Former Harvard Education Dean: Why College-in-Prison Programs Work

The following is an excerpt from the new book Liberating Minds: The Case for College in Prison by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann (The New Press, February 2017): 

On a hot June day in 2008, I sat with about one hundred other visitors in the yard of the Woodbourne Correctional Facility in upstate New York. We had come for the graduation of the first cohort of students from the Bard Prison Initiative to receive bachelor’s degrees. It was an exciting moment because up to this point students in Bard’s prison program had earned only associate’s degrees. As several student speakers walked to the podium, their classmates cheered, clapped, and yelled encouragement. Each spoke powerfully about the sense of personal efficacy and the intellectual confidence his Bard education had given him. “All I knew before was the street,” the first speaker remarked. “I was tied to its rules and expectations. Now I have read Plato and Shakespeare, studied history and anthropology, passed calculus, and learned to speak Chinese. I know the world will be what I make of it. I can make my family proud.” They all spoke of their determination to contribute to society. “With this education,” another speaker announced, “I not only understand my debt to society, but I am also now in a position to repay it.”

While I listened to these well-spoken men and watched them walk up to the president to shake his hand and receive their diplomas, I thought back to the last commencement ceremony I had attended, some years earlier. I was dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education then, and the ceremony took place in Harvard Yard. As the name of each graduate or professional school was called, its dean would stand up and tip his or her hat to the president and then extol the superb leadership qualifications of his or her students. The students roared their approval and waved something symbolic of their particular school. The ed school students waved children’s books; the business school students waved dollar bills.

The two ceremonies were much alike, even though one took place within the wire-topped walls of a prison yard and the other in the shade of Harvard Yard’s stately elm trees. The academics in robes, the pomp and circumstance, and the smiling faces of family members were all just the same. But the routes the students had taken to graduation were worlds apart.

The graduates of the Bard Prison Initiative had all been convicted of felonies and were nearing the ends of relatively long sentences. Few had finished high school before being sent to prison, yet all of them had met the full curricular requirements of a regular Bard College bachelor’s degree. In their lack of prior schooling, these men were entirely typical of the prison population. The men and women incarcerated in the United States are among the least educated among us. Most have not gone beyond tenth grade. But the Bard graduates are not typical in their post-prison lives. While the national rate of return to prison is over 50 percent, the recidivism rate for graduates of the Bard Prison Initiative is 2 percent, and for those who have taken some classes but did not complete a degree the rate is 5 percent. Most alums of the program move on to good jobs, many in social service agencies and in public health organizations, although graduates have also found jobs in publishing, real estate, and legal services. Many have pursued graduate degrees, including in New York University’s master’s program in urban planning, Columbia University’s master’s programs in public health and social work, and Yale University’s master’s program in divinity.

Recidivism rates for prisoners who have graduated from other college-in-prison programs are comparably impressive. Hudson Link, which offers associate’s and bachelor’s degrees through several different colleges at five correctional facilities in New York State, reports a return rate of 2 percent. The Cornell University Prison Education Program reports a 7 percent recidivism rate for students who have completed fewer than three courses upon release, and zero percent recidivism for those who have gone on from Cornell to complete an associate’s degree. The Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison, north of San Francisco, reports recidivism rates for its students of 17 percent after three years as opposed to a state rate of 65 percent.

Moving from Harvard to Bard, where I have been deeply involved in the prison program, has demonstrated to me how vitally important it is to offer opportunities to go to college to those who are incarcerated. Today, prisons are schools for crime. They must become schools for citizenship. The Bard program and others around the country offer powerful evidence that most people in prison who earn college degrees are both prepared and highly motivated to return to society and use their talents in positive ways.

Today more and more people are working to make “college for all” a reality in the United States. Doing so is important in helping individuals realize their full potential, which advances not only their personal well-being, but also the greater good of society.

