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May 4, 2011

"In Prison, College Courses Are Few"

The title of this post is the headline of this Wall Street Journal article, which gets started this way:

While serving more than 12 years for robbery, Carlos Rosado completed the requirements for a bachelor of arts degree from Bard College, helping him land a job after his release last spring from a New York state prison.  "Most inmates never have the opportunity to get a college degree," said Mr. Rosado, 36 years old, who works as a field engineer for a recycling firm.

The rarity of that opportunity was underscored in a survey to be released Wednesday by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a nonprofit devoted to increasing access to post-secondary education around the world.

Based on data provided by correctional officers in 43 states, the survey found only 6% of prisoners were enrolled in vocational or academic post-secondary programs during the 2009-2010 school year.  Of those who were enrolled, 86% were serving time in 13 states, suggesting other states provide little access to inmate education.

The survey, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, argued for giving inmates greater access to education — including Internet-based programs — on grounds that doing so could reduce the overall cost of incarceration by limiting recidivism.  About 2.3 million prisoners in the U.S. cost about $52 billion a year, the survey said.  At a time of severe budget constraints, any plan to increase funding for prisoner education could face political difficulties.

Here is another excerpt which highlights the impact of some Clinton-era punishment policies:

Inmate education in America plummeted after President Bill Clinton's crime bill of 1994 rendered federal and state prisoners ineligible for Pell Grants, a form of federal financial aid for college.   Since then, the educational opportunities for state inmates have varied dramatically from state to state.  According to the study, 13 states have made it a priority: Washington, Idaho, California, Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, North Carolina and New York.

"Keeping someone in prison costs about the same per year as sending them to Harvard," said Max Kenner, founder of the Bard Prison Initiative, a privately funded nonprofit that brings Bard College classes to prisoners in five facilities in New York.  Published research shows that prisoners who obtain post-secondary degrees are much less likely than others to return to crime upon release, Mr. Kenner said.

A policy statement from the American Correctional Association, a trade group for correctional professionals, says that "public and private agencies should develop, expand, adequately fund and improve delivery systems for academic, occupational and other educational programs for charged and adjudicated juvenile and adult offenders."

May 4, 2011 at 10:27 AM | Permalink


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It is unfortunate that the survey did not request information for women's facilities; nor does the report refer to women prisoners whatsoever. This is puzzling because the incarceration rate of women is meteoric. Yet, and as dismal as this article sounds for the higher education of prisoners generally - women face a far more dismal situation educationally than male prisoners in the U.S. Women prisoners have comparatively little access to any educational programming, and higher education opportunities in particular are far more accessible to men prisoners in most states. This inequity has far-reaching effects on women's subsequent re-entry, their futures, families and communities. Very disappointing that the research does not even approach this disparity.

Posted by: anonymous | May 4, 2011 1:17:03 PM


Interesting because from what I've seen (admittedly prisons hyping what they do rather than any sort of systematic study), woman's prisons are far more likely to highlight such programs as being a major part of what they do compared to their male counterparts. That and child rearing education.

Notably in the case of female prisons it tends to be vocational training, hairstyling or cosmetics, rather than formal post secondary education. Though my understanding is that much the same could be said for male prisons, just with different skills (such as woodworking).

But then I would also argue we actually have a glut of post secondary degrees right now and little real return for that investment.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | May 4, 2011 1:37:47 PM

Doug, there is some interesting civil litigation brewing in North Carolina which impacts sentencing and gain time which is related to college courses, vocational courses, work release, etc.

In NC, prisoners are sentenced with a minimum sentence and a maximum sentence. A prisoner's release date is set at the maximum but if an inmate takes courses, works etc, he can lower his sentence down to the minimum. It's the replacement for the parole system.

Due to budget cuts, prison classes are being cancelled and some inmates say that it is now impossible for them to work their sentences down to the minimum. They say, understandably, that the State has reneged on the promise made to the prisoner that if he pleads guilty , and is diligent, he can reduce his sentence. I know of one 1983 action that has been filed and have heard of another. I think it is a good argument. The state made a representation at the time of sentencing that is not being fulfilled.


Posted by: bruce cunningham | May 4, 2011 1:47:51 PM

Angela Davis has said that “education is the alternative to incarceration”. While incarcerated at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women I saw first hand the levels of illiteracy and prevalence of rudimentary academic skills among my fellow inmates. I saw the impact academic/oral/written communication skills had on being “assigned” to certain prison jobs and by extension knew many of them would face extraordinary challenges in ever being hired to any "real world” jobs.

Most people leave prison wanting to work and take care of their families however people with blemishes on their backgrounds are at a disadvantage when looking for entry level low wage earning jobs. It makes economic sense to allow inmates the opportunity to further their education and develop skills necessary to obtain employment upon release. I don’t even get the debate.

Posted by: urbnlgl74 | May 5, 2011 9:12:25 PM

At FCI, Morgantown where I jsut completed 5 mos for "attempted income tax" evasion available education programming consisted, primarily, of GED classes taught by inmates. "Successful" GED students receive a couple of dollars towards commissary accounts.

Yeah, there were scatter-shot music, computer, parenting, and business classes; unfortunately, since security trumps "rehabilitation" access to the information superhighway was non-existent save limited access to a primitive and filtered form of email. So it's appropriate to question the value of even the computer and business-related classes in this day and age. College? No.

Posted by: Bad Lawyer | May 6, 2011 11:01:31 AM

This inequity has far-reaching effects on women's subsequent re-entry, their futures, families and communities. Very disappointing that the research does not even approach this disparity.

Posted by: Bachelor of Applied Fitness | Nov 13, 2011 9:55:59 PM

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