Prison Education Programs and Higher Education
April 26, 2023
People rely on education to prepare citizens for society, promote democratic equality, and address social concerns. The B-16 pipeline in our education system is designed to be the pathway that guides students towards academic success so they can be productive, functioning members in our society, but oftentimes has weaknesses brought on by sociological issues. Some students slip through the cracks and not make it through the pipeline successfully, and are led to other fates, including being caught in the school to prison pipeline. This pipeline fuels greater societal problems: mass incarceration and the cycle of recidivism. These issues contribute to generational oppression cycles. The school-to-prison pipeline and the cycle of recidivism are two deeply interconnected issues rooted in the same societal dilemmas, but the solution can be partially rooted in our systems of higher education. By mending the school-to-prison pipeline and educating people who are already incarcerated, there can be hope for a society that is not only better educated, but is safer, and breaking cycles of multi-generational oppression.
What is the School to Prison Pipeline:
The school to prison pipeline is a process by which students are pushed out the K-12 education system and are led to prison. Although not necessarily a direct higher education issue, the school to prison pipeline does affect higher education institutions. Youth tend to be criminalized through policies and disciplinary practices within school that involve law enforcement. As law enforcement become involved, students are pushed out of the education system into juvenile and criminal justice institutions. This pattern is perpetuated by several key contributing factors within American school systems, such as zero tolerance policies and policies that remove students from the social structures that school provides (Cole, 2020). When students are pushed towards law enforcement or disciplinary consequences, this can negatively impact students who do end up applying for college (nearly all college-admission applications have disciplinary disclosure questions), or impact post-traditional students who may have a record trying to return to college. Furthermore, when students have contact with the criminal justice system at this age, it significantly decreases their chances of graduating high school to begin with (Mallett, 2015). This makes it so students do not even have the chance to go to college, which can decrease the pool of college applicants, and can also lead to greater societal problems; further complicated by disparities caused by racism and mistreatment of people from lower socioeconomic status. This begins to create a cycle of mass-incarceration that is difficult for people to leave once they are in. Exposure to law enforcement due to offenses that may be minor in nature can also create a distrust of law enforcement and create resentment. As students build resentment towards law enforcement and authority, it can cause conflict between students, administrators, and law enforcement, which can eventually lead to more negative interactions, and thus more punishment. Latino and Black students are more affected by these policies and cycles. As it currently stands, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world (Walmsey, 2018), and both the Black and Latino populations are overrepresented in prison populations compared to the total U.S. population. The highest percentage by race of incarcerated people is Black people, who currently make up approximately 40 percent of the prison population while only making up 13 percent of the total U.S. population. Latino individuals make up about 19 percent of the total prison population while they only make up approximately 16 percent of the U.S. population. This racial disparity is mirrored by, and perhaps begins with the school to prison pipeline. Current research shows that not only are Black and Indigenous populations more likely to be punished more frequently and more harshly for more minor offenses compared to white students, schools with larger Black populations are also statistically more likely to implement zero tolerance policies (Welch and Payne, 2010). Additionally, with the rise of zero tolerance policies, the rates of suspension and expulsion for Black and Latino students rises, while the rates of suspension and expulsion for white students fall. Although they only make up about 16 percent of the public-school population, Black students account for 32 percent of in-school suspensions and 33 percent of out of school suspensions (U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, 2014).
