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Prison Education Programs and Why We Need Them

A stock image of incarcerated individuals typing on computers

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”

-Nelson Mandela 

Inspirational advocates like Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai, and Mahatma Gandhi have stressed the importance of education throughout history. Some define it as a human right that should be guaranteed for all. However, there is one population whose educational rights have been overlooked in the 21st century: the incarcerated. 

The United States has the largest known population of incarcerated individuals, which reached just under 1.5 million in 2017. Out of this large population, only 9% complete a college prison education program even though over half of them are academically eligible to enroll in one. College education programs are organized by accredited universities and colleges and allow incarcerated individuals to finish their post-secondary education in prison.

One of the reasons why there are not more people receiving college degrees in prison is because of lack of funding, specifically from the government. These students still have to pay for tuition, supplies, and other necessary items like any other college student. Very few have the resources to do so.

The goal of prison education programs is to encourage former prisoners to reintegrate back into society. Over two decades of studies have proven that these programs dramatically reduce recidivism, or the tendency of former prisoners to be reconvicted. If these individuals complete a program and obtain a college degree, employment is a much more viable option for them which translates to increased tax revenue in more communities and a more productive society. Other benefits include reduction in prison violence and the decline of intergenerational incarceration.

Despite these benefits, some are still wary about funding prison education programs because they see it as a fiscal waste.This argument is diminished when this fact is presented: prison education programs save taxpayers money. Lower rates of recidivism reduces the operational costs of prisons which in turn saves taxpayers money. Investing in prison education programs means investing in others in need, in your community as a whole, and in your wallet in the long run.  

New York State is one of the leading examples of prison education advocacy. As of 2017, over 1,000 incarcerated individuals in New York State have received some form of postsecondary education, and multiple SUNY schools are at the forefront of this monumental change. SUNY Sullivan Community College and SUNY Ulster Community College are partnered with six other colleges under the Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison. The program boasts of saving taxpayers $21 million per year. They have reached an impressively low recidivism rate of 2% (the nationwide rate is 67%), and 85% of incarcerated individuals who go through the programs are employed within three months of release. They even have a compilation of success stories from Hudson Link alumni in which they express how meaningful a college education was in their lives. 

SUNY Jefferson Community College and SUNY Genesee Community College are college-in-prison partners under theJustice-in-Education Initiative. Jefferson Community College is planning to create a re-entry support system that emphasizes career planning, networking, and an individualized education. The Prison-to-College Pipeline program is also a college-in-prison partner. Participating in this program guarantees released individuals admission to CUNY colleges of community colleges.

Funding prison education programs will empower the incarcerated to change their world. Such support should never be withheld from a group of people, especially when it has the potential to improve society as a whole. Reinstating federal funding like Pell Grants for incarcerated individuals is the type of inclusion that our country needs. All deserve to have access to an education and to have the opportunity to better themselves. No one should be discouraged from reaching for the redemption that education offers.

Written by Jourdyn-Evonne Lee, SUNY Student Assembly Chair of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, SUNY ESF

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