Why College in Prison?
With only 5% of the world’s population, the United States houses 25% of the world’s prisoners. America’s 2.3 million incarcerated people are predominantly poor and come disproportionately from communities of color; the vast majority are severely undereducated. Yet it wasn’t always this way: here in Connecticut, the prison population is six times what it was in 1980. This historically unprecedented growth mirrors national trends, and amounts to a staggering fiscal burden on the state’s budget.
Our overreliance on prisons, coupled with their uneven demographic impact, have made incarceration a ‘normal’ life event in many communities. Latinos in Connecticut are twelve times more likely to go to prison than whites, and African Americans are twenty-two times more likely. Such statistics can frequently be traced to the chronic underservice of minority and low-income youths by the public school system. The majority of people who fill our prisons are high school dropouts, and almost none have had college experience. Once released, they face severely reduced employment opportunities, causing over 60% to return again to prison. This pattern, moreover, is intergenerational; children with incarcerated parents have a greater risk of developmental delays and behavioral problems, and are far more likely to end up in prison themselves.
College-in-prison is a decisive intervention into the cycle linking imprisonment to alienation from educational opportunity. Like most people who go to Wesleyan, our students report that college has transformatively impacted their view of the world, as well as their priorities and aspirations for the future. The inverse relationship between educational attainment and recidivism is steep: those who go to college while incarcerated are 45% less likely to return to prison than those who do not. And this in turn translates to dramatic cost-savings for the state. The Correctional Association estimates that every dollar invested in prison education returns two dollars to the taxpayer.
Yet the benefits of college-in-prison extend beyond the enrolled students themselves, as college provides them with a new opportunity to serve as positive role models for their families and home communities. Furthermore, correctional officers and prisoners both attest that programs like ours contribute to creating a safer and more positive environment within the prison itself. Incarcerated students strengthen Wesleyan’s academic community with their unique passion for learning and the diverse perspectives they bring to the classroom. Most fundamentally, college in prison constitutes a powerful investment in the individual lives of those upon whom society has set its lowest expectations.
College-in-Prison and Recidivism Resources
- Download our Factsheet.
- Erisman and Contardo. Learning to Reduce Recidivism: A 50-state Analysis of Postsecondary Correctional Education Policy. (Washington, DC: The Institute for Higher Education Policy, March 2005).
- Fabelo, Tony. Impact of Prison Education on Community Reintegration of Inmates: The Texas Case. (State of Texas: Criminal Justice Policy Council, August 2000).
- Karpowitz, Daniel and Max Kenner, Education as Crime Prevention: The Case for Reinstating Pell Grant Eligibility for the Incarcerated
- Steurer, Smith, and Tracy. Education Reduces Crime: Three-State Recidivism Study. (Lanham, MD: Correctional Education Association, 2001).
- See also: Bibliography of sources compiled by John Jay College of Criminal Justice
General Information relating to incarceration in America