A Case For Inmate Education

It is 3 p.m. EST, and inmates at a county jail in Pennsylvania are watching Jerry Springer, an East Coast-based daytime talk show famous for its guests who throw chairs, food, and punches at each other on a regular basis. A short distance down the hall is the library designed for their use. Aside from the legal books, required by law, there are only a few jumbled shelves of trade books, "mostly donated to the prison," remarked one inmate counselor.
Are prisons trying to educate inmates or simply warehousing them, and to whose detriment?

United States jails and prisons now hold an estimated 1.8 million adults — an all-time high, the Justice Department reported recently. Researchers see the numbers as a reflection of increased drug prosecutions and an overall get tough policy by the government.

At the current rate of incarceration, according to the Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), an estimated 1 of every 20 persons will serve time in prison during their lifetime. Black males make up a disproportionate twenty-eight percent of the lifetime figure compared to 4.4 percent of white males.

Adding to the jolt of the statistics is the information on cuts in prison educational programs, a trend that took hold in 1994 when Congress eliminated inmate Pell grants, and programs shown to reduce recidivism were put on lockdown — providing inmates with little more than basic skill instruction.

Only 51 percent of prisoners have completed high school or its equivalent, compared to 76 percent of the general population, and seventy percent of prisoners scored in the two lowest literacy levels of the National Adult Literacy Survey. This means that although they have minimal reading and writing skills, they’re essentially hard-pressed to perform more complex tasks like writing a letter explaining an error on a bill, or even understanding a bus schedule.

"American prison experts concern themselves with correctional population yet seem to neglect correctional outcomes," said Dennis J. Stevens, Director of Criminal Justice and Sociology, Mount Olive College, North Carolina. In his article entitled Educating Offenders, Stevens cites results from a study examining the effects of education on incarcerated offenders, with data from 30 U.S. states.

Inmates who receive education while incarcerated are less likely to return, the study showed. And relatively speaking, the cost of the education is less than the cost to reincarcerate. That makes educating the inmate a win — win for everyone.

"We educate inmates in prison so that they will be something other than inmates during subsequent phases of their lives," said John Linton, state director of correctional education at the Maryland Department of Education, in his article entitled Inmate Education Makes Sense. "We need to remind skeptics that what is worth doing is worth doing right."

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