Recent attention to prison reform seems to have been prompted by the cost of high recidivism rates.
Robert Parham’s recenteditorial noted several initiatives aimed at curbing the cost of imprisonment. These are encouraging.
Money talks, and in spite of longstanding needs and calls for attention to our systems of incarceration on philosophical and ethical grounds, the public seems to take notice when financial costs are the issue.
Of course, the other side of the financial picture is the business bonanza for corporations tied to the prison industry.
One glaring example was detailed in a 2011 column by Miguel De La Torre, who noted the profits generated for privatized prison management companies by detaining undocumented immigrants.
The focus of the present concern seems to be the cost of the high rate of recidivism and the proposal of alternative measures and formats of incarceration designed to reduce that cost.
Numerous studies since the early 1990s have pointed to the value of education as a helpful reducer of recidivism.
Not just technical and trade education to provide job skills for use upon release, which are very important, but also the kind of general education that cultivates one’s outlook on life and sense of responsibility.
Ironically, it was about that time that Congress cut the availability to incarcerated students of the Pell Grant, by means of which college level education was provided in many prison settings.
Estimates of the amount saved by this action were around one tenth of 1 percent of the total Pell funds.
The rhetoric that supported the cut was essentially, “Why should we give these people a free education?”
This discussion has brought to mind a 15-year period from the mid ’70s to the early ’90s when our university offered an undergraduate degree program in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta and in several Georgia state prison units.
Funded by the Pell Grant, courses taught by regular and adjunct faculty members were brought inside the prison walls to inmates who qualified for the program.
Over the course of the 15 years, more than 300 participants completed degrees while serving sentences; at the time the program was discontinued due to the cut of the funding source, no one who had graduated and been released had returned to prison.
A zero-recidivism rate points rather persuasively to the value of education in a system that tends to use “corrections” in its name.
Just about all of our data from that period is anecdotal, preserved in memories of participants and in contacts maintained with a small percentage of former students.
The stories are similar, though, and they underscore both the nature of the need and the substance of a solution.
Education in the broad disciplines of undergraduate general studies (literature, history, philosophy, religion, psychology, sociology) helped shape a new way of looking at oneself and the world.
It seemed to nourish a sense of responsibility and a broader perspective. It helped focus a vision of a different path to follow in the future and offered tools of thought and behavior for following it.
It appears that there is some momentum for addressing the need for prison reform. Let’s hope that conversation continues.
Let’s hope also that what we have learned about the relationship between education and recidivism will help lead to substantial rather than merely cosmetic reform.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).