Prison College: Let Them Eat Cake?

Students at for-profit college many have abysmally low completion rates, less than half of high school students may even start college, and the average student may now take something like six years to complete a bachelor’s degree but, according to a new report, it’s time to start bringing college to prisoners.

According to an article by Jamaal Abdul-Alim in Diverse Issues in Higher Education:

In the national push to increase degree attainment throughout the United States, policy-makers should focus more attention on providing post-secondary education to those who are behind bars—even if it means easing restrictions on the Internet in prison to do so.

The… report also calls for post-secondary correctional education programs to be aligned with state post-secondary education systems and workforce needs and to revise federal and state law to make certain incarcerated individuals are eligible for need-based financial aid. Pell grants, for instance, were banned for prisoners in 1994.

Meanwhile, state legislatures are enthusiastically cutting funding for public universities.

This prison college might be a rather fine gesture, but it’s unclear why this is likely to prove effective. Even if everything worked out really well—prisoners had high reading ability and great incentive to learn, they studied hard and were interested in new ideas—it wouldn’t work. Just going to prison is a gigantic barrier to ever attaining a professional job. Providing people who are essentially barred from professional employment with a college education is, despite whatever altruistic goals, an essentially wasteful endeavor.

According to the report, providing higher education to prisoners lowers the rate of recidivism, the number of prisoners who return to prison after being released. The rate at which education reduces recidivism, however, is unclear. The true effect of providing higher education to prisoners is thus debatable.

According to the Abdul-Alim article:

Officials at several correctional associations were either not available or did not return calls and e-mails requesting comment on the practicality of revamping security protocols that generally ban the Internet in prison.

No kidding. Clearly this is not exactly a priority at America’s prisons.

Read the report, published by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, here.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer