Higher Education for Prisoners Will Lower Rates for Taxpayers. (Forum)

By Garmon, John | Black Issues in Higher Education, January 17, 2002 | Go to article overview

Higher Education for Prisoners Will Lower Rates for Taxpayers. (Forum)


Garmon, John, Black Issues in Higher Education


What would you think if you were told that there are 1.6 million potential students who could be served by community colleges? Wouldn't you consider this a great opportunity? Throughout the United States, without much fanfare, some community colleges already are going about the rewarding business of serving students in prisons. Helping these inmates gain an education and start a new life has helped to reduce recidivism rates, thus saving a huge amount of money for local and state governments. Although many colleges still teach classes inside prisons, new leaps in online distance learning can turn a relatively small investment into big learning opportunities at almost any location.

Recently, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that, according to a new study by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, inmates who take college classes while in prison are four times more likely to stay out of trouble when they are released. Only 7.7 percent of those who took college courses returned to prison, compared to 29.9 percent of those who did not. The New York study also found that college prison programs save taxpayers about $900,000 per 100 students every two years. In these tough economic times, such savings are vitally important to any community or state. Community colleges have a strong tradition of providing cost-effective education for a variety of populations. Unfortunately, our American prison population has not shown signs of shrinking. Perhaps community colleges can take the lead in helping to reduce the numbers.

California has built 21 new prisons since 1980; the inmate population has multiplied sevenfold. The cost for these new prisons is $5.3 billion. Another $4.8 billion annually is required to house the state's 160,000 inmates. In the United States, it costs about $20,000 per year to imprison an inmate. Multiply this number by 1.6 million, the number of people locked in prisons in this country, and you will see how expensive incarceration can be.

Reading and math skills for many incarcerated people are below the sixth-grade level. As the Chronicle put it, "The cost to public safety when these inmates are returned to the outside world is frightening and immeasurable." On the other hand, there are many inmates who have the intelligence to be effective, successful students who can become productive citizens, if only they have the opportunity to complete part or all of their college studies while in prison.

With the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, America has thousands of people behind bars who can nonetheless be successful learners. Even if only 10 percent of prisoners qualify for inmate education programs, the opportunities for community colleges are evident. …

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