Education for Prisoners Hard to Come By

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By Chelsea Kingston ‘17

One of the largest, money-making industries in the United States is the prison industry.

According to globalresearch.ca, the multimillion dollar industry has its own trade exhibitions, conventions, websites, and mail-order/Internet catalogs. It also has direct advertising campaigns, construction companies, investment houses on Wall Street, food supply companies, armed security, and padded cells in a large variety of colors. Therefore, what percent of the multimillion dollar industry is invested in the education of prisoners?

“Education is the key to success” and “Knowledge is power” are what I have been told all my life. So do those phrases apply to those who are behind bars?

According to the Unites States Department of Justice (D.O.J.), about 40% of State prison inmates, 27% of Federal inmates, 47% of inmates in local jails, and 31% of those serving probation sentences had not completed high school or its equivalent.

My uncle has been incarcerated for more than 25 years. He has been moved from prison to prison and is currently in Fishkill Correctional Facilities. I never imagined that during our weekly phone calls or monthly visits, Uncle Sammy would be teaching me. During my elementary and middle school years, I was usually ashamed to tell others my uncle is in jail. Although I do not condone the crime he committed, I am proud of the person he has become.

My uncle has been involved in many programs, like Domestic Violence prevention eductaion*, HIV/AIDS, and Peer Mentorship. I know, first-hand, that these programs help inmates prepare their minds for the outside world because it gives them an idea of what they want to do when they are released. My uncle already has plans to educate people in Guyana about HIV/AIDS and speak in forums about how important it is to stay in school, when he is deported. This gives prisoners a reason not to return behind bars the minute they are let out.

Recidivism, repeated or habitual relapse, is a real problem. The D.O.J states approximately 700,000 prisoners leave federal and state prisons each year. Within three years, about half of those 700,000 inmates will be put in jail again.

Inmates who participated in correctional education programs had 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison than inmates who did not.  Imagine the greater impact college education would have on the mind and future of inmates. Instead of investing in prisons as a business venture, why not invest in the lives of our citizens?

A Fact Sheet published by The White House stated that the Departments of Education and Justice announced the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program. This pilot program was put in place to allow incarcerated Americans to receive Pell Grants to get a college education and trainings that can help them turn their lives around, get jobs, and support their families. Pell Grants are federal money used for tuition, fees, books and supplies.

In 1994, Congress banned prisoners from receiving Pell Grants according to CNN. Since then, the prison populations grew significantly to 1.6 million. This country has the highest prison population in the world. Although the U.S. Education Department can’t lift the ban without Congress approval, they can use it to temporarily run the pilot program.

Currently, some colleges and universities can choose whether or not they want to fund college classes for inmates. Some colleges that have chosen to join are Bard College and Nyack College. That means that the state and federal governments are not involved.

However, some political placeholders want to make a change. According to http://www.governor.ny.gov, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced a new statewide initiative to give incarcerated individuals the opportunity to earn a college degree through funding college classes in prisons across New York.

“The Governor’s latest plan to fund college educations for convicted criminals using taxpayer dollars is an insult to law abiding citizens all across our state,” Republican Chris Collins said in the article, Should Taxpayers Fund College Courses for Prison Inmates by Pete Kasperowicz. “With 60 percent of college graduates in New York State carrying student debt, we must put our college kids before cons.”   

In addition, some taxpayers don’t believe their money should be given towards the education of those behind bars because they cause destruction to communities, and that it is not fair to the victims of prisoners.

What these taxpayers don’t know is they will be saving money if some of their taxes were put towards prison education.

New Yorkers pay about $60,000 per inmate each year. Based on A College Education for Prisoners by the Editorial Board, the public saves $4 to $5 in costs for every $1 it spends on prison education.

It is sad to know that people see my uncle as a dangerous person. However, it is the truth. In fact, everyone has the ability to cause harm, but it is our choice whether we help stop it.

Until Congress decides to lift the ban against prisoners receiving Pell Grants for education, more colleges and universities need to get involved in the prison college programs.

“When we take advantage of the college programs, we take the opportunity to transform our lives,” Uncle Sammy said. “They provide a different way of thinking and a whole different world has opened up for us.”

A change in mental and educational scenery are just what our inmates need to make American society feel safe again.

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