Jean Trounstine : Education in Prison Works

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So are we listening?
Study proves education in prison works

The largest ever meta-analysis of prison education and its overwhelming positive effect on recidivism was released in August, so what are we going to do about it?

By Jean Trounstine | The Rag Blog | September 16, 2013

It was barely six months ago when I first wrote about the battle to bring back Pell Grants for prisoner education programs across the country. Pell grants are those all-important grants that my college students rely on and that once funded prisoners — 1 percent of those who received such grants across the country.

Pells were “disappeared” under “progressive” President Bill Clinton in 1994 when he signed an omnibus crime bill that allowed removal of Pells. And with their removal, we punctured college programming in many states.

Back in March, I applauded the work many were doing with little money to bring attention to the need for Pells and the need for education in general for those behind bars. This underscores a well-known fact: the more education a person has, the less likely that person is to be involved in the criminal justice system or to recidivate if they have been incarcerated.

And in Texas, at a time when 1-in-27 adults are in prison, jail, on probation, or parole, that is pretty significant. Education keeps people out of prison and the clearer that becomes, the more likely we are to get others to see we save money by helping to fund the education of those in prison, on probation, and on parole. Pell grants still haven’t made it back as a way to fund college education in prison but that doesn’t mean we can’t advocate for their return.

This past August, a report from the Rand Corporation — apparently “the largest-ever meta-analysis of correctional educational studies” — found a statistical basis for what some of us have been saying for years. According to Rand, prisoners who “receive general education and vocational training are significantly less likely to return to prison after release and are more likely to find employment than peers who do not receive such opportunities.”

The cost is also a major plus for prisons and prisoners: a $1 investment in prison education “reduces incarceration costs by $4 to $5 during the first three years post-release.”

Most important is this new piece of data: those who participate in any sort of correctional education program have 43 percent less liklihood of returning to prison than those who do not. Not insignificantly, employment after release was 13 percent higher among those who participated in either academic (or vocational) education programs than those who did not.

Amidst sweltering Texas jail cells and lawsuits over unbearable conditions, Texas recently got some notice for its business education program — somewhat ironically, in my opinion, called “Prison Entrepreneurship Program. And the Windham School District has always supported correctional educational courses.

But across the country, the kind of education that gives people access to science, the humanities, and social sciences is not given any sort of priority — no matter how much that education might make prisoners better next-door neighbors. I’d love to see EdX — free Internet courses offered by such institutions as Harvard and MIT — offered to prisoners. But who will take the time to develop that program when an “eye for an eye” makes us say, “they did the crime, who cares?”

Several years ago I visited a prison in England and discovered how much some Brits valued education behind bars. They were allowing and encouraging prisoners who were on their way out to apply to colleges while still incarcerated so they’d have some security when they reentered the free world.

One prison I visited also brought in those searching for workers — i.e. recruiters — to watch prisoners perform in theatrical productions. After seeing a performance, job counselors interviewed the actors and many were offered jobs upon release. This was one of the most supportive and creative ways I had seen — anywhere — to help people land on their feet.

These studies that we do — Rand’s being the latest and perhaps the most comprehensive to date — are great, but only if prisons and correctional officials actually listen to the results. It’s good to hear Attorney General Eric Holder saying that

These findings reinforce the need to become smarter on crime by expanding proven strategies for keeping our communities safe, and ensuring that those who have paid their debts to society have the chance to become productive citizens.

Now let’s bring back Pell Grants and make college accessible and affordable for all — even, and especially, those behind bars who are proving they are more likely to stay out of crime if given books, pens, teachers, and a chance.

[Jean Trounstine is an author/editor of five published books and many articles, professor at Middlesex Community College in Massachusetts, and a prison activist. For 10 years, she worked at Framingham Women’s Prison and directed eight plays, publishing Shakespeare Behind Bars: The Power of Drama in a Women’s Prison about that work. She blogs for Boston Magazine and takes apart the criminal justice system brick by brick at where she blogs weekly at “Justice with Jean.” Find her contributions to The Rag Blog here.]

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