Education in Prison: Pros and Cons

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The pros and cons of educating prisoners has been going on since before the funding for the program was massively cut in the 90s. Since then the prison population, and rates of recidivism have grown immensely. While the emotional reason given in the 90s for the cut in funding was that those being punished should not be given a free ride in education, the real motivation was the move to privatization of prisons, in which recidivism is money in the bank while educated prisoners who may have a chance at another style of life is not. The question of whether or not to support funding and open operations for the education of prisons is a question of why people are in, and return to prisons.

To Learn or Not to Learn

The college-behind bars program is relatively inexpensive, especially considering that it was once run mostly by volunteers. Many of these volunteers were once prisoners themselves, and know how difficult it is to make a change without changing the elements of the game (Locke). Education has the power to change the game, change the mind, and change the hearts of those who have ended up in prisons due to in part the limitations of their creative thought. Those who argue for the education of prisoners understand this, and those who advocate against it have stark ulterior motives.

The highest degree of education possible in prison is an associate’s degree, and that is either for a tradesman or a person who wishes to transition into higher education. Jesse Reed got his associate’s degree while serving time in San Quentin prison. To those who denigrate his efforts, he says, “It's really unfortunate that society feels that way…You have a lot of men in here who made mistakes in life partly because they didn't feel that they could compete in society. We turned to a life of crime” (Locke). Reed is serving 25 years for murder, and was one of the first to sign up for the program in 1988 when textbooks were provided by Patten College of Oakland; At that time, Pell grants, given to low-income college students, were available to prisoners, and the program eventually encompassed 13 prisons in California. Before the program was killed, about 28,000 prisoners received $36 million in Pell grants each year. (Locke)

When funding was cut in the 1990s this ended everywhere, and prisoners were no longer allowed to get Pell grants. Looking back on this reality from the hostility of the for profit overcrowding of contemporary mass incarceration in America it is hard to believe prisoners were ever allowed to get grants, but that goes to show how quickly the tides can turn when the profit motivation is involved. Currently, “Federal funds are still available for college courses for inmates under 25 with five years or less to serve, but an effort to raise the age limit to 35 this year went nowhere in Congress” (Locke). Those who claim prisoners do not deserve an education are not looking at the big picture that prisons are meant for “corrections” and not simply punishment. Those who support the program emphasize; studies such as one by researchers at the City University of New York that found that 8 percent of women who took college courses in New York prisons were back behind bars within three years of their release. Those who did not take classes had a 30 percent reincarceration rate. (Locke). Well, recidivism is a real problem, or is it?

The Corruption of For-Profit Prisons

When discussing every question about prisoners in the United States, the corrupt profit motivation must be placed first before the question as a viewfinder and filter; Imagine living in a country where prisons are private corporations that profit from keeping their beds stocked at, or near, capacity and the governing officials scramble to meet contractual ‘lockup quotas.’ Imagine that taxpayers would have to pay for any empty beds should crime rates fall below that quota. Surprise! You already live there. (Short)

Corrupt corporations, and the government who hold their contracts, now see prison inmates as a consumer, and to keep sales high via product loyalty, recidivism is encouraged. After all, it is much easier to keep someone on the line to crime than recruit new prisoners to fill corrupt coffers. However, that is being done as well. Since prisons have been privatized, and profit from incarceration it is not surprising that rates of arrest, prosecution, and incarceration have gone through the roof, “ With only five percent of the world’s population, the United States provides twenty five percent of the global prison population, making its incarceration rate the highest in the world” (Devine). Recidivism is a large part of this vicious cycle of abuse and profiteering.

Not surprisingly this extortive and corrupt practice disproportionately affects minorities, which has created a movement to expose this: The New Jim Crow. The incarceration of African Americans is the new slavery, and white stakeholders have found a new way to profit from limiting the freedom of this demographic (Devine). Since minorities are already disproportionately less educated, the likelihood of educating them in prison is virtually nil even without the profit , but when the profit is taken into account the vapidity of the debate becomes all too clear.

