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Policy Report Cites Prison Population as Target for College Attainment

In the national push to increase degree attainment throughout the United States, policy-makers should focus more attention on providing post-secondary education to those who are behind bars—even if it means easing restrictions on the Internet in prison to do so.

Such is the crux of a new report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy titled “Unlocking Potential: Results of a National Survey of Postsecondary Education in State Prisons.”

“If we’re going to reach attainment goals, we’re going to have to include a whole lot of groups we haven’t thought about explicitly in our national attainment conversation,” said Dr. Brian Sponsler, a co-author of the report.

He said it’s important for policy-makers to understand that expanding post-secondary opportunities for prisoners is not just beneficial to the individual inmates but to society in the long run.

“We have a large number of people touched by our incarceration system,” Sponsler said of the 2.3 million people that the report says are incarcerated in the United States.

Citing research that says education leads to lower rates of recidivism, Sponsler said: “Providing for these educational opportunities as part of the rehabilitative process is important.”

Among other things, Sponsler’s report recommends revising state and federal laws in order to use online distance education to overcome issues of logistics, capacity and preparedness.

“Rather than having everybody in the room be on the same program, distance education would provide the opportunity for them to participate in programs they’re interested in and prepared for,” Sponsler said.

Officials at several correctional associations were either not available or did not return calls and e-mails requesting comment on the practicality of revamping security protocols that generally ban the Internet in prison.

The “Unlocking Potential” report also calls for post-secondary correctional education programs to be aligned with state post-secondary education systems and workforce needs and to revise federal and state law to make certain incarcerated individuals are eligible for need-based financial aid. Pell grants, for instance, were banned for prisoners in 1994.        

“Incarcerated students continue to be denied access to federal and state-based financial aid programs, a policy choice that restricts incarcerated persons from financing participation in postsecondary correctional education programs,” the report states.

The “Unlocking Potential” report comes on the heels of a similar NAACP report titled “Misplaced Priorities: Over Incarcerate Under Educate.” The NAACP report laments what it refers to as the “steady shift of state funds away from education and toward the criminal justice system.”

NAACP officials say the call of the “Unlocking Potential” report for greater post-secondary education opportunities for prisoners would help reverse the trend.

“Little money goes to rehabilitation and most is spent on incarceration operations,” said Alice Huffman, a co-author of the NAACP report and president of the California NAACP. “Our voice is clear: We want more resources devoted to relevant education so that released prisoners can find a place in society to become economically sufficient in the legitimate market.”

The “Unlocking Potential” report notes that states spend more than $52 billion annually on corrections and related activities, “an amount that restricts discretionary monies available for other public outlays.” Of that amount, nearly $90 million was devoted to a wide range of education programming, although funding of prisoner education varies from state to state, the report notes.

While an abundance of research has shown that education lowers recidivism, current budgetary constraints could render it difficult to inject prisoner education concerns into the public discussion, Sponsler concedes. However, he said policy-makers need to consider the long-term savings as opposed to the short-term costs.

“In the current budget climate, we look at short-term costs,” Sponsler said. “We seem to be a little less concerned with longer-term value.”

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