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Higher Education for Prisoners

Higher Education for Prisoners
Will Lower Rates for Taxpayers

What would you think if you were told that there are 1.6 million potential students who could be served by community colleges? Wouldn’t you consider this a great opportunity? Throughout the United States, without much fanfare, some community colleges already are going about the rewarding business of serving students in prisons. Helping these inmates gain an education and start a new life has helped to reduce recidivism rates, thus saving a huge amount of money for local and state governments. Although many colleges still teach classes inside prisons, new leaps in online distance learning can turn a relatively small investment into big learning opportunities at almost any location.
Recently, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that, according to a new study by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, inmates who take college classes while in prison are four times more likely to stay out of trouble when they are released. Only 7.7 percent of those who took college courses returned to prison, compared to 29.9 percent of those who did not.
The New York study also found that college prison programs save taxpayers about $900,000 per 100 students every two years. In these tough economic times, such savings are vitally important to any community or state. Community colleges have a strong tradition of providing cost-effective education for a variety of populations. Unfortunately, our American prison population has not shown signs of shrinking. Perhaps community colleges can take the lead in helping to reduce the numbers.
California has built 21 new prisons since 1980; the inmate population has multiplied sevenfold. The cost for these new prisons is $5.3 billion. Another $4.8 billion annually is required to house the state’s 160,000 inmates. In the United States, it costs about $20,000 per year to imprison an inmate. Multiply this number by 1.6 million, the number of people locked in prisons in this country, and you will see how expensive incarceration can be.
Reading and math skills for many incarcerated people are below the sixth-grade level. As the Chronicle put it, “The cost to public safety when these inmates are returned to the outside world is frightening and immeasurable.” On the other hand, there are many inmates who have the intelligence to be effective, successful students who can become productive citizens, if only they have the opportunity to complete part or all of their college studies while in prison.
With the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, America has thousands of people behind bars who can nonetheless be successful learners. Even if only 10 percent of prisoners qualify for inmate education programs, the opportunities for community colleges are evident. After all, people in prisons are members of the larger American community, and it is a good idea to make sure they will be educated, productive, taxpaying citizens when they are released into free society. As prisoners do their time, education programs can provide constructive learning opportunities to help them turn their lives around.
In most states, a large percentage of inmates are woefully lacking basic skills, with access only to disjointed instruction that often varies from prison to prison and leading, at best, to a GED. In community colleges throughout the nation, however, there are numerous successful programs that could serve a population in desperate need of basic skills instruction.
Working with federal, state and local government authorities, community colleges might be able to meet a need and help the economy while getting people out of prisons and into productive jobs and more fulfilling lives. For example, Kansas City Kansas Community College runs a successful associate degree program in the U.S. Army Disciplinary Barracks in Leavenworth. Each year, more than 200 incarcerated individuals receive the benefits of a community college education. This is a great opportunity for students to leave prison with a college degree. Their chances of being successful in the outside world and never returning to prison are greatly enhanced.
Over the past two decades, we have spent much more for prisons than for higher education. Will the strategic use of technology be used as a primary tool for a new approach to learning? Will this make it possible to provide higher education to an underserved part of our population? If we can spend such a huge amount for building and maintaining prisons, can we afford to ignore the chance to invest in people who may represent very rich but untapped human potential?
Community colleges have made their reputations by serving thousands of people annually who are looking for a second chance in life. We need to build partnerships with correctional institutions for the purpose of adding to our efforts toward rehabilitating those who are incarcerated. Society will benefit. There will be a saving of taxpayers’ money when more prisons do not need to be built, and fewer people need to be incarcerated.
Even with the obstacles of bureaucracy, societal resistance and technical limitations, educating people who are in prison is a good idea, and community colleges are best equipped to do the job. 

— Dr. John Garmon is president of Vista Community College in Berkeley, Calif.

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