Spotlight Exclusives

Higher Education in U.S. Prisons: A Cost-Effective Antipoverty Opportunity

Nathan J. Robinson, Harvard University Nathan J. Robinson, Harvard University, posted on

There is an emerging consensus that America۪s vast prison system is a major factor in the creation and perpetuation of poverty. Destroying social mobility and reducing the possibility of employment, prison is what criminologist Bruce Western has called “the new poverty trap.”

It۪s encouraging to see bipartisan momentum for improving our broken criminal justice system. Yet one policy with significant potential is persistently overlooked: fixing the prison education system.

Access to higher education in prison is critical in both facilitating post-release employment and reducing recidivism. An exhaustive 2014 RAND Corporation study concluded that an inmate۪s chances at obtaining a job rose by 13 percent when they participated in correctional education, while their chance of recidivating dropped by 30 percent. Overall, $1 in education spending was shown to reduce incarceration costs by between $4 and $5 over three years. “We no longer need to debate whether correctional education works,” lead researcher Lois Davis explained in a summary of the report۪s findings.

But even though the data show education provision is a financially viable policy in nearly all states, with the saved costs on future housing exceeding the money spent on education, nationwide educational offerings for the incarcerated are severely limited. While most prisons offer some rudimentary classes, the offerings and resources devoted to them are greatly lacking. According to Arizona State University professor and prison educator Joe Lockard, among developed nations the United States now “combines the highest level of incarceration with the lowest level of postsecondary education provision.”

Even the most basic offerings are given to only a small minority of inmates. A multi-state reentry survey by the Urban Institute found that among recently released inmates, only one-quarter of Maryland and 9 percent of Illinois respondents had received any job training. (The numbers are even lower elsewhere: only 6 percent in New Jersey and 1 percent in Georgia.)

Furthermore, the situation is worsening. In certain states, education access in prison has diminished drastically in recent years.

An Illinois study found that the state had allowed its prison education programs to “wither away” between 2002 and 2009, with a roughly 30 percent decline in the number of programs offered and a 20 percent decline in the number of inmates enrolled. The cuts included complete elimination of welding training statewide.

In Oklahoma, 5 of 15 in-prison “skills centers” were shut down between 2008 and 2012. Texas budget cuts during 2011 resulted in nearly 17,000 fewer prisoners eligible for classes in 2012.

And in Indiana, a 2011 law removed college study funding for inmates, resulting in the shuttering of a program between prison and Ball State University, as well as the loss of 80 teaching jobs. At the time of the cuts, Indiana۪s program had been the largest in the country.

Given the data on outcomes, the ultimate effects of the reduction in education programs may well be substantial and damaging, both for the lives of individual inmates and for society generally. California inmate Malik Alayube highlighted these implications in a discussion of his own state۪s budget cuts:

“I’m serving a 25 years-to-life sentence, and I’m worried I won’t have a chance in the job market when I get out of jail. I’ll be released as a felon, but if I were equipped with a college degree, at least I would be able to complete [sic] with other job seekers. Having a record and lacking degrees doesn’t make it easy to find a job. Since California cut classes in prisons, I, and many others like myself, will be stuck in poverty when we’re released.”

Alayube succinctly captures the pattern that may be expected to follow from the recent mass cuts. Former inmate Marvin Marshall concurs, writing that a prison day “consists of walking around aimlessly, just talking, you just read, or tried to work out.  You don۪t have anything to occupy your time constructively, so you۪re going to hang out with people who are going do more crime and find out a better way to do better crime.”

There are some reasons to be hopeful. The recent blossoming of online education has massively reduced the cost of providing high-quality course content, and at least one state’ Department of Corrections has test-piloted a small online GED program through Khan Academy, with positive results. Some are proposing using tablet computers to allow prisoners easy access to books and classes. Despite the good reasons to be skeptical of online education, it might offer a significant improvement over the current situation.

But the most important point is this: Investment in inmate education pays off, for the state and for society, and making sure prisoners can educate themselves should be an uncontroversial policy. In a time when there is widespread acknowledgment, on both left and right, that our bloated prison system only worsens the conditions of the underclass, any measure proven effective should be welcomed. If we are serious about ending the prison poverty trap, it is time to reverse the trend in prison education.

Nathan J. Robinson is a PhD student in Sociology & Social Policy at Harvard University. He previously served as the co-director of the Green Haven Prison Project at Yale Law School. You can follow him on Twitter at @NathanJRobinson.

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