College While Incarcerated – Why Education Behind Bars Matters
February 25, 2014

Earlier this month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo rocked the higher education boat when he announced funding to support free college classes at 10 state prisons. Up until 1994, prisoners had access to Pell Grants to help pay for schooling while in jail, but a crime law passed that year blocked access to this valuable resource for prisoners seeking an education. Prisoners are also not eligible for student loans and most other federal and state grants. Critics of Cuomo’s proposal see it as soft on crime and offering an unfair boon to those behind bars. But is this true and, even if it is, should the proposal be blocked?

Research from the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) has shown that higher education for prisoners drastically reduces the recidivism rate (the odds that a former inmate will return to prison), which means a reduction in crime rates, which makes life better for everyone. Even without Pell Grant availability, more prisoners than ever are participating in prison education programs. IHEP has recommended that the government:

• Reinstate Pell Grants for prisoners
• Expand the Incarcerated Youth Offender grant program and raise the age limit to 35
• Eliminate caps on Perkins funding for vocational/technical training for inmates
• Increase state funding for correctional education programs
• Enhance funding to state schools offering prisoner education programs (PEP)
• Establish inmate eligibility for state need-based grants for college
• Increase private funding for PEPs

Cuomo’s proposal addresses some of these issues and seems to be a step in the right direction. While it’s true that the purpose of the penal system is to punish offenders (that’s implicit in the name), allowing prisoners to gain meaningful skills enables them to participate in society without falling back on crime or public aid once they’re out of prison.

It’s also important to note that not only does education improve post-prison outcomes, but it also drastically improves behavior while incarcerated. The Correctional Association of New York found that, “Changes in behavior can be attributed to improved cognitive capacity as well as to the incarcerated person having the opportunity to feel human again by engaging in an activity as commonplace as going to classes.” PEPs make prisons safer not only for inmates, but also for guards that work in them, and they dispel the tendency toward violence.

To critics that see offering free education to inmates as a slight to traditional college students, I say it’s not even apples and oranges – it’s chalk and cheese (a British phrase I love that more aptly conveys the difference between two things). Developing Prisoner Education Programs doesn’t take anything away from other college students. True, if Pell Grants were reinstated for prisoners, funding would need to be expanded so that this wouldn’t take any funds out of the pool for traditional students. But allocating state and federal funds for PEPs wouldn’t take anything away from other students if legislation was drawn up appropriately.

With prisoners at a disadvantage in the job market because of their criminal records, education would offer some balance that should enable them to more easily find productive employment and that’s a win for everyone. It’s also important to consider that prison is not just intended to punish, but also to rehabilitate. As with the student loan crisis, it’s states that are thinking outside the box on educational initiatives. Hopefully more states will follow New York’s example and expand the educational opportunities for inmates. Improved access to affordable education is better for everyone, but we’re certainly not advocating crime and incarceration as a route to more affordable education…

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