(MintPress) – At one of the most well known prisons in the United States, a growing number of prisoners are entering the corrections facility as inmates, but leaving with a college degree. Thanks to the Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison in California, inmates at the institution can choose to spend their time obtaining an associate of arts degree while also building work experience during their stay.
During a period of time in which the U.S. prison population is higher than any country in the world and recidivism rates can be as high as 70 percent for some crimes, traditional corrections in America should be on a new educational track, according to studies and the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
At San Quentin, the College Program is an extension of Oakland’s Patten University. For the more than 300 students currently enrolled, 20 courses are available each semester that stay in the realm of humanities, social sciences, math and science. Many of the students in the system work full time within the prison while taking an average of two classes per semester. San Quentin says it has already seen many prisoners walk away with skills.
“At this rate, most students take approximately 3 ½ years to complete the associate of arts degree,” the prison notes. “While over 100 men have so far completed their A.A. at San Quentin, many more frequently parole before completion and continue their studies on the outside.”
Ballooning prison population
But programs like the one at San Quentin are not at all common, as budgets to keep the programs thriving have been reduced and the attitudes of prison reform have varied. Gillian Granoff of Education Update says that while there are no concrete figures detailing the extensiveness of prison education programs across the country, the attitude toward corrections often leans toward extended lock-ups and the increasing use of solitary confinement. During the mid-1990s, only 6 percent of the $22 billion states received to operate prisons was spent on vocational or educational skills of inmates.
Unless states or universities champion efforts to educate inmates, it is unlikely that it will happen on a widespread level anytime soon. Extended sentences for crimes such as marijuana possession have overcrowded prisons and syphoned state and federal government of allocated funding. Since 1980, the U.S. prison population has increased nearly 800 percent, and the U.S. is now home to around 2.3 million prisoners – more than any other country in the world.
Opportunities for education are different for those behind bars, however. John Britton, an assistant to the president for special projects at Meharry Medical College, noted that inmates often still have to find a way to pay for the schooling they receive, and that their work in the prison doesn’t always cover the cost. He also said politicians have taken note and cut access to federal student aid and Pell Grants to inmates — leaving them without the backbone of tuition coverage for most college students across the country.
“Legislators have deliberately reduced education opportunities for the prison population and for ex-offenders,” Britton wrote. “For example, Congress denied Pell Grants to would-be prison scholars. Ex-felons are ineligible for federal student aid to fulfill any educational aspirations.”
Kara Gotsch, a director at the Sentencing Project — an organization that advocates for prison reform — said the federal government needs to address the growing prison population because incarcerating a high volume of individuals takes away from funding that could be used for rehabilitation. The average prisoner costs $32,000-$40,000 per year to incarcerate; but the cost of providing an education to that inmate ranges on average from $2,000-$3,780, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.
“The administration and Congress need to focus on reforms that limit excessive mandatory minimum sentences for low-level offenses,” Gotsch wrote in the Washington Post. “This would significantly reduce the prison population while maintaining public safety and go a long way toward promoting a cost-effective and fair justice system.”
Also, the rise of private prison institutions have turned incarceration into big business. Recently, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), a private prison management company, offered to purchase prisons from states to help with finances. In the deal, conversely, the states have to guarantee a 90 percent occupancy rate for at least 20 years — big business for the CCA, but worrisome for others. Texas Democratic Sen. John Whitmire said the growing number of deals speak to nothing of reforming a prison system that has failed the country already.
“You don’t want a prison system operating with the goal of maximizing profits,” Whitmire told USA Today. “The only thing worse is that this seeks to take advantage of some states’ troubled financial position.”
Prison education, however, has shown successful, tangible results with institutions that have explored education ventures. Jake Cronin, a policy analyst with the Institute of Public Policy at the University of Missouri, found that prisoners who earned a GED or higher while incarcerated demonstrated a lower rate of recidivism and were more likely to find a job than those who did not pursue education in prison. In a sample study, Cronin said he found a 33 percent lower recidivism rate of those who continued education in prison, but also found full-time work upon re-entering civilian life.
“Employment proves to be the strongest predictor of not returning to prison that we found,” Cronin said. “Those who have a full-time job are much less likely to return to prison than similar inmates who are unemployed. Recidivism rates were nearly cut in half for former inmates with a full-time job compared to similar inmates who are unemployed. Inmates who take advantage of the educational opportunities available to them in prison are more likely to find a job than those who do not.”
In a study of an Indiana prison throughout the 1990s, prisoners enrolled in college classes committed 75 percent fewer infractions compared to inmates not enrolled, according to the Prison Studies Project (PSP). A former valedictorian of the Prison University Project, Chrisfino Kenyatta Leal, said that while education is part of the break in recidivism, it’s simply giving prisoners an option for when they leave prison to pursue something other than crime. Without those skills, PSP says, inmates will only go back to what they know and what put them in prison in the first place.
Instructors also sing the praises of education efforts. At Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York — an all-women’s correctional facility — instructors like Sister Katherine Fisher say they can see the transformation between inmates when they arrive and the person they become when they finish an educational program. Bedford Hills provides one of the few educational systems for women at the single-gender correctional facility level.
“There is value in a place like this,” Fisher said, who teaches the GED classes. “[Inmates] come in thinking they’re a failure and once they realize that they can do it and they feel [teachers] aren’t patronizing them, their entire person changes.”