What is Recidivism, and why is this a Higher Education Issue:
The school-to-prison pipeline in-turn fuels oppressive cycles of recidivism. Recidivism is the tendency for convicted individuals to re-offend and thus become reincarcerated after they are released from institutions of criminal justice. Recidivism rates in the United States high. On average, the vast majority of incarcerated people will be reincarcerated within five years of their release, some statistics showing up to 75 percent of people will become reincarcerated after 5 years of release (GTL, 2019). The school-to-prison pipeline is the root for why many students become incarcerated as the school to prison pipeline introduces them to systems of criminal justice early on. As students drop out of school or are introduced to the criminal justice system during school, they become vulnerable to becoming a part of the corrections system and thus vulnerable to becoming rearrested once released from this system and being thrown immediately back into the system. This is supported by lack of incarcerated people that have obtained GEDs or High School Diplomas, as well as analyzing the literacy levels of incarcerated populations. Out of the incarcerated population, approximately 44 percent of incarcerated people in 1997 had not obtained their high school diploma or an equivalent (Harlow, 2003). This trend is expected to rise. Out of those incarcerated or formerly incarcerated who do have their GED, 7 out of 10 received their GED while incarcerated. Additionally, there is a glaring literacy gap that exists in United States state and federal prisons (Brunner, 1993). More than 60 percent of all people in prisons are functionally illiterate, and over 70% of people in America's prisons cannot read above a fourth-grade level. This suggests that there is a strong correlation between illiteracy and crime and is further supported by statistics that show the rates of illiteracy are worse in juvenile offenders. Eighty-five percent of all juveniles who encounter juvenile court system are functionally illiterate. As literacy is such as valuable skill to have in society and is required to do a great deal of even basic tasks and careers in the United States, not being literate puts individuals at a significant disadvantage; demonstrating that cumulative advantage, achievement gaps, and divestment from early education negatively impact lives, cause societal issues, and fuel the school to prison pipeline (DiPrete & Elrich, 2006). Although these are issues that seem to be rooted in K-12 public schools, there are viable solutions rooted in higher education institutions, especially noting the lack of education amongst the incarcerated population, and recent data that shows the value of college education in decreasing rates of recidivism and reincarceration. Research shows that the more someone becomes educated during or after their period of incarceration can significantly decrease their chances of becoming reincarcerated in the future (GTL, 2019). Incarcerated individuals who learn vocational skills while incarcerated, experience a decline in recidivism rates to 30 percent. For Incarcerated Individuals who pursue an associate degree while incarcerated or shortly after, the recidivism rate drops to 15 percent. Individuals who pursue a bachelor’s degree while incarcerated or after experience a recidivism rate of five percent. Those who educate themselves even further and pursue graduate degrees, experience rates of recidivism close to zero.
Call to Action: How to Advocate
Although there is strong evidence that recidivism can be significantly hindered by educating the incarcerated population, many prisons lack comprehensive prison education programs that allow incarcerated people the ability to pursue higher education, especially beyond the GED level. Those that do often have private programs or require incarcerated individuals to pay for tuition their selves, which many cannot afford in their circumstances. Incarcerated individuals tend to be ineligible for grant programs that can help pay for their education. Although the Biden-Harris administration has made great strides in this area, allowing incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people to have access to Federal Pell Grants, often, these programs do not fully cover tuition and students, including incarcerated ones, require additional state aid and support to fund their programs. In some states, this type of aid is not available. For example, in the state of New York, Governor Pataki suspended the ability for incarcerated individuals to apply for or receive the Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP. To an economically disadvantaged individual, TAP can provide thousands of dollars of additional funding to students who otherwise would be unable to afford an education. A person who is incarcerated, is typically not making even minimum wage if they are being paid to work while incarcerated. Often what little they do get, is to get supplies for themselves, meaning, many incarcerated people are economically disadvantaged. Especially if an incarcerated individual does not have any family support, these barriers can be burdensome and prevent them from pursing a college degree. By allowing incarcerated people to have access to funding programs such as TAP and Pell, or by publicly funding prison education programs, those who are incarcerated will have the opportunity to be able to afford pursing higher education. This can give them a better job outlook, a better life outlook, and help overcome systematic oppression. Additionally, increasing access to higher education can lead to other individual and societal improvements beyond a monetary level (Baum, Kurose, and Ma, 2013). Individuals with higher levels of education tend to be more frequently offered retirement benefits and health insurance. It is also shown that people with more education tend to have healthier lifestyles and have less health issues such as obesity. Individuals with higher levels of education are also more