Congressional politics often focus on broken systems: the broken education system, the broken healthcare system and sometimes the broken penitentiary system. The American penitentiary system is better than many others, but clearly still has a lot of issues: overcrowding in some places, undercrowding in others, understaffed facilities, violence, prisoner abuse, and more. Recidivism rates are sky high: According to statistics from the Bureau of Justice, national recidivism rates stand at 67.5 percent, nearly double what they are in those nations we consider to be our peers. One thing has been proven to help decrease those return rates: education, specifically at the college level. Prisoners, however, rarely get access to college-level education because they are no longer entitled to any kind of government funding for those courses. This policy costs the country millions of dollars in prison expenses every time a former convict is reconvicted, and it should be changed.
The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act excluded federal and state inmates from the Pell Grant program in 1994, meaning that prisoners can no longer apply for federal funds to pay for college courses that might be offered at federal or state prisons near university campuses. Post-secondary prison education, therefore, is entirely pro bono: it comes out of the pockets of educational institutions or organizations like the Hudson Link, which provides college-level courses at New York correctional facilities. Before 1995, there were around 350 college degree programs for prisoners in the United States; today, there are 12, four of them right here in New York State. The Cornell Prison Education Program provides a liberal arts curriculum at the Auburn and Cayuga Correctional Facilities in an endorsement of academic ambition, and, according to their website, “preparation for successful re-entry.”
The good people at that program are right to think that college-level education can prepare inmates for re-entry. According to a study conducted in Massachusetts state prisons, prisoners who had received some college education while incarcerated represented a recidivism rate of 46.8 percent, nearly one third below the state average. While surely there is some self-selection at play here — those who choose to take college courses might already be less likely to return to prison — those statistics are still incredibly encouraging. Education has a deeply transformative quality that most Cornell students are familiar with: it increases maturity, develops life skills, and is the most basic requirement for getting a job and maintaining a stable, crime-free environment. Statistical confirmation that people change their illegal habits as a result of education should compel the government to do whatever it can to make education available, especially to those who commit crimes and harm society.
If you’re having trouble feeling bad for prisoners, or think that they don’t deserve tax-payer dollars in education funds, figure this: the maximum Pell Grant is $5,550, and it costs an average of $51,000 to keep a prisoner detained for a year. The government should gladly trade one Pell Grant per year for four years to avoid having to pay for future, 68 percent-likely-to-happen, multi-year stints in prison.
According to an article in the New York Times Magazine in 2005 by Ian Buruma, prior to 1994 only one-tenth of one percent of Pell Grant funds even went to prison students. This leaves me with the conclusion that the exclusion of prisoners from the Pell Grant program was largely a symbolic move by Congressional authorities to push 90s crackdown on crime. Further, it indicates that certain demographics in the United States, particularly ethnic minorities, are considered second-class: because they often represent a greater percentage of prison populations, they are more likely to have their educational prospects dimmed for years at a time.
Inmates have forfeited their liberty as a result of their crimes. I believe strongly, however, that not all inmates are criminals. People are affected by environmental realities: difficult home lives, dangerous neighborhoods and youth susceptibility to bad influences create an easy habit of criminal behavior.
A policy change allowing inmates to apply for Pell Grants doesn’t even guarantee them reception of Pell Grants. It simply allows them to apply, and would endorse prisoners’ ability to do something to improve themselves and, in doing so, improve society. Taxpayer dollars would go towards creating law-abiding citizens — citizens who are one third less likely to harm those around them. This legislation needs to be amended: without that change, the penitentiary system will break down beyond repair.Maggie Henry is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Get Over Yourself appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.