Why Educating America’s Incarcerated Class is Smart on Crime
By Christopher Zoukis
When many think of prisoners they think of those who have violated the social contract, of those who have victimized their communities. They think of those who deserve whatever they have coming to them, and that any form or amount of punishment they receive is just. There is some validity to these points. But there is also a fatal flaw in this logic.
The Fatal Flaw: Punishment, but no Reformation
When we as Americans think of punishing prisoners, we think of just consequences and just desserts. We think of an action occurring and a reaction being required. But we often don’t sit down and realize that prisoners will one day be released from custody. As such, we think of harming those who have harmed us, but not of welcoming them back upon the fulfillment of their punishment (i.e., their sentence). And this is the fatal flaw: we punish those deserving of punishment, but fail to prepare them for life after prison (the point at which their punishment has been fulfilled). We fail to provide them with the tools required to put crime behind them. This is where prison education comes in.
Correctional Education: What is it?
Correctional education is the technical term for education provided to prison inmates. This education can consist of basic literacy (reading, writing, mathematics, etc.), high school equivalency (GED classes), adult continuing education (either technical/career skills or life skills aimed at adult learners), vocational training, or even college education. By far the most prevalent, high school equivalency courses are provided to any prisoner who has not earned a true high school diploma. This is important because research shows that most prisoners possess merely a 6th grade formal education, and many are plainly illiterate.
These courses are often provided inside an education department within the prison itself. The teachers are prison staffers who hold teaching certificates, but more often than not, they merely supervise the more educated prisoners who actually teach the classes. While these prisoners are often called “inmate tutors,” their job is often to plan lessons, teach the classes, and administer sample tests, which help to gauge when the incarcerated student should sit for the true GED examinations or end-of-course tests.
Why Should We Want to Educate Prisoners?
The simple truth of the matter is that correctional education is the single most cost-effective, proven method of reducing recidivism (the act of a person going to prison, serving their time, being released, and returning to crime). The reason for this is because education helps the traditionally disadvantaged prison population compete in the workforce. And this is important because most former prisoners who return to crime do so because of economic reasons. They sell drugs or rob banks or engage in identity theft because they need money. As such, finding ways to make them employable is of paramount importance.
Let’s face it, a high school diploma is the cornerstone of an employable worker. Not many employers are interested in hiring workers without one. But, true high school diplomas are not feasible in the prison context (they simply take to long to earn for learners who’ve had a poor track record in formal education). As such, GED classes are what are made available to incarcerated students. While not the best option, this is a tremendous start for those who, on average, have a 6th grade formal education.
The simple truth is that with each new level of education attained, the recidivism rate is slashed. While this fact is not a feel-good one, it is crime reduction and cost savings in practice. It can only take a year or two for most incarcerated students to earn a GED. The cost of this is negligible compared to additional years of reincarceration. And the value of reduced crime is incalculable.
Dividing Retribution from Reformation
The starting point for many Americans when discussing prisoners is to become angry; angry about the seemingly undeserved privileges being offered to those who break the law. Americans become angry when they find out that prisoners sometimes live in air conditioned housing units. This is seen as a privilege, even though prisoners have been known to die from heat stroke in those housing units which lack AC, and the reason for the climate control is to deny prisoners access to windows that open. Americans become angry when they find out that prisoners sometimes have access to cable television, even though this monotonous form of entertainment is a valuable correctional tool, and has been shown to drastically reduce prison violence by occupying prisoners who would otherwise find trouble. But today we’re not advocating for televisions or air conditioning. We’re advocating education for the incarcerated.
It’s time that the American people stop thinking of education as a privilege, but as a tool. Education is a tool which helps prisoners learn to think, compete in the workforce upon release from prison, and not return to a life of crime. Education for the incarcerated will reduce victimization, burden on social services, and the current prison overpopulation crisis. Education will change lives by changing minds and the ways former prisoners live their lives.
But if this isn’t enough, don’t support prison education because it helps those incarcerated. Support prison education because it is in our best interest. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 95 to 97 percent of prisoners will one day be released from custody. These are our future neighbors. The question shouldn’t be, “Do prisoners deserve an education?” No. The question is, “Would you prefer your future neighbor be educated, employed, and a law abiding citizen who is not engaged in a criminal lifestyle, or would you prefer for your future neighbor to merely be waiting for their probation or supervised release officer to violate them and return them to prison?” These are the choices. I, for one, chose education, not reincarceration.
Christopher Zoukis is an impassioned advocate for prison education, a legal scholar, and a prolific writer of books, book reviews, and articles. His articles on prison education and prison law appear frequently in Prison Legal News, and have been published in The Kansas City Star, The Sacramento Bee, Blog Critics, and Midwest Book Review, among other national, regional, and specialty publications.
Mr. Zoukis is often quoted on matters concerning prison law, criminal law, prisoners’ rights, and prison education. Recently, he was the focus of an article at Salon.com concerning America’s broken criminal justice system and potential solutions to the current crisis.
When not in the thick of the battle for prison reform, prison education, or prisoners’ rights advocacy, Mr. Zoukis can be found blogging at PrisonLawBlog.com, PrisonEducation.com, and ChristopherZoukis.com.