A Discussion of Incarceration and the Importance of Higher Education

Benjamin Franklin once said, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” His thoughts are shared by many elected officials who believe education is the key to reducing the United States prison population.  Over the past thirty years, significant research has been conducted to assess if attending college courses during incarceration reduces recidivism.  

Over 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the United States, and almost 95 percent of inmates will be released back into communities. However, 41 percent of all United States prisoners have less than a high school diploma. A study conducted in 2016 by RAND  revealed when education classes of any level were offered within correctional facilities, there was a 43 percent reduction of individuals returning to prison after their release. Acclimation into society is difficult when inmates are released without an education and expected to enter the current job market. The research discovered offering classes allows inmates to work toward, or obtain, two or four-year degrees. The higher education classes present an opportunity for individuals to gain employment once released from prison. It is proven that employment after release reduces repeat offenses.

Many advocates for providing higher education in prisons not only point to a lower rate of recidivism, but also to the likelihood of a safer community. For example, within correctional facilities where higher education classes are offered, inmates who are enrolled in an education program are less likely to engage in altercations and drug trafficking. This creates a safer environment for guards and inmates. Also, once prisoners are released, they re-enter society with a higher sense of purpose and are equipped with skills to contribute positively. The results are communities with less crime, and an economy boosted by a capable workforce.

A significant concern for correctional facilities is the cost of providing higher education classes for prisoners. At one time, inmates could receive a Pell Grant to pay for classes, but in 1994, Congress repealed this funding. Once states saw the federal government withdraw the Pell Grant from prisoners, they were quick to drop their state funding as well. Taxpayers often complained about criminals receiving tax dollars to further their education. In recent years, this argument has been counteracted with the fact that providing educational opportunities to inmates actually lowers costs for taxpayers. Research shows for every dollar spent on higher education classes in prisons, it reduces the taxpayers’ burden approximately five dollars since it lowers recidivism rates.

Providing higher education courses within prison walls results in a positive effect on inmates and communities. Access to classes which contribute toward a two or four-year degree directly correlates to less tendency to commit future crimes. However, the debate continues about funding college classes in prisons, although it is has been shown that educating prisoners is more cost effective than simply housing them. Benjamin Franklin’s words continue to be proven true; “an investment in education provides great returns.”

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