Authors Argue the Importance of Education in the Prison System

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By Delilah Hammons

MADISON, WI – The Progressive Magazine published a story in April by Christopher Blackwell and Nick Hacheney that focused on education in prison, entitled “When You Learn, You Don’t Return: How Education in Prison Reduces Recidivism.”

The article begins with Blackwell explaining that “I felt dumb in class, never seemed to be able to follow what the teacher was saying […] One day, I got tired of the theatrics and left. It wasn’t long before the juvenile detention center was my second home; and soon after that, the penitentiary.”

He went on to explain, “When I was sentenced to 45 years in prison for taking another person’s life, I never thought I’d earn a college degree or be successful in any way. I thought all I would ever be is a prisoner whom no one cared about. I couldn’t have been more wrong.”

“After a decade in prison, I was introduced to a program that let incarcerated people take college classes for credit. At first, I was too intimidated to join,” Blackwell explained. “But one of my friends in the program, Noel, refused to let me sit on the sideline.

“What I really learned, though, was that I was capable of achieving things I never thought were possible and that I was a lot smarter than I had ever given myself credit for. All I needed to do was apply myself,” Blackwell added.

The article explained, “Through University Beyond Bars, dozens of people have earned college degrees and hundreds have taken college classes.” University Beyond Bars is a nonprofit created by incarcerated people in Washington.

The article argued programs like these are beneficial, stating, “When prisoners take some college classes, they are 43 percent less likely to be reincarcerated than those who do not. Prisoners who earn an associate degree are around 85 percent less likely to return to prison, while those who receive a bachelor’s degree are more than 95 percent less likely.”

Over time, “University Beyond Bars became a hub for fostering the growth of our minds as well as our bodies and souls. It created more than a space to take classes; it created a new way of life behind the prison walls. In addition to the accredited classes, other programs began to emerge,” other programs like clubs and support groups, the article stated.

“If educating prisoners can have such a profound impact on public safety as well as positively influencing the climate inside of prisons, why do so few prisoners have access to postsecondary education?” the authors asked.

The writers compared the cost of education versus prison, noting “Washington state’s Department of Corrections, for example, spends as much as $46,000 per incarcerated person annually, while an organization like University Beyond Bars can provide an opportunity to earn an associate degree for less than $8,000. With education reducing recidivism by 70 percent for those who get a degree, it’s clearly more cost-effective to educate than it is to reincarcerate.

“One of the main reasons that educating prisoners is not as popular as it should be is that we have moved from a rehabilitative system to a punitive system. In the 1980s and 1990s, a ‘tough on crime’ narrative swept the nation.

“Laws were passed to make sentences longer, remove funding for education and rehabilitation programs, and ensure that prisoners served nearly all of their inflated sentences. This created and fed the prison industrial complex while tearing lives apart,” the article explained.

The good news, wrote the authors, is, “The U.S. Department of Education announced last July that it will expand funding for Second Chance Pell grants. The scholarship, which was launched in 2015 under the Obama administration, has funded the education of over 22,000 incarcerated people.”

The article quoted one of the co-founders of University Beyond Bars stating repeatedly, “When you learn, you don’t return.”

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