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Celia Chazelle

Celia Chazelle is chair of the History Department at The College of New Jersey and co-founder of its Center for Prison Outreach and Education

October 4th, 2011 8:37 AM

How to Cut the Deficit: Increase Prison Education Programs

The practical benefits of educating prisoners are well documented. Over ninety percent of inmates eventually return to society; those who receive educational programming behind bars are more likely to find jobs and do without government assistance. They have greater capacity to support relatives financially, contribute in positive ways to their communities, and help their kids succeed in school and stay out of trouble. The benefits extend to the wider public, as well, as study after study shows that educating inmates reduces recidivism – the rate at which they commit new crimes leading to re-arrest or re-incarceration. Although statistics vary, it appears that recidivism among offenders who complete some college work in prison drops by ten percent or more, even if they do not finish a degree. Postsecondary correctional education is, moreover, a cost-effective tool for improving public safety, since it is invariably less expensive than prison (an average of $25,251 per federal inmate in 2009). By lowering recidivism it saves taxpayers’ money, and given our massive incarcerated population – over 2.3 million – it helps address the growing education gap between the US and other countries.

That prisons should offer postsecondary education would therefore seem common sense, yet this trait is in short supply among our politicians. The problem lies on both sides of the political spectrum: when it comes to educating inmates or, indeed, to implementing any reform that might mitigate the harshness of our penal system, Democrats, fearful of the soft-on-crime label, are as bad as – if not worse than – Republicans. The Clinton era illustrates this well. Our jail and prison population soared under Clinton, who signed into law the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, a bill sponsored by Democrat Representative Jack Brooks and written by then-Senator Joe Biden. Among the measures of this legislation, sometimes called the “Biden Law,” was a $9.7 billion plan to build new prisons and a sharp increase in the number of crimes subject to the death penalty. Although the bill provided $6.1 billion for prevention initiatives, it contained a bipartisan amendment egregiously counter-prevention: inmates were henceforth barred from Pell grants, the major federal source of college financial assistance for low-income students. The average grant was small, only about $1500 per student in 1994, yet the cumulative impact was huge. With passage of the 1965 Higher Education Act, on which Pell grants were based, the number of postsecondary correctional education programs shot up from twelve that year to 350 during the Reagan presidency. Ending Pell grants to inmates saved enough to increase grants to non-prison students by a paltry $5 each per semester, while decimating prison postsecondary education programs. After 1994, only eight remained open.

Some of the closed programs gradually restarted as administrators found other sources of revenue. A stopgap measure was the federal Incarcerated Youth Offender Program (now the Incarcerated Individuals Program), which in 1998 established “Specter grants”; these are named after then-Republican Senator Arlen Specter, who has been called “the single most effective legislator at the national level for correctional education.” Despite restricted inmate eligibility, Specter grants are presently the most widespread public funding for postsecondary education in state prisons. Largely thanks to them, by 2005, inmate participation was back to pre-1994 levels. But the grants don’t go nearly far enough. Only about six percent of the incarcerated population in the US currently receives postsecondary education, primarily vocational; just thirteen states – seven with Republican governors – account for eighty-six percent of these students. These thirteen draw from their government budgets; elsewhere, postsecondary correctional education depends entirely on grants and other external resources. Less than a third of prison college programs offer enough courses for inmates to earn associate degrees, and only a fraction of qualified inmates have access to them.

The future looks bleaker still. One of the few private benefactors of prison education, the JEHT Foundation, lost its endowment in the Madoff scandal and closed in 2009. Specter grants have been eliminated from Obama’s 2012 federal budget, and another major federal source, the Second Chance Act that Bush signed in 2008, appears to be on the Obama chopping block as it seeks to cut the federal deficit.

The prison college program I work with relies on a Specter grant for roughly seventy percent of its courses; a Second Chance Act grant and a Sunshine Lady Foundation grant cover additional programming. Every day in the two prisons where we operate, classrooms are filled with mainly African American and Hispanic gang members who got entangled at an early age in the harsh dynamics of New Jersey’s ghetto streets. Only about twelve percent of inmates in these prisons take our courses. Most come to class with homework prepared and listen carefully as college instructors teach them math, English, sociology, marketing, science, and history. Although some drop out, each course they pass moves them one step further from the gang violence and drug dealing that sent them to prison and closer to becoming productive, law-abiding citizens. Politicians see prison education as easy to cut since inmates are invisible to the public, but therein lies madness. If young prisoners are released with no opportunity for postsecondary education and, accordingly, vanishing prospects of legal employment, society as a whole will pay a far steeper price than the puny amount saved.

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