There are the usual stopgap remedies for recidivism – probation and parole, halfway houses, community outreach, job placement and post-release training, family and individual therapy, and substance abuse counseling – but these services are half-measures. Recidivism must be pre-empted within the prison system by providing an education to every prisoner.
It’s no secret correctional education programs fail to provide prisoners with the knowledge and skills necessary to enter a competitive workforce. It is also obvious the public wants little or nothing to do with funding programs for prisoners. College is viewed as a privilege rather than a necessity for survival in an increasingly technological world. Law abiding citizens who spend hard-earned cash on tuition and go into debt trying to pay for college have every right to resent prisoners who receive a free education. This is why, however, education must be viewed as a right for every person in the U.S., because it is the poorest and least educated who populate the prisons.
As a long time prisoner who attained a privately funded associate’s degree, I can attest to the importance of a higher education and the difficulty of receiving one in prison. A post-secondary education should not be exclusive to those who can afford it when there is a glaring need for the incarcerated population to learn more, not less. Once a basic GED has been earned every prisoner in every state should be given access to (if they’ve not already) either vocational training in a specific field or a degree program.
Prisoners with life sentences benefit from an education as much as those who will soon be released because their influence on the general prison population can supplant some prison norms. Generally speaking, prisoners with the longest sentences and time incarcerated are often role models for younger prisoners with less time. If the lifers as a group are more educated they can mentor others, providing a getter way of thinking than the short-sighted poor decisions that lead to criminal conduct and a return to prison.
The belief that criminals deserve only punishment has led to an incarcerated population of 1.6 million U.S. citizens in 2015. If a lasting reduction is to be made, America’s punitive mentality must be paired with the ideal of reform. Ensuring public safety means more than maintaining the highest incarceration rate per capita in the world. It means rehabilitating offenders before they return to the community and habilitating those who don’t understand what it means to be a productive citizen and make a positive contribution to the community.
Habilitating a prisoner requires teaching him or her basic family values, social etiquette, cooperation and conflict resolution skills, work ethic, the importance of morality-based decision making and critical thinking skills. This, in addition to job training and two years of college, should be required of every prisoner before he or she can be released. It is only then rehabilitation and reform become realistic goals rather than ideals few people take seriously.
The biggest obstacle to prisoner rehabilitation is funding. Nobody wants to pay for a prisoner’s education. A possible solution to this continued lack of interest and support from the public and legislature is privatization.
The following case study in New York is a testament to what works:
“ . . .data shows that New York’s recidivism rate is approximately 40%. By comparison, since 1999the rate of re-incarceration dropped to only 4% for prisoners who participated in an existing post-secondary education program sponsored by Bard College at six medium and maximum security New York state prisons.” (Prison Legal News, Vol 25, No. 5).
Twenty-two New York state prisons currently offer privatized post-secondary degree bearing programs. Some of the donors are Cornell University, Bard College, and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The degree programs are limited, but as community leaders recognize the value of educating prisoners more degrees will be made available.
It is imperative North Carolina follow suit. Since the end of the Pell Grant and Spectre Fund there have been no state-sponsored degree programs in North Carolina prisons. Volunteer programs have popped up here and there, but the time has come for colleges and universities in this state to step up. There are numerous technical schools and community colleges as well as 38 sizable colleges and universities that can provide a limited number of grants for prisons in their county or district.
The cost to each school would be minor. Consider this: if UNC Chapel Hill had 29,278 students in 2014 and 10% were external degrees, 1/10 of this number (292) could be extended to prisoners. If a large number of NC colleges were to contribute to external degrees as grants to nearby prisons, a significant impact or recidivism can be achieved. As many as several thousand 2 or 4 year degree programs would be available across the state.
A lot of money can be saved in reducing recidivism rates. In a close security prison the average yearly cost to taxpayers per inmate is approximately $24,000. The average cost for a post-secondary education is approximately $8-10,000 per year. If 200 prisoners a year are prevented from returning to prison because they’ve been sufficiently educated and reformed, North Carolina could save $400,000 to 1.2 million every fiscal year.
The communities who receive educated, law-abiding ex-cons benefit the most, especially if those re-entering citizens take an active role in the communities that need leadership and role models of productivity. This is how recidivism and crime are reduced. You teach prisoners responsibility then place them in a position where they can utilize those lessons.
A major objection to establishing policy for privatized education in prison is one of investment. The benefactors who provide endowments to their alma mater may not agree that 1% of the degrees proffered by a school should be given away to prisoners. This is understandable. At some point, though, there has to be people of means willing to facilitate change to stem or reverse incarceration rates. IF this is a matter of incentive then it seems the schools providing nonprofit grants can write the amount off as a tax deduction. If this isn’t possible then it’s past time to seek legislation allowing such a tax deduction.
In conclusion, there is no justifiable reason for the continued waste of human potential in prison when a minor amount of private resources can be used to significantly reduce incarceration rates. IF a mere 10% of the 20,000 NC prisoners who wind up recidivating each year were to become productive citizens because of the education they attained in prison, that is 2000 people who can make a difference in society. This number can be much higher though. North Carolina was “First in Flight”, let it be the first to drastically reduce its prison population and end mass incarceration.