The Case for Prison Reform

The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead (1862)

76.6% of prisoners end up incarcerated again. Every single prisoner costs $30,000 a year on average. The average secondary school student costs $12,509 per year.

Education is intended to improve an individual’s understanding of the world around them so that they may better serve and participate in society. Education, then, is not just for the individual, but for everybody the individual interacts with.

The argument of the length of prison sentence is far too extensive a topic to be covered by this column. However, the vast majority of incarcerated people in the United States, whether they are in prison or correctional facilities, are serving time with the assumption that they will sooner or later be reintegrated into society. This assumption is naive given how most prisons offer few tools for prisoners to seek a better life after release. To avoid releasing inmates off like boomerangs, set to return, prisons should give them the opportunity to gain an education, perhaps even higher education, during their incarceration.

As the warden of Norway’s Halden Prison, in regard to prisoners who will one day be released, asked --  “Do you want people who are angry --- or people who are rehabilitated?”

By contrast, American superintendent James Conway showed little regard for the future of the inmates incarcerated under his supervision. “It was your actions that put yourself here. Who cares how they feel?” he asked.

To simply assume that the transition of a punitive system of incarceration to a restorative form is only about how prisoners “feel” is misguided.  

There are prisoners, including one that was quoted by a New York Times Op-Ed, that claimed to have viewed prison as an “occupational hazard,” a risk that came with being a drug dealer. He took his first steps away from that life when he signed up for his first college courses in prison. Now, he is not only no longer a drug dealer, but also a vice-president serving on the New York City Board of Corrections.

The main opposition against implementing education systems within prisons has to do with cost. U.S. Representative Christopher Collins, a Republican, spoke derisively of “politicians [who] think tax dollars should be spent to give convicted criminals a free college degree.”

Given how the average inmate in federal prison costs the state approximately $30,000 a year, incarceration alone costs around the same as, if not more than, in-state tuition for most public universities. Granted, it may be argued that to offer these inmates a college-education within the prisons will add costs that the state must cover in addition to the $30,000 that it costs to simply keep them in the facilities.

To avoid the additional cost, there are others, like Assemblyman Kieran Michael, who believe in the merits of education of inmates, but would prefer to put the burden of tuition on the individuals. He proposes offering loans to inmates if they wanted to take courses, to be paid back when they were able to. Such a suggestion, however, is not much more than another method of keeping higher education away from inmates altogether. Inmates are already charged for basic amenities. Most outrageously, menstrual sanitary products such as tampons and pads have become a valuable commodity. Thus, unless inmates already have family or friends on the outside paying the bills, they are slapped with a heavy debt after their period of incarceration. It is unlikely that faced with the prospect of heavy “student loans” upon their release, inmates will choose to get a degree.

Education in prison, however, cuts recidivism by 40%. That means that despite costing the state more in the short term, they do not cost the state an inordinate amount of money in the long term. The program will actually save the state money. Fewer people will come back and once against cost the state $30,000 a year if inmates were offered education opportunities their first time in prison.

The superintendent of Sullivan County, NH, is among the group of influential professionals working in criminal justice who see education in prisons as a key to lower crime rates. His prison has for over a decade run a program in conjunction with Dartmouth College that put Dartmouth students and inmates in dialogue, and tasked them with producing a play together. As shown by the new highly acclaimed documentary "It’s Criminal," filmed by Barnard alumna Signe Taylor (BC ‘87), the program has changed the perspectives and lives of the prisoners as well as those of the students. This education opportunity for inmates was easily justified by the superintendent. “If I see them once, I don’t want to see them again,” he said, according to Taylor.

The mathematics behind inmate education support it. However, there still are those who view more leniency and amenities for prisoners to be morally problematic. Like Conway, they believe that criminals are responsible for the crimes they committed and for whatever consequences follow it, presumably including the difficulties awaiting inmates after they are released. But what must be realized is that although the morality of aiding convicted criminals may be debated, education is not solely for the student. Educated individuals, former inmates or otherwise, are less likely to commit crimes again, more likely to find a job, and so they will become  a greater asset to society at large. Thus, if the tax money going towards prison upkeep and function is considered an investment, then the government is not only limiting the opportunities of the inmates. They are also neglecting their responsibilities to their stakeholders -- the American taxpayers. There are benevolent reasons for helping inmates, of course. But there are also societal and economic benefits that reach every single citizen, and to view prison sentences as only a matter of public safety and punishment for criminals overlooks the societal benefits that would accrue from taking different measures.

Prisoners are sentenced to serve time as a form of punishment. Harsher sentences, specifically sentences that do not offer education opportunities, and the threat of long and miserable years in prison are meant to not only to punish those who have convicted crimes but also to deter those who are considering criminal activity, including potential repeat offenders. Clearly, judging from the high recidivism rates, harsher sentences are hardly deterring even those who know exactly what it is like to serve those sentences, much less those who only have a vague idea of what serving time entails. And it is inarguable that the prisoners do feel punished as they serve time. But if the sole purpose of locking up a prisoner is to punish them for past actions, is that enough to justify the resources poured into the incarceration system? And furthermore, when does the punishment become purely a form of societal revenge?

Instituting education systems within prisons is not unheard of in this country. Many institutions, especially those run by states, have already encountered great success by instituting such policies. However, the establishment of education programs, especially higher education programs, with prisons is not widespread. Although the Obama administration was attempting to fundamentally change American incarceration practices, the Trump administration is not so inclined. Along with speaking out against the latest attempts at prison reform this year by Congress, Attorney-General Jeff Sessions has also said in the past that “My observation over the years of attempts to have education and other kind of character-building programs in prison before they’re released doesn’t seem to have much benefit.” It is unclear what his “observation” has shown him specifically.  

Dostoevsky wrote the words at the beginning of this essay in 19th century Russia, a society that hardly merits mimicking. But even he recognized that the way societies and governments treat their most stigmatized citizens is a direct reflection of that society. Currently, our prisons are not reflecting a society willing to increase its ranks of contributing members. They are reflecting a vicious cycle that puts criminals into the wringer of prison, which eventually spits them out again into society no better than they were when they went in. Rather, they are more bitter, more disillusioned, and most likely already on their way to returning to prison. So who is this system serving? Absolutely nobody.