Numerous studies show that prison education programs provide huge benefits for the individual, the taxpayer, and the communities in which the released offender settles.
So why are some pushing back against prison education programs?
America’s middle class makes approximately $59,000 before taxes, and depending on the criteria you use, only 25 – 66 percent of Americans are “middle class.” It’s a broad definition with many scholars defining the class using very different criteria, but it’s easy to see that the majority of Americans are just making it financially or are falling into the working and/or lower class. Regardless of class definition, however, most Americans have one thing in common: debt.
Americans under 35 carry an average of $67,400 in debt, and that number soars to $133,100 between the ages of 35-44. The drivers of the biggest debt loads per household are mortgages and – you guessed it – student loans.
The average cost of a two-year program at a public college is $11,970/year. The average cost of a four-year program at a private four-year college is $46,950/year. Few people can manage these numbers, even for a two-year college diploma, without taking on debt.
So, let’s come full circle. Is education a right or a privilege? If you, like the majority, believe it is a right, you have to ask: why can so few people afford it? Second question again: should prisoners receive free education? Think back to the fact that most Americans are struggling to obtain higher education and do so with the burden of debt on their back, compounded by debt from mortgages. To those that struggle like this, seeing an offender receive a roof over their head and a pricey education can seem unfair.
But that’s just the surface. Look again. Look closely.
An offender’s life is one that lacks freedom. It comes with a stigma of shame that impacts relationships, social interactions, and his or her ability to get a job. It wears on the body and mental health, often permanently and negatively impacting the offender, let alone the burden of carrying the knowledge that one’s actions have harmed another family, the public, or oneself. Jail is not a picnic. Many would prefer the street to the “roof over one’s head” that jail provides, and the aftermath a parolee faces upon release.
It’s hard enough for a released offender to find gainful employment – with America housing the world’s largest population of inmates, that’s a lot of people released each year and being unemployed for large stretches of time. That is a lot of people not contributing to society, relying on social programs, not creating jobs, and not escaping poverty – unless they are educated.
And that, my friends, is where the “it’s a privilege” argument falls completely apart. Like it or not, prison education programs are an absolutely vital part of our society because without them, the very things we try so hard to turn around – poverty, low education, debt, heavy reliance on social programs – will never change. Education for anyone, be it a child with a trust fund or an incarcerated person, does more than give that one person an advantage. The act of educating one person means a positive impact on thousands more through employment, entrepreneurship, lowering recidivism, and tackling poverty. And, for those that see most things in dollars and cents, prison education programs lower taxes. It cost far less to educate a prisoner and have him or her stay out of jail than it does to house them, and house them again if they reoffend.
So, it’s time to put that tired old debate to rest. It doesn’t matter if education is a right or a privilege. When you look at it by the numbers, no matter where or how you get your education; in jail through a free program or in the free world at college or university; and no matter if you are middle class, upper class, lower class, or an offender, when an individual gets an education of any kind, everyone benefits.
Maybe you don’t appreciate free education programs for prisoners, but it’s easy to appreciate lower taxes, safer communities, and hopefully one day, lower prison populations in America.
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.