As President Obama has argued on several occasions, ensuring that all men and women complete at least two years of college is critical for the economy. Once the leader of the world in rates of college completion, the United States has slipped markedly in comparison to other countries. Because good jobs today require high levels of knowledge and skill, the decline in college graduation rates in recent years threatens our economic competitiveness. So does the fact that there are not enough college graduates to meet the demands of the labor market. On the positive side of the ledger, the Commission on Inclusive Prosperity of the Center for American Progress noted in a 2015 report that even a 1 percent increase in a state’s college graduation rates raises wages for all workers, even high school dropouts, more than 1 percent. In light of the indisputable role college-going plays in the nation’s economic well-being, Congress is considering legislation that would help finance at least two years of college, which makes good sense. Other hopeful signs are financial aid programs in place in a number of states, including Tennessee and Oregon, as well as in cities such as Chicago, designed to make college affordable for all students. The movement to ensure both college access and completion gains adherents every day. It is in the best interests of all of us that people in prison be included in such plans.

In addition to providing direct economic benefits, college in prison is cost-effective. The expense of incarceration is staggering, and by significantly lowering recidivism, thereby reducing the number of men and women imprisoned, college programs promise to lower the costs substantially. On average, between 2009 and 2015, American taxpayers spent nearly $70 billion a year on prisons, and due to a dramatic increase in the size of the prison population and consequent boom in the building of prisons, the costs have been escalating. According to the National Association of State Budget Officers, between 1986 and 2012, overall state spending for corrections increased by 427 percent, from $9.9 billion to $52.4 billion. The rising cost of prisons is siphoning vital funding away from more productive uses, including investments in public education, health care, and infrastructure. Spending on prisons has come to rank second after health care in its rate of growth, and that increase has necessitated spending cuts in other areas. Higher education and K–12 education are among the biggest losers. Reversing the tide, so that less is spent on prisons and more on education, is critical for the nation’s economic future. Research indicates that cutting the recidivism rate in state prisons by even

10 percent could save all fifty states combined $635 million from their expenses on corrections—and that does not include the potential savings from reducing recidivism in the extensive federally run prison system.

In addition, college in prison can reduce crime. Estimates suggest that spending $1 million on correctional education, which includes basic adult education, GED instruction, and vocational education as well as more traditional college programs, would prevent 600 crimes from being committed, while spending the same amount on incarceration alone would prevent only 350 crimes. The benefits of reducing crime are manyfold, from alleviating the harm done to victims, to lowering the costs of lost property and bringing down the expense associated with policing and prosecution.

College-in-prison programs have a powerful positive effect on the quality of life inside prisons, both for people in custody and for officers. A large national study by the nonpartisan Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons confirmed widespread claims that violence is a serious problem in both jails and prisons, perpetrated not only by those who are incarcerated, but also by corrections officers. While officers live in fear of being attacked, men and women in custody, in turn, fear abuse at the hands of officers as well as attacks by those imprisoned with them.

Overcrowding contributes to violence. In 2014, the prison systems of seventeen states imprisoned many more people than they were designed to hold. According to a 2012 report about federal prisons, they, too, are over capacity, by 39 percent. Overcrowding results in double or even triple bunking, waiting lists for education and drug treatment programs, limited work opportunities, and higher inmate to staff ratios, all of which intensifies tensions and leads to flare-ups. By reducing recidivism so dramatically, college programs are a reliable means of alleviating this problem.

Higher education is a powerful antidote to the sense of purposelessness and the intense boredom many of the incarcerated describe in prison memoirs. The poet Dwayne Betts, a recent graduate of Yale Law School, explains that during his eight years in a Maryland prison his “occupation was time.” There were apparently no opportunities for education available, although, on his own initiative, Betts found considerable pleasure in reading. The dearth of advanced education is unfortunate for many reasons, not least the fact that college programs are said to give students focus and goals to reach for, which has a positive impact on the atmosphere of a prison.

Many wardens and officers remark upon the improvements in behavior college-in-prison programs can promote. Some participants have confirmed that going to college had a positive effect on their behavior. For example, one woman explained in an interview that when she first arrived at Bedford Hills, where she was being held, she was “a chronic discipline problem.” She was often rude and broke many rules. Then, when she enrolled in college, her behavior changed. Because she had something to care about, she became less angry and aggressive and managed to avoid getting in trouble. A study conducted by the Urban Institute to evaluate the effects of college-in-prison programs found that participants had formed supportive associations with other students and were now motivated to avoid conflicts.

