Many years ago, my older cousin Billy volunteered to teach adult education classes to inmates at New York's Sing Sing Correctional Facility, not far from his home in the Hudson Valley.
A businessman and part-time teacher at a nearby community college, my cousin saw his efforts as giving a break to people who could use one. I thought it was an interesting thing to do, even if it made him the first of us cousins to go to prison.
Cancer took Billy much too soon, in the mid-1980s, but by then others were recognizing the value of prison education. Crime rates were much higher in those days, and as tougher sentencing laws took hold, prison populations soared. Far too many offenders ended up in a revolving door system, in which they would be convicted, incarcerated and released, only to re-offend and end up back behind bars. A scattering of volunteers like my cousin were gradually replaced by scores of formal programs offered through institutions of higher learning.
A lot changed after Congress eliminated inmate eligibility for Pell Grants in the late 1990s. Within three years of the decision, 350 prison higher education programs had become eight. Sing Sing lost its program, so once again the inmates there turned to volunteers. These philanthropic educational efforts coalesced in an organization known as Hudson Link.
One of my clients, a very successful man who is highly enthusiastic about the program, recently brought Hudson Link to my attention. Since 2001, it says it has delivered 260 college degrees and has had a recidivism rate of zero.
Obviously, the rate won't stay zero forever if the program continues, nor is it realistic to expect no repeat offenders at all if you consider similar programs for prisoners nationwide. Yet the difference in numbers between repeat offenders with and without education is still striking. A 2010 article in Corrections Today cited an Indiana study that placed the recidivism rate for prisoners who completed a GED at 20 percent less than the general population. The rate for inmates who earned a college degree was a full 44 percent less.
Hudson Link and programs like it have slowly gained ground in recent years, though many states still do not have prison education programs. New York is one of even fewer states offering multiple programs. Those that have performed best are often programs sustained by a particular college's strong commitment or by a centralized, state-organized effort.
An example of college commitment can be found in Boston University's Prison Education Program. The program has operated continuously since 1972, though it no longer offers master's degrees now that students cannot get Pell Grants. Boston's PEP also encourages research on prison education and offers resources for educators and journalists interested in the topic.
North Carolina effectively uses the centralized model. The state Department of Corrections works directly with North Carolina's community college system to organize and support educational offerings for inmates. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill also partners with the department to offer correspondence and on-site courses that can be transferred for college credit upon an inmate's release.
It is a lot cheaper to educate someone than to incarcerate him. CBS recently reported on a study that put the average cost per inmate at $31,307 in fiscal 2010; at around the same time, the State University of New York spent less than $8,000 annually per full-time student. Educated ex-convicts have a better chance of getting better jobs - any jobs, really - and of staying out of prison.
Corrections officials also report that inmate conduct and discipline improve when a facility offers college classes. Inmates themselves have commented that the culture behind the walls changes for the better; racial divider that often permeate prisons can be bridged in the classroom. Chrisfino Kenyatta Leal, the 2011 valedictorian of the Prison University Project at California's San Quentin State Prison, discussed this in his commencement speech. "Normally prison culture forces men to divide themselves along strict racial likes and forbids socializing with other races," he observed. "It occurred to me that at San Quentin the power of education had actually changed the culture within the prison." (1)
The benefits of education can also filter down to a second generation. Hudson Link student Gregory Brown said, "My educational level can influence whether my twin sons aspire to be criminals or whether they have the self-confidence to pursue occupations that challenge their minds." Leal touched on the same point in his commencement address, pointing to education as a way to break the "cycle of incarceration" from one generation to the next. (1)
The expansion of online courses is providing more options for inmate learning. However, programs face funding cuts from financially strained state and local governments. It is easy for inmate education to become the victim of a politician's wish to appear "tough on crime."
"The biggest obstacle is the widespread sentiment, in the United States, that education is a private good, that in educating incarcerated people we are rewarding them, and that prisons should be uncomfortable, punitive sites of vengeance,"
This is not a new debate. We have long vacillated between seeing prison's primary goal as rehabilitation or punishment. The simple fact, however, is that most inmates are going to be released eventually. The only sensible option is to try to prepare them to successfully navigate life outside prison walls.
I suppose I am like most people who do not have a relative behind bars; we tend to think of prisons mainly as warehouses for those who have offended. There is another option, though, which offers a chance at self-improvement for inmates and at better long-term outcomes for all of us.