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.

However, the experiences of inmates, such as George Chochos, indicate a revival in college-in-prison programs. Convicted of robbing five banks in New York, Chochos was sentenced to fourteen years in prison and found himself in the notorious Sing Sing Correctional Facility. Thirteen years later, as reported by the New Haven Register, Chochos is now a student at Yale Divinity School studying philosophy and working towards a master’s degree. Chochos credits the drastic change in his life path to the Bard Prison Initiative, a privately funded program by Bard College that provides college education for inmates.

According to studies of higher education in prisons, many other prisoners have the same experiences as Chochos. In the article “Disentangling the Effects of Correctional Education,” published in the journal Criminality and Criminal Justice in 2005, researchers found that higher education reduced recidivism by up to 62 percent. This conclusion is further corroborated by a fifty-state analysis completed in 2005 by the Institute for Higher Education Policy on behalf of the Department of Justice, which showed that prisoners who participated in college education programs had a 46 percent lower recidivism rate. These extensive studies, spanning several decades, have established and affirmed education’s effect on preventing further crimes.

Failure to See the Ripple Effect

Despite the massive body of evidence that supports college-in-prison programs, the opposition is firm and vocal. One of the most prevalent arguments used by politicians since the 1990s is that inmates do not deserve a free college education. As summarized by George Maziarz, a state senator from western New York, “It should be ‘do the crime, do the time,’ not ‘do the crime, earn a degree.’” What Maziarz seems to forget—and what recidivism rates since 1994 have shown—is that “doing the time” alone has been utterly insufficient in preventing future crime. For the past two decades, this retributive punishment-drive approach has resulted in 43 percent of former inmates getting arrested within only one year of release.

When President Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994, he expressed his belief that “people who commit crimes should be caught, convicted and punished. This bill puts government on the side of those who abide by the law, not those who break it.” However, the purpose of prisons is not only to punish individuals for their crimes, but also to rehabilitate them—a goal that often goes unaddressed in political debates. What President Clinton and Senator Maziarz failed to acknowledge is that providing inmates with education has never been about rewarding crime or taking the side of the criminals. It is about enacting a rehabilitation method that has proven to be more effective at preventing crime than imprisonment alone. It is about disrupting a vicious cycle of re-incarceration, and turning an inmate like Chochos into a productive and contributing member of society.

In an interview with the HPR, Dara Young, the program manager of Wesleyan University’s Center for Prison Education, said, “It is not just about individual prisoners; we are also talking about the program’s impact on families, on communities, once the inmates are released. It’s a ripple effect.” While politicians portray college in prison as an undeserved opportunity for the inmates, what they neglect to mention is the impact of having a college-educated mother or neighbor on families and entire communities. In the face of staggering recidivism rates, college in prison is about finally being “smart on crime”—for the sake of everyone.

At the very least, politicians should consider the financial implications of their opposition to these programs. If providing inmates with free education is unfair to law-abiding citizens, then is it any more fair to spend these citizens’ tax dollars on building and maintaining more prisons, which are undoubtedly more expensive? A 2004 study by University of California, Los Angeles School of Public Policy and Social Research found that every $1 spent on inmate education programs returns $2 to the taxpayer, whereas prisons themselves only yield $0.37. This 200 percent return may seem insignificant until one considers that prisons cost taxpayers $39 billion annually. This means that if only one percent of these $39 billion is spent on higher education in prison, it provides a return of $780 million, and saves taxpayers more than $1 billion compared to a solely retributive approach.

Making the Right Connection

One topic that often arises in discussing college-in-prison programs is the increasingly high price of college tuition—why should criminals receive a free college education when law-abiding citizens struggle to pay for theirs? In response to Governor Cuomo’s plan, the New York Republican Assembly introduced the “Kids Before Cons” online petition. The original petition presented two contrasting images: one featured students in caps and gowns who “Studied hard. Worked summer jobs. Saved. Took out loans,” while the opposing image featured orange jumpsuit-donning prisoners—almost all of whom appear to be men of color—who “Stole a car. Robbed a bank. Shot a bystander. Got a free college education paid by YOU.”

This type of imagery, with its political and racial undertones, is little more than colorful rhetoric unsupported by any evidence. The issue of financing college education for American families is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. But, attempts to connect the two issues are political at best and extremely detrimental at worst. Preventing the federal funding of higher education programs in prison will not lower the cost of college tuition. Passing the Kids Before Cons Act will not help families save money, because it continues the current rates of recidivism and costly prison expansion. If anything, providing inmates with higher education increases the likelihood of greater government aid for college students through saving billions in public revenue.

Currently, the overwhelming majority of states spend more government money per inmate than per student every year, according to the U.S. Census and the Vera Institute. In New York, the locus of the college-in-prison debate, the state spends more than three times as much on an inmate than on a student. Facing such statistics, it is not difficult to see the state governments’ misplacement of priorities. State legislators refuse to fund college-in-prison programs and proclaim that they are defending students over prisoners. But the programs could save the states millions of dollars—money that could go to their public school systems.

The recent wave of zero tolerance policies has increased in-school arrests and exacerbated the problem, so much so that some have named this system a school-to-prison pipeline. Heightened police presence in schools disproportionately affects African American and Latino youth, as they account for 70 percent of juvenile arrests despite making up 39 percent of the U.S. juvenile population. Removing students from the education system invariably raises their chances of incarceration, as high school dropouts constitute nearly 80 percent of the inmate population even though they make up less than 20 percent of national population. Those who then leave prisons without a higher education are more likely to return, and so the vicious cycle continues.

College stops the revolving prison doors. It allows inmates the opportunity to reintegrate into society, to work, pay taxes, and contribute to society. It saves the public billions of tax dollars, money that can go toward financial aid for college students rather than prison expansion. The “tough on crime” rhetoric may have helped past politicians—Democrats and Republicans alike—to win elections, but it has done little to help the people inside or outside the prisons. Indeed, the adverse effect of forgoing college programs for inmates cuts across partisan lines and prison bars. Perhaps this is why President Clinton, who was once adamant about being “on the side of those who abide by the law,” has since commended the Bard Prison Initiative as a “good investment in a safer, more productive society.” Politicians can choose to neglect the evidence and paint college-in-prison programs as unfair to law-abiding citizens, but the true injustice lies in the continuation of ineffective and costly practices when a solution—education—is readily available.

This article has been updated from an earlier version (2/24/15).

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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