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America’s Prisons: A Road to Nowhere

America’s Prisons: A Road to Nowhere

by Ben Notterman

Video of Henry McCollum’s release from a North Carolina prison in September 2014 shows the exonerated death row prisoner making his way through a crowd of excited onlookers and into his family’s car, where he could not figure out how to fasten his seatbelt. In his defense, many states did not begin mandating the use of seatbelts until well into the 1990s, by which time McCollum had already spent a decade in prison. Like most of the 650,000 prisoners released from prison each year, McCollum brings no vocational skills or educational background into a world that must appear to him a strange and distant future, thrust on an unsuspecting present. From this perspective, the severity of punishment is never greater than at the time of release.

Finding employment and independence after leaving prison is extremely difficult; without a decent education, it is virtually impossible. Access to academic and occupational programming in American prisons has declined significantly over the past twenty years, while overall spending on corrections has exploded along with the country’s prison population. Prisoners are twice as likely to lack a high school education as the rest of us. Meanwhile, job skills are more quickly rendered obsolete by accelerating technological developments, and education level is more determinative of income than ever before. As a result, a sentence of, say, three years – the average doled out for drug possession – probably does more to undermine one’s employability than it would have in past decades, particularly as most prisons forbid access to computers and other staples of modern communication. Unable to secure income or sense of purpose, over 65% of prisoners re-offend within three years, all but guaranteeing that our prison population remains many times larger than that of other nations. The financial impact has been immense. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, incarceration cost the public $75 billion in 2008.

Congress could take a major step toward reducing recidivism – and therefore mass incarceration – by once again allowing prisoners to receive Pell Grants, the federal government’s need-based financial assistance program for post-secondary education. Prisoners were made ineligible for Pell Grants in 1994 at the height of “tough-on-crime” politics, by a relatively obscure provision of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. As most prisoners quickly became unable to pay tuition fees, many of the college-level programs available to them disintegrated. Terminating prisoner eligibility immediately reduced participation in correctional education programs by nearly one half.

In the years since prisoners became ineligible for Pell Grants, empirical evidence has consistently shown that educational programming in prisons yields lower recidivism and greater employment rates after release. An impressive 2014 meta-analysis by the RAND Corporation concluded that prisoners who participated in academic and vocational programs exhibited a 43% decrease in recidivism, were more likely to find jobs and scored higher on verbal and mathematic proficiency tests. Observations of correctional facilities abroad also indicate the systemic impact of educating the incarcerated. European prisons, which generally strive for rehabilitation rather than retribution, invest more heavily in prisoner education, leading predictably to far lower rates of recidivism.

For the purposes of gaining political traction, the RAND study’s most striking finding was that every one dollar spent on prison education saves five dollars in corrections expenditures. While not everyone appears moved by the social consequences of mass incarceration, which are absorbed almost entirely by communities with no political clout, the economic effect of housing a full quarter of the world’s prison population is clearly borne by us all. State and local governments have struggled to contain burgeoning corrections budgets in the face of waning liquidity. Cutting in half the incarceration rate for non-violent offenders would save the public an estimated $16.9 billion per year. Investing in prisoners is not merely an ideological imperative; it is also sound fiscal policy.

Meanwhile, the arguments against extending Pell Grants to prisoners are unconvincing. The claim that funding for prisoners substantially compromises funding for law-abiding citizens was debunked in a 1994 Government Accountability Office report, which found that “grants to inmates do not affect the eligibility or size of grants to other students.” Others may argue that educating prisoners is an insult to the victims of their crimes, and perhaps there are cases where that would be true. But in a nation where the majority of prisoners are serving time for drug crimes, the most common victims appear to be prisoners’ own families, who certainly do not benefit from their loved one’s prolonged unemployment and who suffer from disproportionately high levels of poverty. One compromise would make Pell Grants available to only certain classes of offenders, or simply require that prisoners serve a certain number of years before applying for funding.

Prisoner education seems like a controversial issue. Cast in economic rather than moral terms, however, there is plenty of common ground. The question is not whether prisoners “deserve” to learn like the rest of us, but whether we all benefit if they do. According to every available measure, the answer is yes.


Ben Notterman holds a JD from NYU School of Law and a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from Cornell University. He has examined the economic effects of incarceration as a clinic student with NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, in support of the Center’s program to reduce mass incarceration. He currently works for the global law firm Jones Day in New York, where his bar admission is pending. His professional interests include criminal justice, labor law and intellectual property. The views set forth herein are the personal views of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the law firm with which he is associated.

This article was originally published on on November 20, 2014; it is reprinted with permission, with minor edits.


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