Prisoners in state correctional
institutions should be able to take college courses. Education
is one way to keep them from lapsing back into the criminal life
after they've been released.
Connecticut has spent nearly $1 billion on its prisons in the
past 20 years, in large part because the same people keep getting
A legislative study two years ago found that 70 percent of released
inmates were arrested for at least one new crime within three
years. State Rep. Robert Farr of West Hartford, who has studied
the problem, estimates that the state's criminal justice system
mostly exists for one percent of the state's population - 30,000
to 35,000 people who keep rotating through the courts and prisons.
He and others conclude that the way to reduce this social and
financial burden is to attack recidivism. One way to do that
is with education. A 2001 study by the nonprofit Correctional
Education Association of 3,200 inmates in three states found
significantly lower rates of recidivism among those who had taken
part in prison education programs.
In Maryland, one of the three states, recidivism dropped 20
percent. This saved $24 million, twice the state's investment
in prison education.
Connecticut and many other states do reasonably well with basic,
remedial and vocational education. The Department of Correction's
Unified School District No.1, which runs the department's education
programs, has an average of 3,300 of the state's 18,000 inmates
attending at least one education program on any given day. The
department is the largest grantor of General Education Development
degrees in the state, at about 650 a year.
But where this state and most others are deficient is in college-level
College courses used to be widely available in prisons across
the country. But in 1994, Congress effectively killed federally
financed college programs for prison inmates when it voted to
eliminate Pell grants for federal and state prisons. The number
of prison degree programs fell from 350 to about a dozen, The
New York Times recently reported. Most of them are privately
Connecticut hung on to its college program, which enabled inmates
at a half-dozen facilities to take community college courses,
until the state employee layoffs in 2002. Now all that is left
is a small, federally funded youth offender program that allows
some younger inmates to take classes. Last year, 214 students
earned college credits in the program.
That's not enough. The Pell
grant argument was specious: Inmates were only using one-tenth
of one percent of the program's funds. Stopping the college
program was really a "get tough on
crime" measure. Because of such steps, the prison population
increased in the 1990s across the country while crime went down.
We'd rather get smart on crime. College courses obviously aren't
for every inmate, but they should be part of the mix. College
helps all students grow, develop a moral outlook and prepare
themselves for a productive life. If college classes can help
inmates climb off the recidivism treadmill, why not offer them?
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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