States should expand education programs for prisons

Economists at the University of California Berkeley have documented a significant effect of education on crime reduction. Photo courtesy of
Economists at the University of California Berkeley have documented a significant effect of education on crime reduction. Photo courtesy of

“Ever wonder what prisoners do and talk about?” began inmate John J. Lennon, of the Attica Correctional Facility of New York in his opinion piece published in The New York Times this past Saturday.

“We watch [TV] a lot – all day, all night,” he said, “then we talk about what we’re watching. Conversation tumbles through the bars, about movies, ball games, and the news on CNN.” The installation of TV’s in prison cells is part of what began as the “TV program” following the discovery that when prisoners opt to watch TV rather than go out into the prison yard, there’s less violence.

The inevitable, relentless criticism is this: why should these hardened criminals have access to such a luxury, and why should my tax-dollars pay for it? However when the total state spending on corrections has already reached a staggering $52.4 billion in 2012, 7 percent of overall general expenditures according to the National Association of State Budget Offices, it’s a matter of principle more than anything.

Our approach to criminal justice has become highly punitive, such as in Texas where those found in possession of marijuana can face up to 180 days in prison. As of October 2013, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world – with 22 percent of the world’s prisoners and only 4.4 percent of the world’s population according to the World Prison Population List.

However, prior to this retributive approach, there was a “rehabilitative era” advocating for education in prisons and criminal justice reform. Lennon said that at one point in the early 1980’s, there were 350 college degree programs in United States prisons, with federal and state grants paying for satellite campuses in prisons. In his op-ed, Lennon asks, “What if, a few times a week, massive open online courses, or MOOCs, were streamed on the prison’s internal station, channel 3?” Lennon is one of 23 students who meets nightly in a privately funded college program at Attica, and will come out of prison with an associate degree. However with over 2,300 inmates in Attica, he believes the inclusion of free, televised college lectures and expansion of the college program would contribute to the personal growth of all prisoners and a change in culture.

When thinking about our nation’s penal system, we must ask two important questions: one, do these harsh policies truly make us safer? And, two, are they in line with the values of our nation? The truth is, the alumni of prison-education programs rarely return to prison. In New York’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility, 1,000 volunteers come to the prison annually to teach GED classes. In fact, it is policy that those who enter without a GED must earn one while incarcerated. As a result, the recidivism rate of inmates there is less than 2 percent. Education allows these inmates to better assimilate into communities and life after prison. All of society is better off for it.

In terms of our nation’s values, I fundamentally believe that those who want to make a better life for themselves should have the opportunity to do so. Oftentimes, these prisoners aren’t even given the chance. Clearly, many of them have committed crimes that are truly inexcusable. Yet we must answer the question: what is the purpose of prisons in our society? Are we an eye-for-an-eye society? Despite whatever reservations one holds, if prisoners don’t have access to the tools and resources necessary, what do we expect to happen besides the continuing cycle of crime? This highly punitive approach doesn’t truly solve anything – and arguably only aggravates crime. It is important to remember that a reason many become criminals in the first place is because of the lack of supportive school systems. Economists at the University of California – Berkley have documented this significant effect of education on crime reduction.

Luckily, many legislators are beginning to look in this direction. Last February, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo allocated a small $1 million of the $3 billion state corrections budget to expand college programs in prisons. The result, however, was a rancorous “Hell No to Attica University” petition, causing the plan to be abandoned a few months later.

There is no way to sugarcoat it: John J. Lennon was convicted of drug dealing and murder in 2004, in his mid-20’s with a ninth grade education.

“As I’ve discovered the satisfaction of learning, I’ve realized that I deprived the man I killed of ever discovering his potential, his human essence. I grappled with this shame,” he said.

This unique, transformative power of education is not lost on any in society. We must reflect on ourselves as a nation, and reconcile our commitment to bringing criminals to justice with the rehabilitative policies that will make us all better off.


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