A strong argument for expanding college-level study in the nation’s prisons.
Until the early 1990s, more than 700 state and federal prisons offered postsecondary education. Most such programs ended after the passage of the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill, which eliminated Pell Grants for higher education for prisoners. But programs across the country—at colleges from Princeton and Boston University to Kalamazoo Valley College—have since offered such classes for thousands of prisoners with considerable success, writes former Harvard Graduate School of Education dean Lagemann (Education/Bard Coll.; An Elusive Science: The Troubling History of Education Research, 2000, etc.). Drawing on research, interviews, and her own experiences teaching in the Bard Prison Initiative, which enrolls 300 full-time students at six New York State correctional facilities, she argues there is “overwhelming evidence” that college-in-prison programs have “significant benefits” for prisoners as well as families and communities. For example, she writes, only 2 percent of Bard graduates return to prison (the national recidivism rate is 50 percent), and 75 percent are employed within a month of their release. Similar outcomes occur among inmates elsewhere. Her interviews capture the transformative effects of college study on inmates used to the stultifying routine of prison life. Many experience a newfound self-esteem and thirst for knowledge. “All I knew before was the street,” says one Bard graduate. “I know the world will be what I make of it. I can make my family proud.” Unfortunately, “comprehensive data about the range of offerings and their relative effectiveness” is lacking, and even the number of prison participants is unknown. The “best available census” found some 70,000 prisoners engaged in college study in 2004. Programs vary greatly, with most focused on vocational training. While tough-on-crime critics disparage such taxpayer-subsidized efforts, the author believes changing attitudes toward mass incarceration and the value of college for all can galvanize new public funding.
A valuable arsenal of information for policymakers seeking prison reform in the present political climate.