Education for Prisoners Won’t Just Improve Their Lives, It’ll Improve the Entire Nation

It’s like a scene out of The Twilight Zone.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are standing on the side of a busy road with nothing more than a couple dollars in your pocket and a bus ticket. Once you step on the bus, it takes you into a town where you are treated as an undesirable. Few of the townsfolk will speak with you, and even fewer will provide you with the means to earn enough for a meal and shelter.

Left to wander, you find no friendly faces, no chances at building a better life. You are adrift on your own, like a ghost.

Such surreal isolation would fit perfectly within the realm of The Twilight Zone’s spooky dystopia. But for the more than 650,000 American men and women who leave prison each year, that unsettling scenario is all too real.

for the more than 650,000 American men and women who leave prison each year, that unsettling scenario is all too real.

Released with nothing more than some spare change, a bus ticket, the clothes on their back and a criminal record, it’s not surprising why “so many returning citizens feel as though they have left the grips of a physical prison only to find themselves engulfed in a new, social prison,” according to the American Enterprise Institute, a free market think tank, which recently released a report on the state of returned citizens in America.

The report found that anywhere from 50% to 75% of all people who return home from prison end up incarcerated again within five years. As the report’s authors make clear, this is not because returned citizens hold some inherent predisposition toward crime. Rather, in today’s knowledge-based economy, social success is highly dependent upon higher education.

“Higher education is one of the first rungs on the ladder to economic freedom and social mobility,” the report notes.  “Too many formerly incarcerated Americans never climb this ladder — or reach for it at all.”

Without access to education and job training options while incarcerated, returned citizens re-enter society entirely unprepared for life. This creates instability, both personal and social, and acts as an incentive for returned citizens to re-offend, making families less stable and communities less safe.

The report found that anywhere from 50% to 75% of all people who return home from prison end up incarcerated again within five years. As the report’s authors make clear, this is not because returned citizens hold some inherent predisposition toward crime.

“In many communicates across America,” the report continues, “too many young people are now more likely to know someone living in prison than living on a college campus.”

What can be done to solve this problem?  The running logic of our current system holds that prisoners should lose the privilege of federal aid for education.  But this rationale is too rooted in emotion, too lacking in practical purpose.  As the report makes clear, expanding access to federal aid to inmates and returned citizens would yield widespread net benefits for the nation as a whole.  Research from the RAND Corp. finds that every $1 invested in education yields $4-$5 in public safety cost-savings.  Even more notable, RAND found that prisoners who received education while behind bars were nearly half as likely to end up back in prison, and 13% more likely to obtain employment following their release.

The path toward improving our criminal justice system should begin here: with those already behind bars.  

By lifting the ban on access to Pell Grants for incarcerated individuals and expanding the 2015 Second Chance Pell pilot program, which has already helped 12,000 inmates receive grants to access higher education in state and federal facilities across the country, we can allow inmates to take that pivotal first step toward normalcy.  Finally, the report also found that barring individuals convicted of drug-related crimes from receiving financial aid or federal student loans is merely a path toward more problems in the future.  

Ultimately, the report makes it clear that our current path is unsustainable.  Prisoners have already served their time.  And unless we want another 650,000 people a year to wander around our communities without jobs or purpose, we must open that door for them ourselves.

Evan Smith is a Staff Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @Evansmithreport.