Why you should care
Because a criminal mind is a terrible thing to waste.
It’s been said that nothing focuses the mind quite like the sight of the gallows. Few inmates serving lengthy sentences in U.S. prisons, however, get the chance to focus their minds on anything but the inside of their cells. The primary carrot dangled before many is the possibility of early parole or release through “good behavior.” Any other pursuit they choose, from the gym to the library, is largely voluntary, unguided and purely self-edifying. This is a wasted opportunity for the prisoner and a huge opportunity cost for society.
Time off for good behavior is a central tenet of the American penal system. Yet if there is one thing that will benefit society just as much, if not more, than a well-behaved prisoner, it is a well-educated one. Which is why increasingly overcrowded American prisons should consider adopting an “educate and release” program in which certain prisoners can have their sentences shortened in return for attaining educational qualifications.
Prison education programs reduce the chances of re-offending.
Today, America’s prisons hold more than 2.3 million people, the largest prison population in the world. “Modern America has mass incarceration on a scale not only unprecedented in U.S. history,” says Mugambi Jouet, law lecturer at Stanford Law School, “but also practically unprecedented in the history of humankind.”
Still, in every crisis there is an opportunity, and 2.3 million people contain an awful lot of latent brain power, provided it can be harnessed. The idea of releasing educated inmates earlier was floated (but never enacted) in 2015 in the U.K. by its then wonky justice secretary, Michael Gove. He argued that “too many inmates spend their days lying on their bunks in squalid cells watching daytime television” and that more must be done to ensure that a “literally captive population” had better incentives — and means — to contribute to society.
There is solid evidence that prison education programs reduce the chances of re-offending. A 2013 Rand Corporation study found that inmates who participated in such programs were 43 percent less likely to become repeat offenders. Another benefit: labor force participation. Mass incarceration enacts a huge economic cost. In 2008, the Center for Economic and Policy Research estimated that mass incarceration cost the U.S. economy “the equivalent of 1.5 to 1.7 million workers” — which translates to almost a 1 percentage-point reduction in the national employment rate. But educated prisoners also find it much easier to enter the labor market: Rand found that correctional education improved an inmate’s chances of finding a job by 13 percent.
Successful reentry into society and the labor market without re-offense saves taxpayers tons of money. The additional costs associated with correctional education pale in comparison to the cost to house an inmate. “Education is a relatively low-cost program you can provide to inmates,” Lois Davis, one of the Rand researchers, told NPR. “But, when you look simply at direct costs, we find that for every dollar invested in a prison education program it will ultimately save taxpayers between $4 and $5 in reincarceration costs.” And that doesn’t even take into account the savings to the criminal justice system — and potential crime victims — from a more productive former inmate.
Online and distance education options may be proliferating today, but education remains a service that is not easy to provide behind bars. The Rand study found that inmate participation in correctional education has declined. College enrollment in prisons also lags well behind GED and vocational programs, and such postsecondary prison courses remain poorly funded, thanks in large part to Congress revoking Pell Grant access from prisoners in 1995.
Which brings us to perhaps the biggest obstacle to introducing an “educate and release” program: the politics of it. At the moment, “many states and counties grant parole or early release only under an extremely high standard,” says Jouet, “partly due … to the fear of being labeled ‘soft on crime.’”
Steps should of course be taken to ensure that early release is not available to any inmates who pose a threat. But prison education is not about being soft on crime; it is about rehabilitation and empowerment. A good mind is a terrible thing to waste, and we as a society should care much more about whether our incarcerated waste theirs. It is time that we focus our minds in the face of our own collective gallows, and try a new approach.