The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons argues in its report that it is important to create safe and productive environments in correctional facilities not only because it is the just thing to do, but also because “what happens inside jails and prisons does not stay inside jails and prisons. It comes home with prisoners after they are released and with corrections officers at the end of each day’s shift.”  In this way, conditions in prisons affect us all. With more college offerings in prisons, more people would be sent home empowered to become skilled employees, responsible family members, and productive citizens. This would help mitigate the untold “collateral damage” done to families and communities by the incarceration of so many people.

The most direct advantage for families and communities that results from college-in-prison programs is financial. Men and women who go to college in prison are more successful in finding well-paid jobs after they are released. As a result, they are able to provide considerably more financial support for their families. In addition, when men and women leave prison with a college credential, or even just a few college credits, they are more likely to help improve life in their neighborhoods than to contribute again to its dysfunction. Many among those who have been to college in prison are active in community renewal work or activities with young people.

Beyond the direct financial benefit to a family, having a father, mother, or sibling go to college in prison can become a source of pride and inspiration for others in their family. Some family members of people in prison report a keen sense of shame about having a close relative behind bars, and the pride of a son or mother or spouse going to college can help counteract that pain. Imprisoned college students are often the first in their families to seek postsecondary education. Many boast that as a result of their pursuit of advanced education, a relative, maybe a sister or a nephew, is now also enrolled in college. Many also proudly announce that they are asked to help with homework assignments. Students in the Bard Prison Initiative talk constantly of their determination to ensure that their children graduate from high school and move directly to college.

Helping members of the next generation avoid prison is a goal for many incarcerated college students. Such commitments show that, while incarceration is designed to remove prisoners from participation in society, college-in-prison programs can help to kindle a wish to reengage with society in positive ways as well as enhance a student’s capacity to do so. If asked about how going to college has empowered them, many respond that the experience has helped them develop the capacity to give back and make restitution for the pain and harm they caused. Researchers who have studied the outcomes of college-in-prison programs have documented these sentiments in interviews. One participant in a college program at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women told a team of researchers, “After having time to reevaluate how many people were hurt and the ridiculous choices I made... the process of going to college [turned] my remorse into wanting to make amends. Wanting to make things better. Helping others not make the same mistakes.”

Students also frequently talk about the importance of college classes in teaching them about the way society operates and in helping them understand the complexities of the social conditions in which they grew up. A large number come from impoverished, dangerous neighborhoods, and many come from homes where there has been domestic violence. The new skills and perspectives they gain lead some to pursue work in social services, community development, and criminal justice, often advocating for reform. Their civic engagement can help to heal deep wounds in our society and strengthen our democracy. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “When an individual is no longer a true participant, when he no longer feels a sense of responsibility to his society, the content of democracy is emptied.”

At a time of increased attention both to criminal justice reform and to the need for greater access to higher education, this book makes the case for new support for college in prison. College programs were scaled back dramatically in the past few decades. While virtually all state correctional departments offer, or even require, schooling that leads to a general education diploma, and many offer some vocational training and classes designed to prepare people to go home, only a few offer higher education. That is the result of a misguided decision made by Congress, and approved by President Bill Clinton, as part of the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill, to end Pell Grants for prisoners. The action marked the culmination of several decades of “tough on crime” policies. The Pell Grant program, named after Senator Claiborne Pell, who sponsored the legislation establishing the program, provides need-based grants to low-income students to help them attend college. When prisoners were no longer able to pay for college courses with Pell Grant money, support for college-in-prison programs all but dried up. While in the early 1990s 772 college-in-prison programs operated in 1,287 correctional facilities across the United States, almost all of them were closed down after passage of the 1994 bill.

Copyright © 2017 by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann. This excerpt originally appeared in Liberating Minds by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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