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Survey Shows College Courses for Prisoners Reduce Recidivism, but Few Exist

by Matt Clarke

Of the various kinds of rehabilitative programs offered to prisoners, only education has been shown to unequivocally correlate with a strong reduction in recidivism. The more education a prisoner receives, the greater the decrease in recidivism – right down to the nearly zero recidivism rate of prisoners who earn a Masters degree while incarcerated.
Unfortunately, a report released by the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) in May 2011 found that prisoners rarely have access to college courses.

“Most inmates never have the opportunity to get a college degree,” said Carlos Rosado, 36, who earned a Bachelors of Arts from Bard College while serving over 12 years for robbery. Rosado credits his degree with helping him get a job as a field engineer for a recycling company following his release from the New York state prison system in 2010.

The IHEP report compiled data from a survey of prison officials in 43 states. The survey revealed that only 6% of prisoners in those states were enrolled in vocational or academic higher education programs during 2009-2010. Thirteen states – Arizona, Arkansas, California, Idaho, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio, New York, North Carolina, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin – have made education a priority in their prison systems. Those states accounted for 86% of the prisoners who were enrolled as college students, according to the survey.

Traditionally, prisoners have had access to higher education correspondence programs in most states. However, the trend has been for colleges and universities to discontinue their mail-based correspondence courses in favor of less-expensive Internet-based programs.

Few prisoners, of course, have access to the Internet. Therefore, the number of prisoners enrolled in correspondence courses has declined in recent years. Indeed, the survey found that most educational opportunities for prisoners occur in prison classrooms with instructors physically present in the classroom.

Another factor that resulted in a dramatic reduction in educational programs for prisoners was the federal crime bill of 1994, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. That law made prisoners ineligible for Pell Grants, a type of federal financial aid for impoverished college students. The IHEP noted that restricting federal aid for prison education was penny-wise and pound-foolish.

“Keeping someone in prison costs about the same per year as sending them to Harvard,” said Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) founder Max Kenner, who noted that studies indicate prisoners with post-secondary degrees have a greatly reduced recidivism rate. BPI makes Bard College classes available to prisoners in five New York state prisons.

The IHEP survey was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as part of a research project examining ways to improve access to higher education to underserved populations. The report recommended that prisoners be given greater access to education – including Internet-based courses – as a way to reduce the estimated $52 billion annual cost of incarcerating around 2.3 million prisoners in the U.S. by decreasing recidivism rates.

The report specifically recommends that “federal and state statutes be revised to support the development and expansion of Internet-based delivery” of education courses for prisoners, and that “federal and state statutes be amended to make specific categories of incarcerated persons eligible for financial aid.”

PLN offers an excellent resource for prisoners who want to pursue higher education on their own while incarcerated: the Prisoners’ Guerrilla Handbook to Correspondence Programs in the United States and Canada, 3rd Edition, by Jon Marc Taylor and Susan Schwartzkopf, available from PLN’s bookstore (see p.53).

Source: Wall Street Journal

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