Inmates and College Education

By: Marina Salsbury

One of the main purposes of the criminal justice system is to keep criminals off the street so that the public will remain safe. What people tend to forget is that another major goal of the criminal justice system is to rehabilitate criminals so that when they’re released the public will still remain safe. Rehabilitation isn’t an easy process and isn’t always suitable or possible for every inmate, but with the right techniques, it can be accomplished for a great many. Typical rehabilitation practices include therapy, spiritual guidance, community service, and education.

Research shows education is one of the most effective ways to rehabilitate criminals. It gives inmates a new purpose in life and may change the attitudes that landed them in prison in the first place. It also makes it a lot easier for inmates to find jobs upon release, a major benefit considering former inmates have a terrible time finding work after prison due to employers’ unwillingness to hire workers with criminal records.

Often the chances of finding a job can be greatly increased by proving one was disciplined enough to pursue education while still behind bars. The skills and knowledge acquired also give inmates the ability to work in a larger variety of positions. Released inmates who are able to obtain employment are far less likely to return to prison than those who remain unemployed. According to University of Missouri policy analyst Jake Cronin, inmates who earned GEDs in prison were 33 percent less likely to return to prison. These numbers may be even higher for inmates who earn college degrees through online courses or prison-based programs.

One surprising benefit of college courses in prison is that they actually save taxpayers money. This research flies in the face of the objection that providing education to prisoners wastes money. A 2009 report from the Correctional Association of New York revealed that the 1,200 inmates then taking part in 69 prison programs across the United States were far less likely to return to prison. Since it costs as much as $40,000 annually to house an inmate in prison, any measure that will prevent former inmates from returning to prison is a worthwhile endeavor.

Unfortunately, college education is not available in all US prisons. Some people believe criminals forfeit their right to education when they break laws. Some facilities simply don’t have the necessary resources for providing college-level education to inmates. GED prison programs are far more common than college programs, as they tend to be less expensive to run. Some prisons allow inmates to pursue college degrees online, but usually under close supervision.

On the other hand, some schools themselves offer programs specifically designed for getting inmates educated. Boston University has a prison education program, from which over 200 degrees have been granted to inmates from MCI-Norfolk, MCI-Framingham, and the Bay State Correctional Center. Other notable schools with prison education programs include Harvard, Bard College, Georgetown University, and Wesleyan University.

The overwhelming body of research shows providing college education for inmates is one of the most effective means of lowering recidivism rates. Nevertheless, at present most inmates don’t have access to college-level programs. As more research comes out highlighting the benefits of college education in prison, chances are politicians will find providing these opportunities more worthwhile.

Marina Salsbury planned on becoming a teacher since high school, but found her way instead intoonline writing after college. She writes around the Web about everything from education to exercise. She can be reached by e-mail here.


5 thoughts on “Inmates and College Education

  1. I agree that making a college education more available to a greater number of criminals seems like a worthwhile endeavor. The difficulty in such an endeavor, as you hint at, lies in being able to recognize whether or not such educational programs would be worthwhile to a particular individual. As we await the release of the studies which will hopefully show the benefits of such programs (and, with any luck, lead to a rise in the number of such programs at the national level), I can only hope that criminal justice workers are collaborating to find the best possible methods in which to determine which type of individuals would get the most out of such programs and which types of individuals should not be recommended for such programs. Though it would be wonderful for all criminals to have a chance to receive a free education (it would be even more wonderful if anyone in our nation could receive a free education), it is not at present feasible. With a large portion of the nation’s population already having to worry about paying off the costs of their own education (including myself), it would not be fair to have those people have the additional burden of paying for someone else’s education when they are not even likely to profit from such an education. I cannot see the legal system getting enough funds to provide an education to any willing criminal while the member’s of the nation are still burdened with their own educational (as well as other miscellaneous) debts.

  2. In my opinion, this shift towards focusing on prisons not only as a place of punishment but also rehabilitation is an important one. I think many people would agree that the prison system in America is in need of reform, especially given the concern with overcrowding. With this in mind, programs such as Changing Lives Through Literature become increasingly important. Yes, prisons are meant to punish, but what happens when a inmate’s sentence is up? Many of them are not bad people, rather they were people forced into bad situations. Yet if when released they must return to the same circumstances what is to stop them from making the same mistakes? In my mind, using an inmates time in prison positively would benefit not just the individual but the entire country. Although some may object to rewarding or educating society’s wrong doers it seems the only way to break the system. Providing an education or a new outlook on life to inmates appears to help break the cycle of multiple imprisonments. Hopefully, what we as a society would be left with in the end, is fewer imprisonments, less tax dollars spent on prisons, and a greater number of people working as productive member of society rather than against it.

  3. I think this is a great initiative. When inmates are released from prison, it is likely that their circumstances will remain the same, or worse, than they were when the inmate committed his/her crime. If prisons in America were to try to change the criminals circumstances, such as giving him/her an education, it makes sense that the criminal might have a better chance of earning an honest living rather than turing back to crime in order to survive.

  4. All prisoners who show potential should be able to avail themselves of a higher education degree, but upon release and securing a job they must pay for their education like all Americans should pay. Education is a great equalizer but some have to pay while others get a free ride or grants. This is not the American way.

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