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Government reduces in-prison education even though it helps lower recidivism

ASK THIS | July 30, 2005

John Britton offers guidance on a story begging to be reported wherever there’s a prison, or ex-offenders.

By John Britton



Q. Is there evidence that literacy, vocational instruction and, most especially, higher education are, in fact, effective and underused tools in the crime-fighting arsenal? 


Q. Which is more in the public interest: to offer in-prison higher education opportunities, or to deny inmates even minimal access to things calculated to improve their condition?


Q. Will federal lawmakers consider appropriating funds to the states earmarked for establishing or re-establishing higher education opportunities in prison?


Q. Will lawmakers enact legislation mandating postsecondary education as an option for every prisoner in the federal prison system?


Prison populations are soaring, with in excess of 2 million persons incarcerated. Much of that population includes repeat offenders whose recidivism poses an enormous burden on state budgets nationwide. While some public policy makers view a return to rehabilitative strategies as the answer to the danger and daunting costs of career criminality, lawmakers at the federal and state levels often seem addicted to punitive practices.


The elephant in rehabilitation – higher education – is being pretty much ignored, so far.  Few people in prison hold baccalaureate degrees. On the other hand, almost every study of recidivism suggests that reading, writing and computing are skills that most perpetrators of violent crimes do not have. Aftercare personnel agree that substance abusers, by and large, report one thing in common that propelled them toward anti-social behavior: shame at their inability to read and write.


As late as the early nineties, several colleges and universities, as well as a smattering of community colleges, offered academic programs in prisons leading to associate and bachelor's degrees. Some even offered access to master’s degrees. For various reasons (mostly shortsighted complaints of prisoner privilege), most of those opportunities have disappeared, notwithstanding statistical evidence that graduates of those programs seldom return to a life of crime.


Legislators have deliberately reduced education opportunities for the prison population and for ex-offenders. For example, Congress denied Pell Grants to would-be prison scholars. Ex-felons are ineligible for federal student aid to fulfill any educational aspirations. In the former instance, jurisdictions without the means to squeeze prison college programs into lean state budgets can no longer anticipate that their imprisoned higher education aspirants can attract federal grants to pay college tuition. In the latter, ex-offenders with the intelligence and the motivation to enroll in a college of choice are denied access to the “union card” that is most successful at opening doors to legitimate employment.


Possible sources for comment

Dr. Andress Taylor, Department of English, University of the District of Columbia and founder of the now defunct Lorton Prison college program that educated residents of the DC prison, which was located in Lorton, VA. 202/274-5000.


George Starke, former Washington Redskins lineman and currently head of Excel Institute in Washington, DC, which provides training in automobile mechanics for at-risk youth.


Mimi Silbert, Ph.D., master chef and founder of the Delancy Street Foundation in San Francisco. 415/957-9800.


Dr. Clarence G. Newsome, president, Shaw University, which operates a prison education initiative through its Upward Bound program. 919/546-8300.


Bill Lockyer, former attorney general, State of California.


Tom L. Johnson, president, Council on Crime and Justice, Minneapolis. 612/348-7874.

Posted by Linda Angelo
08/31/2009, 06:28 PM

Is the government aware of prisons receiving money for education programs and they take the money but there is no actual program. I dont know how to find this information for Florida. We can only take one at a time, but we can get them honest.

how do you find....
Posted by Brandon
08/16/2010, 06:52 PM

how do you find laws on prisoner education? for example...how would you find out what the law is on if a prison does offer classes of any kind, what is the law that says they are not allowed to close the class anytime of the week whenever they want?

New York Times
Cutting off educational aid to ex-offenders is irrational, says the N.Y. Times

National Institute for Literacy
Statistics on the incarcerated population in the U.S.

George Loper
Less education equals more crime

Prisoners' Reading Encouragement Project
Educational Programming in New York State Prisons

Prisoners' Reading Encouragement Project
Testimony on the correlation between inmate education and reduced recidivism

Excel Institute
George Starke and Washington, D.C.'s Excel Institute

Journal of Correctional Education
Educated prisoners are less likely to return to prison

Changing Minds
The impact of college in a maximum security prison

Minnesota's Marshall Adult Education Website
Invest in education (for your own safety)

University of Houston
Prisoner education program removes barriers

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