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March 8, 2018

"Turn Prisons Into Colleges" ... and urging colleges to invest in prisoner education

The quoted portion title of this post is the headline of this recent New York Times commentary authored by Elizabeth Hinton.  Here are excerpts (with a little commentary at the end from me):

Imagine if prisons looked like the grounds of universities. Instead of languishing in cells, incarcerated people sat in classrooms and learned about climate science or poetry — just like college students.  Or even with them.

This would be a boon to prisoners across the country, a vast majority of whom do not have a high school diploma. And it could help shrink our prison population. While racial disparities in arrests and convictions are alarming, education level is a far stronger predictor of future incarceration than race.

The idea is rooted in history. In the 1920s, Howard Belding Gill, a criminologist and a Harvard alumnus, developed a college-like community at the Norfolk State Prison Colony in Massachusetts, where he was the superintendent. Prisoners wore normal clothing, participated in cooperative self-government with staff, and took academic courses with instructors from Emerson, Boston University and Harvard. They ran a newspaper, radio show and jazz orchestra, and they had access to an extensive library....

Researchers from the Bureau of Prisons emulated this model when they created a prison college project in the 1960s. It allowed incarcerated people throughout the country to serve their sentences at a single site, designed like a college campus, and take classes full-time. Although the project was never completed, San Quentin State Prison in California created a scaled-down version with support from the Ford Foundation, and it was one of the few prisons then that offered higher education classes.

Today, only a third of all prisons provide ways for incarcerated people to continue their educations beyond high school. But the San Quentin Prison University Project remains one of the country’s most vibrant educational programs for inmates, so much so President Barack Obama awarded it a National Humanities Medal in 2015 for the quality of its courses.

The idea of expanding educational opportunities to prisoners as a way to reduce recidivism and government spending has again gained momentum. That’s partly because of a study published in 2013 by the right-leaning RAND Corporation showing that inmates who took classes had a 43 percent lower likelihood of recidivism and a 13 percent higher likelihood of getting a job after leaving prison.

Lawmakers have rightly recognized the wisdom in turning prisons into colleges. In 2015, Mr. Obama created the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, which has enrolled more than 12,000 incarcerated students in higher education programs at 67 different schools. The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions is considering permanently reinstating Pell Grants for incarcerated students, who lost access to federal scholarships under the 1994 crime bill. Even Education Secretary Betsy DeVos calls providing prisoners with the chance to earn a degree “a very good and interesting possibility.”...

Mass incarceration is inextricably linked to mass undereducation in America. Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Georgetown, Wesleyan and New York University are among a handful of institutions that realize this and have begun to create ways for incarcerated people to take college classes.  These universities recognize that they have a moral responsibility to pursue educational justice for prisoners, a group that has disproportionately attended under-resourced public schools.

College presidents across the country emphasize the importance of “diversity, inclusion and belonging,” and they are reckoning with their institutions’ ties to slavery.  Expanding prison education programs would link those two ventures in a forward-thinking way.  It’s clear that education will continue to be a central part of criminal justice reform.  The question we should ask ourselves is not “Will incarcerated students transform the university?” The better question is, “Will colleges begin to address and reflect the world around them?”

I very much like that this commentary is not merely suggesting prisons ought to foster educational opportunities, but also that it calls upon "college presidents across the country" to commit to "expanding prison education programs."  I blogged here last month about the new program in New York through which the company JPay will provide all New York state prison inmates with a electronic tablet, through which prisoners can purchase programming. I know many colleges and universities have a range of on-line degree programs and ample on-line education content.  I would love to see some higher education institutions partnering with JPay or other like companies to provide education content to prisons for free or at the lowest possible cost. 

As I see it, lots of the needed infrastructure and substantive content already exists to make college-level educational opportunities available to more prisons, if university administrators and prison official are truly committed to making a difference in this way.  In other words, I think there already is a way, the only question is whether there is the will.

March 8, 2018 at 10:57 AM | Permalink


Totally agree. Too many State correctional authorities are obsessed with totally segregating the prison population from the real world, families and the benefits of educational and creative programs ... without regard for the health of inmates, their families, and the difference educational achievement can have on future behaviours and future employments within and beyond prison walls.

Posted by: peter | Mar 8, 2018 12:05:21 PM

Love it. Prisoners vs enforcers of political correctness. If I were a prisoner, I would major in Women's Studies.

Posted by: David Behar | Mar 8, 2018 1:42:59 PM

For most, technical training gets the most bang for the bucks. Able to get a job and cintinue to groe in their job area. College is turning into bib bucks and lots of them dont make much more than factory workers, at least around here.

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Mar 8, 2018 5:06:02 PM

Say, I go to college in prison. I am brilliant in some field, accounting. I take my diploma, and show my straight A's to an interviewer. Can they hire me after I reveal I have been to prison? If not, that would add to my frustration. Even if there is a Ban the Box law in the state, even if the job has to be relevant to the offense to bar me, my employer will always have a negligent hiring claim to face from the vicious tort predators. A straight fender bender now turns into the trial of the century for the employer. I am facing gross negligence consequences because I hired the felon with knowledge.

You pro-criminal lawyers have to curb your tort colleagues before collateral consequences can be attenuated.

Posted by: David Behar | Mar 8, 2018 6:20:09 PM

So David, according to you, no inmate should expect to be employable ever again but seek to survive on the streets from handouts. How is it surprising then that recidivism is so high? You are happy for the State to fund a revolving door prison policy - effectively a life sentence? And for the taxpayer to pick up the tab? Of course, as usual, it will be the poor who suffer most since they have no reserve resources of their own, and very often not the skills to set up a business of their own. For someone who presumably regards himself as well educated, that attitude is remarkably unintelligent. When you help people to help themselves the benefits can actually be stunningly positive.

Posted by: peter | Mar 9, 2018 8:49:50 AM

Peter. I want to restrain the tort bar. It is deterring the employment of felons, even those with good skills and licenses. Employers do not want to risk a negligent hiring claim.

That will require tort reform, and not just Ban the Box, or relevance of the job to the conviction. I support good re-entry.

I even refer released felons to the Wired article of Feb 2015 on dumpster diving into the dumpster of dry good stores. They dump all returned items. Many items have tags or are in boxes. They guy in the article made $250,000 a year. I am gratified to hear that this practice is spreading in the Philadelphia area.

Yet, again, a manager of a store left a Comment after the article. He does not mind people taking things from the dumpster. So, why does he send guards to chase them away. He is afraid they will get injured in the dumpster and sue the store. Again with the tort bar and its goal of deterrence.

Posted by: David Behar | Mar 10, 2018 12:05:11 AM

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