Prisoner Education: A Stay Out of Jail Free Card?

open a school door closes a prison

This past weekend, I watched a graduation ceremony. It was what you'd expect, complete with the newly educated curtaining the stage with their commemorative gowns and caps, family and friends outnumbering the graduates two or three to one, and a commencement speaker of some repute lending his words of life-wisdom to encourage those about to receive their degrees to use them in positive ways as they enter the world with a fresh perspective. 

If you suddenly materialized in the middle of the ceremony, you would have known immediately that this is what it was -- the celebration of the end of a long road of learning and the beginning of a new smarter life. It might have seemed a little strange that all of the graduates were men. It might have seemed still more odd that a few of them had noticeable tattoos that even the long gown couldn't cover -- one with permanently inked tears under his left eye. And the amount of unusual police presence might have seemed a little disconcerting and out of place.

If you had come into the ceremony with everyone else, however, all of this would make sense. You would have been patted down, inspected to ensure modest attire and a lack of contraband. Your cell phones would have been confiscated along with anything even remotely construed as dangerous. And you would have made the daunting trek through the metal detector and the vault of a door, past the armed guard in the tower as you breached the razorwire-lined wall, and avoided eye contact with the overwhelming amount of more-than-just-curious shirtless inked men. 

This seemingly ordinary end-of-school ceremony couldn't have been more extraordinary if it were set on the moon. Yet the emotion of the moment was as palpable, if not more so, as any graduation ceremony. Moms, dads, grandmothers, and even a couple of guards wiped away actual tears as they witnessed the evidence that these dozen men, these criminals, on this grassy stage (which doubles as Native American ceremonial grounds) were accomplishing perhaps their single greatest conquest -- gaining a quality college education from behind bars.

This ceremony within prison confines really isn't that unusual. Prisons across the nation annually hold graduation celebrations and have been doing so for over a century. It has been obvious from the beginning of incarceration in this country that educating prisoners is a positive means for those who have committed crimes against society to discover that there is a better way for them. Prison wardens and those charged with warehousing prisoners in this country have always seen the potential beneath the shaved heads and tattoos of some prisoners. The Journal of Correctional Education reports, "The Effect of Prison Education programs on Recidivism," confirms what every one of them knows, "Prison-based education is the single most effective tool in lowering recidivism."

prison education and recidivism

The statistics confirm this to be true. According to a Department of Justice-funded 2014 study from the RAND Corporation, prisoners who merely participate in prisoner education programs were almost half as likely (43 percent) to return to prison within three years of release than those who did not participate. Every other study in the field further validates the benefits of prisoner education by demonstrating that the higher the educational level achieved, the lower the rate of recidivism. 

An Emory University study, entitled "An Economic Analysis of Prison Education Programs and Recidivism," reported the specific effects of prisoner education on recidivism:
> Among prisoners who complete some high school, recidivism rates drop by more than half (54.6%);
> For those who complete high school, or the GED, that rate drops into the mid-40 percent range;
> Vocational training for prisoners lowers the recidivism rate to approximately 30 percent;
> For prisoners who earn an associate's degree, the rate is a noticeably small 13.7 percent;
> Prisoners who receive a bachelor's degree? Only 5.6 percent come back to prison;
> The recidivism rate for prisoners who attain a master's degree level education? 0 percent.

Studies report that between 70 and 85 percent of all released prisoners return to prison. To put this in perspective, of twelve prisoners who do not participate in education programs prior to release, nine will come back. Of the twelve who graduated this past weekend in this one prison -- half of whom earned a bachelor's degree while the other half an associate's degree -- only one will return.

Now, with the Second Chance Pell Grant Pilot Program offering nearly 12,000 prisoners free full-ride college education in prisons across 27 U.S. states, it's as if those who would like to take the opportunity to learn are almost guaranteeing themselves a stay out of jail free card. (See blogpost below: "Pell Grants for Prisoners: An Experiment or a Demonstration?")

Previously poor odds of a successful reentry into society have now flipped to be greatly in a prisoner's favor... IF they take advantage of education opportunities available to them. 

 Prison Lives: Prisoner Education Guide

Prison Lives: Prisoner Education Guide

For those prisoners who are not fortunate enough to be in one of the nearly 200 institutions that are participating in the current Pell Grant programs, education options are still readily available for them today. Thousands of courses exist in high schools, vocational programs and colleges across the nation that are available in print form for prisoners to take right from their cells. Prisoners can earn anything from a high school diploma to a master's degree today. A comprehensive breakdown of the current schools and course options that are now available for prisoners can be found in the just-released, annually updated, Prison Lives Almanac: Prisoner Education Guide. 

While education opportunities are not always free, prisoners and those who want them to succeed in life beyond prison walls would be smart to look into current available education options. Watching someone graduate to a better life is a heartwarming sight to behold from any seat, especially if it's from a seat located in a place where failure is the expectation.


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