Prison Education In The United States

The numbers are sobering, but the cost is even more sobering. The US correctional system holds an average of 2 million offenders every year. About 700,000 of these inmates are later released into their community every year. However, odds are 1 in 3 of these released persons will end up back in prison within three years of release – prisoner recidivism.

The reasons for prisoner recidivism are not elusive or unknown. Former inmates face several challenges after release, such as the inability to find gainful employment, secure housing, strained relation with family, depression, and other mental health issues. Worse still, after spending an average of three years in a prison yard, many of these former inmates do not know where to begin after release. Even though they think and talk about it during their time bars, the plan doesn’t always work out as they imagined.

So, many go back to what they knew best – boosting cars, small-time drug dealing, robbery, or anything that keeps them from starving. Eventually, they have a run-in with law enforcement and are soon back in prison. This cycle of arrest, imprisonment, release, and rearrest eventually adds up and hemorrhages taxpayer dollars.

To put it into perspective, consider the cost of primary and secondary education in US public schools and the cost of running prisons. The Bureau of Justice reported that the United States spends $80 billion annually. However, journalists and experts argue that this figure is a modest estimate of the actual cost of running US prisons – hidden costs that prisoners and their families bear silently.

That said, the cost of incarceration is $37,000 per offender per year. Conversely, the US Department of Education reported that the total cost of running primary and secondary schools is $14,439 per student per year. Ergo, it costs taxpayers over $23,000 to keep a person in jail than educate them.

Note that this is an average report. The disparity is wider in some states than in others. In New York, for example, the gap between education and prison costs is nearly $40,000 per prisoner per year. Kentucky is on the lowest end at a cost gap of about $5,000 per prisoner per year. Still, the difference is taxpayers’ money – better invested in healthcare and infrastructure – gulp by the prison system alone.  

Recognizing this disparity between prison and education costs, federal and state governments have attempted to close this gap with reformative sentencing policies – most notably in California – and allocating funding for correctional education. And it has been largely successful. A Bureau of Justice assistance project revealed that for every dollar the government spends on correctional education programs, taxpayers save an average of five dollars, as the government saves on the cost of housing and monitoring offenders. 

Correctional education, also known as education behind bars, is an opportunity for incarcerated persons to gain the necessary life skills that prepare them for success upon release.

Modern-day correctional education in America is traceable to the 1970s with the establishment of Adult Basic Education (ABE) and General Education Development (GED) programs for adult and juvenile inmates whose education had been truncated by policies that favor incarceration over reformative justice. There were also vocational training programs and higher education academic programs for inmates, albeit long-distance learning.

But prison education in the US has been around for over 200 years. The first education opportunity for prisoners was at Walnut Street Jail, Pennsylvania, in 1798. However, the program ended abruptly as the prison population soon ballooned out of control.

Although prison education programs that sprung in other parts of the country garnered support at first, support soon waned when the financial interests and legislative prioritization of punishment shifted from education and rehabilitation to crime control.

Since then, prison education in the United States has faced various challenges, from cuts in funding and a dramatic increase in prison population to deteriorating prison facilities. Put together, these challenges – alongside divisive politics – have reduced the quality and accessibility of education for incarcerated persons.  

Expert studies conclude that the probability of committing a crime reduces a person’s level of education and that better-educated incarcerated persons are less likely to return to prison. Put simply; education is an opportunity for a lifestyle change.

However, a report from the Colorado College reveals that budget constraints at the federal and state level have been so severe that many prison programs have received drastic cuts in funding. The most notable of these cuts is the 26-year ban on the Pell Grant for inmates. Without access to this financial aid, a college education is out of reach for incarcerated persons. Although Congress reinstated prisoner access to financial aid in December 2020, a significant challenge remains. There is not enough funding to go around due to a prison population that is out of control.

Even with funding, the dramatic increase in prison population puts a strain on prison education programs across the country.

US prison population has been out of control since 1971 when the legislature prioritized punishment over rehabilitation. As of 2020, mass incarceration – a remnant from the War on Drugs era – currently puts 1.3 million Americans in state prisons, 631,000 in local jails, and 226,000 in federal prisons. In total, there are some 2.3 million people in prison who need access to vocational or post-secondary education and rehabilitative services but not enough money to fund the necessary programs. After all, the bulk of funds allocated for correctional spending goes toward housing inmates.

But prisoners have other things on their minds when they are housed under poor conditions – like escaping prison violence from other inmates and correctional staff. There are 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, and 3,134 local jails in the United States. Studies show that these prisons are overcrowded. For example, Montana correctional system operates at more than double its design capacity as of 2020.

The future of prison education in the US correctional system lies in government commitment to reformative and sustainable policies – and, more importantly, action. For one, there must be changes in mass incarceration policies to reduce the strain on facilities and correctional education programs. Furthermore, state and federal legislature must perform their elective obligation to expand financial aid to prisoners seeking higher education behind bars. 

Of course, education alone will not solve the problems formerly incarcerated persons face upon release. Prisoners still need access to gainful employment, secure housing, affordable healthcare, and mental health services. Nevertheless, access to education during incarceration levels the ground for these persons to become productive members of society upon release. 

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