America spends $80 billion a year keeping criminals behind bars, but research has shown that cost could be reduced by making one thing more accessible to inmates — education.
“We spend all that money on incarceration but have little to show for it,” says Christopher Zoukis, a prison-education advocate and author of “College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons” and the “Prison Education Guide”.
“It’s time for this money to be put to good use by helping to reform prisoners so they can return to their communities as productive, law-abiding members of society.”
Giving inmates the opportunity to earn college degrees can be a hard sell, because the average taxpayer is more concerned with educating their own children and grandchildren than with educating prison inmates, Zoukis says.
They want to see prisoners punished and not put on a track toward a degree, but that’s short-sighted, he says.
“Most of the public is unaware that educating prisoners can have an impact — a positive one — on our economy and on the safety of our communities,” Zoukis says.
Prisoners who take classes while incarcerated have a 13 percent lower likelihood of committing another offense and ending up back behind bars, according to a Rand Corporation study in 2014 that reviewed years of data. Those prisoners also are more likely to become employed once they are released.
The Rand report says that for every $1 spent on correctional education, there was a $5 reduction in overall corrections spending.
Nevertheless, a high school diploma or the GED equivalent is as far as prisoners can go in most prisons across the country, says Zoukis, who is incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution Petersburg in Virginia, a medium-security facility.
“It’s better than nothing and will reduce recidivism, but a GED isn’t going to qualify someone for anything other than an entry-level job,” Zoukis says. “The further we can go beyond that, the higher the level of education we can bring into prisons, the greater the chances are that an ex-prisoner will have an economically stable life and won’t be a repeat offender.”
Zoukis has worked on his college degree from Adams State University in Colorado via correspondence. He expects to earn a bachelor’s degree by the end of 2016 and hopes to have an MBA by the time he is released from prison in 2018.
But Zoukis has faced roadblocks on the way and he believes changes need to be made. Among the necessary steps are:
Support from prison culture and staff. Zoukis says he has seen that in some cases, prison guards and other staff members discourage education for inmates. “Prison education won’t work unless we have institutional commitment to ensure a culture of support for education in the state and federal prison systems,” he says. GED programs, vocational training and access to college courses all need to be promoted. Prison authorities need to prohibit guards and prison staff from refusing to grant release from work details to prisoners enrolled in any educational or college program, Zoukis says.
Eligibility for Pell grants. Prisoners should be eligible for Pell grants and other need-based student financial aid, Zoukis says. Inmates were banned from using Pell grants in 1994, but President Obama has announced a pilot program in which a limited number of prisoners would be able to use the grants beginning in the fall. That’s a start, but Zoukis wants to see that eligibility become more widespread.
Partnerships with community colleges. Community colleges are valuable allies in the effort to educate prisoners, but in many cases the programs offered are limited to basic education, literacy and non-credit vocational programs and often they are taught by prison staff rather than qualified instructors, Zoukis says.
“What is needed are more of the credited vocational and advanced academic programs,” he says. The programs also need to be adequately funded, he says.
Ultimately, it’s time for the nation to decide what is more important: mass incarceration or public education, Zoukis says. Prisons need to be used for more than punishment. Instead, he says, they need to be seen as treatment and education centers where skills can be learned and problems addressed.
“The end goal of corrections is enhanced public safety,” Zoukis says. “It’s not enhanced punishment for punishment’s sake.”