Research shows that educating incarcerated men and women cuts down the likelihood that they will return to prison once released. Despite this, fewer than five percent of inmates in the U.S. are enrolled in college classes. This number is much too low; higher education or vocational training should be mandatory for any inmate in a U.S. jail or prison. When education is made part of a comprehensive prisoner re-entry program that includes substance abuse counseling and psychiatric evaluation, society at large reaps the benefits of reduced crime rates, stronger communities and lowered tax burdens.
Over the years, there has been much debate about what role prisons should serve. Some see prison as a form of punishment and believe that offering a free education to inmates is a slap in the face to hard working citizens that struggle to pay for higher education or vocational training. The reality is that the majority of these prisoners will be released back into society and will need some way to support themselves and, in many cases, their families. Research shows that a prison record reduces an individuals earning potential by up to fifteen percent. Lacking any real skills, many ex-offenders find only temporary, low-paying jobs. Frustrated with the shortage of opportunities available to them, many ex-offenders return to a life of crime. By arming ex-offenders with the skills necessary to succeed, this cycle could be stopped before it has a chance to begin.
Over two million people call a U.S. jail or prison home, making the U.S. prison population the largest in any industrialized nation. More than half of formerly incarcerated people return to prison within three years of their release. According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, state prison systems cost taxpayers almost $30 billion a year – most of this money is spent building new prisons and keeping old ones running; staff salaries and construction make up a bulk of the costs. By reducing recidivism (the return to prison by ex-offenders), the prison population would be reduced and prison spending could be drastically cut. It makes better economic sense to invest the $5,000 to $10,000 a year it would take to educate an inmate than it does to spend the $70,000 a year it takes to incarcerate them. The tax money that is saved could then be earmarked for other social programs.
In a society where a college degree or some trade is necessary to earn a living wage, we are setting ex-offenders up to fail by releasing them back into society without any marketable skills. Making sure society – all of society – has access to higher education and skills training should be a top priority for our government.
People of color, African-Americans in particular, should advocate for increased funding to prison education programs: blacks make up about forty-one percent of inmates with a sentence of a year or more. As a community we must ensure that our incarcerated men, women and children are returned to us ready and able to contribute.
Judge Greg Mathis is Chairman of the Rainbow PUSH-Excel Board and a National Board Member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference