How to Free the Prisoners: The Conservative Case for Postsecondary Education for Inmates

By Bala, Nila; Mooney, Emily | The American Conservative, January/February 2019 | Go to article overview

How to Free the Prisoners: The Conservative Case for Postsecondary Education for Inmates


Bala, Nila, Mooney, Emily, The American Conservative


At the heart of conservative thinking are the tenets of individual dignity, public safety, family values, and fiscal prudence. Yet far too often, society fails to apply these principles to the criminal justice system. As a result, our current correctional system is failing all of us. It is clear that something must change.

Generally speaking, our correctional facilities do too little to prepare prisoners for their lives beyond prison walls. Not surprisingly, recidivism rates are disturbingly high. An estimate from the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicates that almost three fifths of those released from prison will be convicted of a new offense within five years of their release.

When prisoners do return to society, they are often ill-equipped to provide for, protect, and promote the prosperity of their progeny, leading to the further disintegration of the family unit. As millions of children and families have lost their loved ones to the walls of a jail or prison cell, we must be concerned with the criminal justice system's ability to rebuild stronger families.

Additionally, our prisons are expensive. We currently spend $182 billion annually on incarceration without a clear return on our investment. This poor investment then detracts from other priorities, such as health and education.

No one should be shocked by these results; prisons are dehumanizing places that do not produce favorable outcomes for incarcerated individuals, families, or communities. If we want prisoners to treat others with human dignity when they re-enter society, we must practice these principles in our treatment of them.

There will always be individuals behind bars, including those who have committed serious and violent offenses. But it is important to recognize that roughly 95 percent of state prisoners- who make up the majority of the imprisoned population-will one day be released into our neighborhoods. The question of how they spend their time behind bars, therefore, is vital.

We have a choice to make: we can let incarcerated individuals sit behind bars-isolated and idle-or we can take steps to provide education to incarcerated individuals who, as a result, will be more employable, stable members of our society when they are released.

The idea of educating incarcerated individuals has been met with strong opposition from those who question why Americans should be taxed so that those behind bars-who have done something wrong-receive a benefit. This sentiment led to the elimination of Pell Grants for prisoners in 1994. Pell Grants exist to provide all students with financial need with aid for college. Without financial support from these grants, the number of postsecondary prison programs plummeted from 772 programs to just 8 within three years.

By the late 2000s, individuals on both sides of the aisle began to recognize that prison systems were not stopping the continuing tide of crime. A more effective solution was needed to address the growing prison population.

Finally, in summer 2015, the U.S. Department of Education announced the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program as part of the Experimental Sites Initiative. This program allowed some colleges to apply to pilot the use of Pell Grants to increase access to postsecondary education in correctional facilities, with the federal government evaluating the academic and life outcomes of those who received postsecondary education.

We are now over two years into the experiment. It is still too early to assess the initiative's impact on recidivism rates. However, removing barriers has increased enrollment: from fall 2016 to fall 2017, enrollment at Second Chance Pell experimental sites increased by 236 percent. As of fall 2017, over 954 postsecondary credentials have been awarded, giving incarcerated individuals a better chance of obtaining employment through career technical certificates as well as two- and four-year degree programs. Both the Trump administration and many leaders in the Republican Party have expressed interest in the program. …

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