When I began my time, inmates had just lost access to college Pell grants with the passage of the1994 crime bill. A multi-year battle had raged within the public sphere about the benefits of providing higher education to inmates, and Pell Grants fell victim to this debate. The often cited lower recidivism rate that accompanies higher education has consistently lost to a vocal opposition minority, typically a misguided crowd that argues ‘why should a prisoner have access to a Pell grant when my own law abiding son or daughter can’t get one?’ Supporters of the grants commonly cite a nonpartisan Rand Corp study which found that prison education not only saves money but meaningfully reduces the recidivism rate. To this day, the vocal opposition has won the ‘no grants for higher education for inmates’ argument.
Okay, I get it. However, savings and lower recidivism is a stale argument that fails to persuade a public viewing crime mostly from a distance. You can beat some people in the head with facts and statistics and they’ll still refuse to believe. For the issue of inmate education, a counter argument must be made tangible. It must have impact.
So here’s the reality of it all: That Pell grant that you just denied that murderer from, who shot and killed someone robbing a Wendy’s because he had no higher education, job or job skills, will return to society worse off than when he left. That rapist who would have been the first in his family to go to college and who would have raised his already low self-esteem, will return to society as part of a high risk group for recidivism, and that drug dealer who dropped out of highschool, but has chosen rehabilitation only to discover that there are little to no education opportunities for him while incarcerated, will return to society disgruntled.
So I ask, are you comfortable denying these offenders the benefit of a higher education when the bottom line means that next time it could be your loved one that’s murdered, your daughter raped, or your teen son sold poison? Because this is the hard truth of it all.
Offenders that would have returned to society armed with newfound opportunity through education, and who would have been productive members, will continue to cost tax payers money due to future recidivism. Those lost tax dollars have real world impact. Schools, libraries, infrastructure improvements and maintenance on roads and public works, social programs for the poor and middle class all suffer from the diversion of funds. It’s a truth that’s often and easily overlooked. The drain on public financial resources is akin to a faucet left on in a small and steady stream. At any given moment it seems minor enough, but over the course of days, months, and years you can fill a bath tub, water an entire lawn, and fill a swimming pool.
I listen to guys every day lament how much they want to change, but gripe that there are no higher education opportunities for them to learn and develop tangible skills. These are men who couldn’t afford college on the street and who would have qualified for Pell grants any way. To take them away now is akin to throwing an addict into drug rehab and saying, “You are now rehabilitated!” without providing the rehabilitation.
Offenders who give up on pursuing the hard path of change spend their time talking and planning with others ways to be better at crime. You better believe it, because I’m speaking truth here. If you don’t believe that this is what happens in prisons across the U.S., you’re only fooling yourself. I know men who spent their 6 months, 2 year, 3, 4, 5, even 7 year sentences upset and mad, that despite how much they wanted to equip themselves with an education for future employment, the higher education door was consistently slammed in their faces. So they took the easy path and simply spent their time learning, discovering, planning, plotting, scheming, and improving their knowledge and skills to be a better criminal. Now, these men are loosed upon a society that will continue to pay an incredibly high price for the trail of destruction and ruined lives that they will leave in their wake for years to come. Why? All because narrow minds and politicians who take the path of easy vote driven issues have prevailed.
The pendulum of punishment vs rehabilitation swings between these extremes about every 20 years. In 1994 the pendulum was strongly in the punishment column and the loss of Pell Grants was one casualty. Now 25 years later, the pendulum has swung back toward rehabilitation. Pell Grants for offenders are again back within the public discourse. This year, a 2016 pilot program offering Pell Grants to prisoners through a handful of colleges was renewed. It’s funny how 35 years ago few questioned the benefits of higher education for inmates, and today it’s as if the public is discovering all over again the societal benefits to providing prisoners with the opportunities higher education brings.
There’s a public stigma applied to inmates that implies that we are somehow less intelligent, less deserving of basic human dignities, and less worthy of self-improvement through higher education. A recent Wall Street Journal article shatters such misguided racisms.
Some of the smartest individuals I’ve ever met I’ve met during my incarceration. The ingenuity and personal talent, the drive and tenacity to improve one’s self, and the ability to overcome one’s self-destructive thinking are on display here every day.
Inmates want to gain control of their negative behaviors, and they want to change. Thankfully a large segment of the public understands this. Part of change and reformation of the individual requires that society be willing to provide the tools, and resources, for rehabilitation to take root and grow within the individual. Higher education is one of the easiest and most tangible ways to help achieve this.
We don’t need more studies or debates or excuses. At the state level we need politicians willing to act on prison reform, even if it’s an unpopular position. This has already started at the federal level.
If our elected official’s will not act, then resources from our private institutions should be pooled under one umbrella to fill the void of inaction. As it stands, private sector assistance is patch work, and distributed unevenly. I propose the creation of a nonprofit tasked with linking private organizations together, for the common benefit of society, by assisting inmates access to higher education. Higher education is the greatest single resource proven to reduce recidivism and to foster rehabilitation.
*If you enjoyed this post, please like and share with your friends. In the meantime, I’ll keep writing for you! Also, if you know of other blogs written by inmates, please let me know because I enjoy reading what other guys write. Frankly, it helps keep me sane.