New York Law School

Why Education Access in Prisons Must Be Expanded

Studies show obtaining an education is vital in preventing recidivism. However, prisoners face many barriers in accessing education.

Prison may exist to punish people, but a prison sentence is also an opportunity to rehabilitate people. Rehabilitation is important to re-entry as it allows people to be productive members of their communities.  Rehabilitation can happen in many ways: drug programs, mental health services or obtaining an education, to name a few.  The New York State Legislature recognized the importance of re-entry by amending Penal Law § 1.05 in 2006.  The amendment required that courts take into account “the promotion of [prisoners’] successful and productive re-entry and reintegration into society” in sentencing.

One of the most effective ways to rehabilitate someone is through education. Under New York law, individuals under the age of 21, without a high school diploma or its equivalency, have a right to secure a high school education.  For those over the age of 21, DOCCS policy states that all individuals “who enter the system without a verified high school diploma or equivalency are required to attend an academic program.” Despite these provisions, 61% of newly incarcerated individuals and 43% of the total incarcerated population do not possess a high school diploma or a high school equivalency.

The Need for Educational Opportunities

On average, incarcerated individuals have lower levels of education achievement in comparison to the rest of the population. Nationally, state prisoners have completed only 10.4 years of schooling and those with more education are incarcerated at lower rates.  The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) has reported that approximately 28% of the prison population reads at an 8th grade reading level or less and only 59% had achieved a high school diploma or high school equivalency. Only 2% of people in prison are college graduates.

Even though men and women of all races who lack education are more likely to spend time in prison, the lack of education disproportionately impacts young black men. A black man without a high school diploma between the ages of 20 to 34, has a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison. In comparison, a young white man, who also lacks a high school diploma, only has a 1 in 8 chance of ending up in prison.

The effect of race and education carries into post-release employment opportunities and affects economic security. Prior to incarceration, inmates made 41 percent less money than non-incarcerated people of similar ages. Once released, an individual earns 10 to 40 percent less than individuals with no criminal record. This creates a cycle of poverty that disproportionately affects minorities. A study showed that white job applicants were more likely than blacks to get a response from an employer, regardless of whether the white applicant had a criminal history. While there is a lot of work to address implicit biases and the policies that lead to the mass incarceration of communities of color, correctional education is an important tool for closing the gap in racial disparities.

Benefits of Correctional Education

Now more than ever, education is a vital part of the re-entry process. More than 100 occupations in New York State, such as a barber or nursing home administrator, require some type of license or certification. In addition, by 2020, 65 percent of jobs will require postsecondary education beyond high school. Obtaining an education or vocational training while incarcerated increases the likelihood of success when released.  A formerly incarcerated person who participates specifically in vocational training programs increases their odds of getting a job by 28%.

In the long term, correctional education programs save taxpayers money. Inmates who participate in correctional education programs have a 30% chance of recidivating, compared with 43% for those who do not participate. In New York State, as of 2012, the “cost to the state per crime prevented by offering education to incarcerated persons is about $1,600, while the cost per crime prevented by extending prison sentences is $2,800.” A 2015 study of New York prisons showed that “every $1 million spent on building more prisons prevents about 350 crimes, but the same amount invested in correctional education prevents more than 600 crimes.”

Nationally, the cost of correctional education programs is $1,400 – $1,744 per participant. Although a third of participants will recidivate, the average savings per person from reduced incarceration rates is $8,700-$9,700 over three years.  Studies have shown that even after assuming the highest average cost, $1,744, and the lowest average savings, $8,700, the three-year return on investment for taxpayers is nearly 400%, or $5 saved for every $1 spent.

Besides economic benefits to taxpayers and the incarcerated, the benefits extend to the communities both in and out of prison and families. A study conducted by Human Impact Partners in 2015 found that prison environments also benefit from college education programs. These programs produce productive leaders with strong critical thinking skills who have a positive influence on other incarcerated individuals.  Additionally, better employment opportunities for parents lead to higher family incomes, which is the top determinant of health and well-being of families.

Barriers to Accessing Education

Despite these positive benefits and results, incarcerated individuals still face many barriers to accessing educational opportunities primarily from the lack of funding for vocational and post-secondary education.

Access to post-secondary education for prisoners became more difficult after 1994, when the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was passed. The Act barred students in state and federal prisons from obtaining federal Pell Grants. Furthermore, in 1995, New York Governor George Pataki signed legislation that also banned people in prison from accessing the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP).  As a result, there were college programs in 70 New York prisons in 1995, but by 2004, there were only four remaining.

However, there is a movement to bring back college education to prisons. In 2016, the Second Chance Pell Grant Program was created and enrolled 12,000 incarcerated students. The program’s aim is to evaluate student outcomes and whether to restore Pell Grant eligibility on a permanent basis.The U.S. Department of Education selected 67 colleges and universities to partner with federal and state prisons for the experimental pilot program. Students who were selected were likely to be released within five years of enrolling in coursework.

In New York, as of 2012, 21 state prisons hosted college programs, up from four college programs in 2004. Recently, Governor Cuomo announced the creation of a $7.3 million to fund education and re-entry services at 17 state prisons.  The award is derived from large settlements obtained by the Manhattan DA’s office.

In conclusion, education is absolutely essential to successful re-entry and to preventing recidivism.  Educating incarcerated individuals not only rehabilitates those individuals but also helps create more productive and peaceful communities.

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