Making the Most Out of Time Served: The Fate of Prison Education Programs
BY: CHARLES T. HOXIE
After just three semesters at New York University, Nancy Jordan’s world turned upside down. An argument with her boyfriend exploded into violence, and Jordan’s actions landed her 31 months in prison. But she did not stop learning.
Through the Bard Prison Initiative, Jordan continued her college education, taking Bard College courses at Bayview Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in Manhattan.
“It honed my skills so that they didn’t become rusty,” Jordan says. “I took an anthropology class that made me think; when I came out, I looked at things differently.”
Nationwide, stories like Jordan’s are becoming less and less common. Although according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, one out of every ten inmates participates in college courses, these numbers are on the decline, while the level of participation in vocational programs has remained stable at around 30 percent. In the midst of shrinking budgets, correctional facilities across the country are shedding their higher education programs and turning to more affordable options like vocational training, which prepares inmates for a specific trade. Such programs are sometimes sponsored by local businesses, which significantly defrays costs.
“You can probably train a lot more people in vocational training than with higher education programs,” says Gerald Gaes, former director of the Office of Research at the Federal Bureau of Prisons. “A college education is very expensive. Once they lost Pell Grants, college programs couldn’t keep up.”
Prisoners became ineligible for Pell Grants in 1994 under a provision of President Clinton’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act—all but barring lower-income inmates from receiving a college education. Without these funds, which were used to pay education providers, most of the nation’s 350 in-prison college programs soon dried up; 66 of the 70 programs in New York State disappeared in just four months.
In comparison to vocational programs, a study by Bard College indicates that although both have positive effects in reducing recidivism amongst the formerly incarcerated, the effect of post-secondary educational programs is more pronounced.
Additionally, higher education may in fact be more cost-effective in the long run, especially in a state like New York, where it costs $45,000 to house an inmate for a year. Research by the US Department of Education has shown that for every dollar spent on prison education programs of all types, around two dollars are saved through prevented recidivism, and a cost-benefit analysis by the Florida Department of Corrections showed evidence of college programs saving over three.
Some caution that the numbers may be misleading—those who get college degrees in prison are probably less likely to recidivate in the first place. “The people who seek out higher levels of education are more motivated and at a higher level to begin with,” says Gaes.
Still, advocates of in-prison college programs believe that a post-secondary degree has intangible benefits over vocational training that are real and undeniable.
“It works; it really works,” says Aileen Baumgartner, director of the Bedford Hills College Program, a degree-granting institution through Marymount Manhattan College at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester, New York. “Not just for the practical reason that everyone needs a college degree, especially in a tight job market. But it opens up a different kind of community—a different kind of thinking about possibilities.”
Adds Duston Spear, a professor in the program: “It’s an education they’ve never experienced before. It mostly gives them self-confidence, and that kind of confidence will go into everything that they do.”
For inmates who complete both vocational training and college classes, there is a difference between the tools both types of programs teach.
“Both challenged me to look inside myself,” says Nora Moran, who received a B.A. from Marymount and completed vocational classes to be a dog trainer while serving a 10-year sentence at Bedford Hills. “Specifically with the college program, I was able to use a lot of the analytical skills I had learned to explore who I was and where I came from so I could become a better person.”
Still, even amongst advocates of having higher education programs in prison are those who recognize that college is not for everyone.
“Every high school graduates people every year; some go to Harvard, and others go to community college,” says Vivian Nixon, director of the College and Community Fellowship, an organization that assists formerly incarcerated women in attaining higher education. “People in prison are no different. I’m all for giving people options.”
Ensuring an array of programs for prisoners may be the most practical solution; experts agree that such a middle ground would be ideal.
“I would love to see both college and vocational training programs offered in prisons,” says Gaes, who is now a consultant and visiting faculty member of Florida State University. “Some people are meant to be lawyers, some are meant to be plumbers. You can make a good living at both.”
In order to prepare both the plumbers and the lawyers, additional funding would be needed to accommodate the more expensive college programs. The high cost of post-secondary education and the low-income bracket of most prisoners is why participation in such programs has declined to 10%, while vocational training participation has remained three times that figure.
Despite the financial challenges, however, there is hope that the new White House administration might recognize the importance of making college courses accessible to prisoners.
“Obama is intent on promoting education and raising the level of education for all Americans,” says Nixon, “and people who are or were once in prison are still Americans, as far as I know.”