We can free up money for our law-abiding children to go to college by stopping the cycle of building prisons instead of schools and housing inmates instead of educating children.
WE all value education, until the topic turns to prison education. As I was readying my daughter for her dormitory move to Washington State University, and my son for his junior year there, I was asked to share my perspective about prison education. This wasn’t surprising since I am a dean of corrections education, working at the two largest prisons in our state.
While it is easy for me to argue the benefits of educating prisoners, I also understand the ever-present question, “Why should we pay for prisoners to get a free college education when I have to pay for my child’s education?” I understand that. I paid my own way through college. My husband and I worked hard and saved money for our children’s education so they could go to college without incurring a huge debt. I know there are many hardworking, law-abiding, intelligent kids out there who deserve a free college education.
Ninety-seven percent of Washington prisoners will be released and will reside in our neighborhoods. What we need to ask is: “Do we want these prisoners to succeed when they return to our communities?” The thoughtful answer is “yes” — we want and expect released prisoners to become law-abiding, taxpaying, contributing members of our communities. That will not happen without interventions that address the issues that contributed to their poor decisions. Education is a cost-effective intervention that puts prisoners on a different path that generates hope and employability.
We can decrease the costs of prisons to taxpayers either by reducing the number of people entering the system or reducing the number of people returning to it. All research on prison education shares the same result: Education reduces recidivism and saves money.
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The cost to incarcerate an adult in Washington is approximately $35,000 per year. The cost to provide education in prisons is approximately $2,500 per year. In a major national study, the RAND Corporation found that prisoners who become educated are 43 percent less likely to return to prison and that for every $1 spent on education, $5 is saved in reduced re-incarceration costs. Reducing recidivism means we are reducing crime in Washington.
The state Department of Corrections contracts with community colleges to provide basic education and job training at each of the state’s 12 adult prisons. Due to legislative restrictions, the only postsecondary academic programs delivered in prison are funded with private grants. For the past seven years, I have been involved with the grant-funded associate of arts degree programs at Washington State Penitentiary and Coyote Ridge Corrections Center.
Most students who enroll in our program begin to see themselves as college students, capable of something better for themselves and they realize a much different future involving work, education and caring for their families. They begin to see themselves as students, not as convicts. By lifting a restriction on AA degrees in prison, Washington can stretch existing prison dollars even further and build upon proven, grant-funded success stories.
Our system is broken and we have a way to fix it through low-cost education programs. Recently, the U.S. Department of Education announced Second Chance Pell grants — an experimental program to allow incarcerated students to access federal financial aid for postsecondary education. This is not free college for all inmates, only those prisoners released in the next five years are eligible. This program is about demonstrating the power of education to fix our prisons.
We can free up money for our law-abiding children to go to college by stopping the cycle of building prisons instead of schools and housing inmates instead of educating children. If we can deliver a program that results in a college degree and dramatically changes lives, reduces recidivism and saves taxpayers money, why wouldn’t we do that?