It Would Be a Crime to Cancel Learning Time for Prisoners

Pell grants lower the recidivism rate and save tax dollars

AS someone who received a post-secondary education in prison, I can see the tangible benefits society receives from Pell grants (federal financial aid) for the incarcerated. Inmates who previously victimized innocent people learn something about criminally deviant behavior; this helps them to later become productive members of society.

While statistics vary, the overwhelming consensus is that post-secondary education decreases the likelihood of continued criminal actions. The national recidivism rate is about 60 percent. Yet only 30 percent of college-educated inmates return to prison. That is a significant decrease - and a statistic ignored by various anti-inmate coalitions.

The debate to end Pell grants for inmates baffles me. Both sides of the political spectrum are opposed to crime. Yet both sides are considering discontinuing funding for a program that lowers the rate of repeat offenses. Is decreasing crime somehow unacceptable in today's political arena? Are cost-effective, successful education programs turning into election year fodder? This makes no sense.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas is leading the fight against inmate college programs receiving Pell money. She recently said, ``Pell grants were sold [to Congress] to help low- and middle-income families send their kids to college. They were not sold for prison rehabilitation.''

If Senator Hutchison looked further into the issue she would find that nearly all inmates come from the low- and middle-income families Pell grants are aimed at. Inmates are all too frequently from poor school districts and start life at an extreme disadvantage. College education for prisoners can and does break cycles of generational poverty, and low levels of education. Education is the key - even for prisoners.

It is estimated that inmates will use $40 million worth of Pell funds on college this year. Considering that Pell awards $6 billion annually, surely this is not so much for a program that helps so many disadvantaged persons. It is a worthwhile investment.

Along with the current tough talk on criminals, much lip service has also been given to issues of prevention. One wonders then how those who regard themselves as socially responsible can cancel financial assistance for a program that lowers the rate of felons committing additional crimes. A successful program should be expanded, not canceled.

A superficial glance might suggest that in financially lean times, a college education for inmates is frivolous. Yet the numbers tell a different story: For each $1,500 annual Pell grant award, society receives fewer $25,000-a-year inmates. A few thousand dollars per year per participating inmate saves the taxpayer money in the long run. A college educated inmate who does not return to prison will actually become a taxpayer himself.

WHEN I entered prison, I had no post-secondary education and very little understanding about the world I had been living in. Then I enrolled in Soledad State Prison's college program. Subsequently, I graduated summa cum laude from Hartnell Junior College. I presently maintain a 3.75 grade point average on my way to a Bachelor of Arts in social science. Prison-based college programs provide guys like myself with a way to understand the consequences of crime - that it perpetuates the socioeconomic destruction of our own society.

Most prison systems employ a policy of warehousing as opposed to rehabilitation. As an inmate I saw firsthand why prisoners leave prison and immediately re-offend - nothing is done to motivate them to make a positive move away from their former destructive selves. Punishment, warehousing, mandatory minimum sentences, suspending inmate rights, pulling funds from college programs, and other get-tough policies will accomplish very little.

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