Education as a Turning Point

It is surprising that with the incredible jumps in incarceration rates that private prisons only account for 6 percent of state prisoners, and 16 percent of federal prisoners in the South (ACLU). That goes to show how the voracious impulse to unlimited expansion capitalism can effect a market. Prisons which are not private do not profit from high capacity or recidivism, they actually are forced to spend more. It is clear what the real cost is as “it cost the state $60,000 a year to house each inmate. New York’s recidivism rate is 40 percent and studies show that when inmates earn college degrees, they are far less likely to return to prison” (Morris). Thus, educating the inmates in in their best interests. Going along without absolute public approval or appropriate funding;

In the Texas prison system, which has its own school district, 9,500 offenders attended postsecondary classes last year. The program is funded by a variety of scholarships and the federal money available for young inmates. Inmates also contribute, either by paying up front or promising to pay when they get out. (Locke)

Those advocating for educating inmates point out that not only does it improve lives and minds, reduces recidivism, but it also improves the quality of life and behavior of the inmates while they are in prison. However, Assemblyman Jim Tedisco continues to maintain a short sighted position, saying; ‘inmate’s second chances shouldn’t come at the expense of law-abiding taxpayers, who in some cases can’t afford to pay tuition themselves.’ Tedisco even went so far as to say the initiative would do nothing more than churn out ‘smarter criminals’. ‘This is definitely ‘Breaking Bad’ by potentially turning a bunch of Jesse Pinkmans into Walter Whites — all on the taxpayer’s dime.’ (Morris). This is clearly the view of a prejudiced mind, who does not believe that education can change minds and hearts.

One line of debate which has grown as the cost of college tuition is the value of cost. As such, “College is so expensive…And I think it sends the wrong message to people who follow the law and play by the rules” (Morris). This is a corrupt line of reasoning since the cost of college has grown out of all proportion to its worth, or the capacity to pay it back in the current job market, cultivating various over-educated wage slaves.

This is another example of how the profit motivation corrupts all values in America, and since nearly everything costs money it is never far from warping the discussion. That is, if you can even call American conversation a discussion considering how polarized everyone is. More and more people are being called on to state their opinions at each other with increasing deafness and disrespect. Debates have degraded into terrible parodies of communication, and it is no surprise they do not yield much positive change.

An expanded platform for a real discussion of the context (the unconstitutional practice of profiting from incarceration) which surrounds the question of the pros and cons of educating prisoners is needed. For those regions which have not given over to rampant corruption in the prison system it makes simple sense to educate “Since the annual cost-per-inmate is $60,000, the governor argued, the $5,000 required to educate one inmate is a small price to pay for a huge future return” (Saffron). The governor of New York understands this clearly as, “Someone who leaves prison with a college degree has a real shot at a second lease on life because their education gives them the opportunity to get a job and avoid falling back into a cycle of crime” (Saffron). Unlike the sprawling South, the New York region does not have the space in which to profit from incarcerating their citizens, and so there outlook is much different. Such nuances such as this should be clear to anyone who has the heart to look at the heart of the issue of American prisons.

Considering that thousands of people of color are introduced into the prison system each year, and upon release two thirds of all are rearrested and nearly half reincarcerated the question of the value of educating prisoners is really a non-question but a necessity (Tolbert). Although this does have its reflection in cost and budget, it is most clear from a human rights perspective that education is always a good idea.


The pros to educating prisoners is that it creates better behaving inmates who are more prepared to make positive choices upon release which will not create an environment for recidivism which costs the taxpayers a lot of money. The cons to educating prisoners is that it cuts down on recidivism which cuts into the easy and corrupt profits of privatized prisons. Thus, the debate is really about the value of a human life in America, namely the life of a minority, and is a question of how far the constitution will be flouted in the insanity for unlimited expansion capitalism which fuels the corruption of the military industrial complex. Cycles of prejudice, oppression, and classism can be changed or reinforced based on the choices made in regards to educating prisoners.

Works Cited

ACLU. “Private Prisons.”, 2016. Retrieved from:

Devine, Rosemary. “Prisoners Are Not Profits – End Prison Privatization in the United States.” Force Change, 2016. Retrieved from:

Locke, Michelle. “Groups Weigh Pros and Cons Of College Studies for Prisoners.” The Washington Post, 1 Dec. 2002. Retrieved from:

Morris, Caitlin. “Pros, cons of college inmate program weighed.”, 20 Feb. 2014. Retrieved from:

Saffron, Jesse. “Free College for Prison Inmates.” National Review, 28 Fe. 2014. Retrieved from:

Short, April M. “6 Shocking Revelations About How Private Prisons Make Their Money.”, 20 Sep. 2013. Retrieved from:

Tolbert, Michelle. “State Correctional Education Programs.”, 2002. Retrieved from: