The High Cost of Not Educating Our Very Large Prison Population

When state governments began cutting state support for public higher education, one of the first casualties was the federal and state funding for providing college educations to prisoners.  It was politically unsustainable to compel American families to bear much more of the cost of higher education while providing such an education free of charge to those behind bars. If the ideological commitment to corporatization and privatization were going to be masked as an unavoidable consequence of financial constraints, then the funding for the education of prisoners could be justified as an unnecessary extravagance introduced in more economically prosperous and politically progressive times. It is worth emphasizing, too, that at the same time that public education has become increasingly corporatized and privatized, our prison systems have also been transformed into corporate profit centers.

Now, as the costs of not educating prisoners are becoming more apparent, the calls to reconsider and refund such programs are becoming more commonplace and more insistent. The deputy editor of the op-ed page for the Toledo Blade, Jeff Gerritt, has written a fine piece on the issue titled “Ohio Colleges Should Go to Prison.” (Given the title, I initially expected the editorial to be a denunciation of extravagant spending or cronyism .) Here are the opening paragraphs:

“As a nation, we talk a lot about lack of access to higher education, but we don’t talk much about the lack of higher education in prison. With 700,000 people a year getting out of prison, we should — if we’re serious about changing lives, reducing prison costs, and improving public safety.

“In an era of mass incarceration, educating prisoners and ex-prisoners should be a big part of the mission of every college, university, and community college.

“Last month, in a long overdue move, the Obama Administration announced the Second Chance Pell Pilot program. It would restore eligibility for Pell grants to some prisoners, enabling them to take college courses while they are still behind bars.

“Better yet, some members of Congress seek to fully restore Pell grant eligibility for federal and state prisoners. There’s no reason to wait. A slew of studies already shows that education reduces recidivism.

“One of the best, a 2013 study by the Rand Corp., found that inmates who took part in educational programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years. Every dollar invested in prison education saved nearly $5 in later incarceration costs.

“But facts, studies, and common sense won’t sway the critics who think with their glands instead of their heads. They’ll utter some nonsense about ‘coddling prisoners’ or ‘getting soft on crime.’ They’ll ask why hardworking, law-abiding taxpayers should reward people who break the law.

“Here’s why: Taxpayers are already paying $100 billion a year for this nation’s prisons and jails. And when unprepared inmates leave prison and commit more crimes, they pay a lot more. When ex-offenders find work, pay taxes, and support their children, everyone wins. Education doesn’t guarantee that will happen, but makes it far more likely.

“I understand that some people will resent prison college courses that are essentially free. . . .”

Gerritt’s complete editorial is available at:






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