civically engaged and aware on current issues and thus engage more in society. This means, by educating the prison population and giving them access to higher levels of education, they can improve their chances of having healthier and more meaningful lives, and not only be more likely to not have a negative impact on society by committing less crimes but have a positive impact on society through means of civic engagement and community service. By advocating for funding in higher education that is inclusive of people who are incarcerated, incarcerate people will be able to take advantage of these benefits, which can help them have better life trajectories and have societal impacts in an economically efficient manner. For every dollar invested into prison education programs, four dollars is saved in reincarceration costs (GTL, 2019). As the United States spends billions of dollars in corrections and criminal justice costs, investing in these programs will undoubtedly save taxpayers and the government a great deal of money; money that can be invested into other social programs or education to fix other glaring issues that contribute to the mass-incarceration issue. Additionally, with less crime being committed since formerly convicted individuals would statistically be committing less crimes, there would be a decrease in crime rates, meaning also safer streets and living environments. Formerly incarcerated individuals would also hopefully have better outlooks on their lives as well. There could be less broken homes, less burden on children if they are present, and with more education; even despite the status of being a former convicted felon, they may have better chances of securing jobs. This is crucial, especially because if they can secure jobs, particularly jobs that would require a degree, they are more likely to make more money and break cycles of poverty that may have started their cycles in the education system to begin with. Having a living wage would mean they might not need to rely on crime any longer as a means of survival, and they could provide for not only their selves, but their posterity. Two former students involved in the Prison Education Program offered in partnership with Mohawk Valley community College remarked that the program has had significant impact on their lies.
With institutions being aware that crimes involving drugs have among the highest recidivism rates, providing services in this arena could prove beneficial as well. This could include specialized services regarding drug counseling and addiction in mental health services offered on campuses or in prisons, or at the higher education level, adopting programs that support students that are in recovery. One noteworthy grant program that has experienced a great deal of success is Collegiate Recovery programs. Collegiate recovery programs are College or University-provided resources, often funded by grants (Association of Recovery in Higher Education, 2021.) It offers a supportive environment within the campus culture designed to reinforce recovery lifestyles and provide educational opportunity alongside recovery support to ensure that students do not have to sacrifice one for the other. Studies have shown that students enrolled in a collegiate recovery program are statistically more academically and socially successful during their higher education experience than a student in recovery from substance-use addiction that is not enrolled in a collegiate recovery program. For students who seek to return to school after incarceration, this can be a powerful resource of support to help them succeed. Many of these programs are also on community college campuses, which will many times accept formerly incarcerated individuals, and can provide them additional support, although not in the conventionally thought format. Advocating for funding on a state and national level, as well as implementation of these programs on the institutional level could be both beneficial to the individual and the institution.
It is important to note as well that incarcerated people lose their right to vote, and oftentimes, people convicted of felonies can lose their rights to vote for several years after release, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Meaning, that this population is disenfranchised, and often cannot advocate for themselves via voting. This is why it is important for Student Affairs Professionals, student leaders, and others to become educated on this issue, and raise their voices to advocate at their institutions and to their state and federal legislatures. As student affairs professionals, we seek to raise the voices and improve the student experience for all students. Although society can sometimes dehumanize and stigmatize these individuals, incarcerated students and formerly incarcerated students are attending our institutions, and a part of our student body. They may also be perspective students- but above all- they are human beings with ambitions and the potential to make an impact. They can be future leaders and paving the way for others to have a path in higher education or society. Afterall, even world leaders, such as Nelson Mandela, have gone to positively impact the world after their incarceration. He says, “In my country, we go to prison first, then we become president.”
Association of Recovery in Higher Education. (2021, March 09). Home. Retrieved May 13, 2021, from https://collegiaterecovery.org/
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Brunner, M. S. (1993). Reduced recidivism and increased employment opportunity through research-based reading instruction.
Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2020, October 21). Understanding the School-to-Prison Pipeline. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/school-to-prison-pipeline-4136170
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Welch, K., & Payne, A. A. (2010). Racial threat and punitive school discipline. Social Problems, 57(1), 25-48.’
Walmsley, R. (2018). World prison population list. London: Home Office.