Prisoners are allowed to make bellow the minimum wage because of a loophole in the 13th Amendment.


We should look to the humanities to help prisoners prepare for the business of living.

What reaction does the term “prison education” evoke?

For many, the immediate thought is vocational training with the goal of teaching inmates practical skills that theoretically provide connections to work in the “real world” after release. 

This fits perfectly with the American mindset about education and work generally: the only truly valuable education is one that connects the student directly to employment. Everything else is a luxury at best, or a waste of time and money at worst.

But for all the supposed realism and pragmatism of this view, for many behind bars, it may be the least practical and effective approach from the standpoint of supporting rehabilitation and reducing recidivism.

Comparatively few people have the actual gifts and interests necessary for success in skilled trades. Moreover, it is arguable that technical education doesn’t actually address the functional illiteracy (a lack of basic reading, writing and other communication skills) and socialization challenges including impaired “theory of mind” (the ability to empathize with other people in a positive and meaningful way) that help pave the way to crime and imprisonment.

The singular focus on technical education also fails to acknowledge that life in prison often reinforces and exacerbates early-life traumas and behavioral deficits that help create the cycle of anti-social behavior, criminal activity and incarceration.

We need to expand our educational toolkit to address both the individual abilities and interests of prisoners along with their actual rehabilitative needs. (Photo: Alex Potemkin / Getty Images)

Extended time in prison can cause “institutionalization”, a condition in which the prisoner comes to rely heavily on institutional structures while deepening isolation and a diminished sense of self-worth. These social and psychological impairments tend to further degrade personal agency and a sense of self-efficacy. Ironically, prisons can be both brutal and infantilizing at the same time.

If this understanding of the problems of both prisoners and prisons is correct, we need to expand our educational toolkit to address both the individual abilities and interests of prisoners along with their actual rehabilitative needs.

In other words, if one of the main deficits facing prisoners is a stunted capacity for understanding and engaging with other people and the broader world, perhaps we should look to the humanities and the liberal arts to help them prepare for the business of living, and not just the business of earning a living.

A number of programs have tested this thesis with promising results for participants.

Bard College operates a fully accredited college program within the New York State Prison System. Students on these campuses behind bars have the opportunity to enter the arena of great ideas, while also gaining “real world” technical skills.

Since 2008, Bard has conferred more than 550 bachelor degrees, providing a tailored avenue to future success rooted in the deepest interest of each inmate.

The Prison Scholars Fund, another private sector organization dedicated to using the power of education in transforming criminal lifestyles, sees a 4% recidivism rate among its scholars.

Its founder, Dirk van Velzen, is himself a testament to the value of an academic education inside prison, turning his life around after years of criminal activity and a lengthy prison sentence.

Goucher College in Maryland also operates a Prison Initiative that takes professors behind bars to provide bachelor-level education to prisoners.

Education reduces recidivism

From a practical standpoint, bachelor-level education makes sense, too. A 2016 study by the Vera Institute of Justice found that those who participate in college-level educational programs while incarcerated are 48% less likely to return to prison. One of the primary drivers of this outcome is that obtaining educational credentials while incarcerated increases the likelihood of gaining employment post-release, making for a smoother, more successful transition from institutionalization to personal autonomy.

In 1994, Congress and President Bill Clinton cut off Pell Grants for the incarcerated as part of a broad federal “get-tough” policy meant to deal with a burgeoning crime epidemic.

In retrospect, that policy was a mistake. While depriving prisoners of educational resources appeals, at some level, to our instinct to punish wrong-doing, it appears that we are mostly hurting ourselves through the costs of maintaining inmates as they move through a revolving door of crime and recidivism.

The Obama and Trump administrations have sought to move away from this punitive approach through a pilot program that restores Pell Grants on a limited basis pending congressional action that would restore them permanently.

Private sector can help

While this effort continues to be evaluated for its effectiveness, there remains room for the private sector to facilitate greater access to higher education.

A good recent example is the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Higher Learning Program, which has invested $18 million in prison higher education programs. This kind of leadership and support is vitally needed to help us reverse the national problem of over-incarceration and warehousing of inmates.

Albert Einstein noted that “the value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.” All people can benefit from training their minds to think broadly and deeply about the world and their place in it, perhaps especially those who have committed crimes and been incarcerated.

While people must pay penalties for criminal activity, including spending time prison when necessary, we can also find ways of using education to redeem both the time and the person behind bars.

Brent Orrell is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @orrell_b


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