While the coronavirus highlights the pernicious crisis of mass incarceration, and mass protests highlight our dangerously outdated and racially biased penal system, we can’t help but notice that one solution isn’t included in the conversations often enough: higher education.
With 2.3 million people currently behind bars and 77 million people with criminal records in the United States, a college degree is an investment with tangible returns. Yet despite all of the data, Congress has yet to lift the prohibition on Pell Grants for incarcerated people.
For people who have been involved with the justice system as defendants, prioritizing higher education is a necessary safeguard for social and economic success, both during and after incarceration. Our country must prepare for the post-pandemic economy — one that will continue to favor people with college degrees — and it would be a mistake with devastating consequences to overlook huge segments of our population.
Americans who have earned at least a bachelor’s degree experience half the unemployment rate of those with high school diplomas alone. While the overall rates are now much higher, the trend is proportionally the same as before the Covid-19 pandemic; even in the worst of times, a college degree stands as an essential buffer against economic uncertainty.
Now more than ever, we cannot afford to divest from higher-education opportunities for vulnerable populations. And that must include people caught up in the U.S. justice system. Indeed, research shows that incarcerated people who participate in education programs are 43 percent less likely to end up back in prison than those who don’t.
People with at least a bachelor’s degree contribute, on average, $21,000 annually in taxes, while those with a high school diploma alone contribute $5,000. Studies show that the children of college graduates are more likely to earn degrees than children whose parents do not have degrees. These realities have never been more important; they translate to less crime, less spending on prisons in the midst of a budget crisis and more workers to help in our economic recovery.
Education has benefits that far exceed the tangible. Providing justice-involved people with second chances and the tools to examine their own lives and mistakes has incalculable outcomes on civic engagement both within and beyond prison. Despite recent successes in achieving some long-overdue reforms, incarceration in America remains riddled with stigma and collateral consequences.
As educators who have been on opposite sides of the criminal legal system, we know that participation in prison education helps incarcerated students better prepare for the harsh realities that are associated with re-entry into society. In almost every instance, an introduction to higher education inspires people to be their best selves, explore and build on their natural talents, and use those assets to be a force for good in the world.
Such personal transformation can create a seismic shift in self-perception. For people with criminal records, who may often suffer from addiction, exposure to abuse or mental illness, college can serve as a vehicle for recovery. Education opens doors to self-confidence and leadership.
Every person should have access to hope and a fair chance to secure a meaningful future for themselves, their family and their community. In Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.”
The criminal legal system is not one large system but many systems working imperfectly together. If we are to fulfill our constitutional duty and create a more perfect union with justice and opportunity for everybody, then access to higher education for justice-involved people is a moral imperative. What the future beyond Covid-19 looks like for communities affected by these systems is up to us.
Communities and local governments can invest in programs that help people pursue higher education, including prison education. This is an investment in employment rates, better physical and mental health outcomes, and increased public safety, creating stability for this and future generations. It is shortsighted to cut such programs as “non-essential.”
When we finally emerge from our isolated corners to reclaim our places in the world, we have a chance to build a better America — one that does not feed a broken and insatiable criminal legal system, but rather invests in outcomes that eliminate intergenerational poverty instead of separating families.
This story about prison reform was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.
Lucy Lang is a former prosecutor, college-in-prison educator and director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She is also co-author of “March On!,” a children’s book that honors the passage of the 19th Amendment.
Vivian Nixon is a formerly incarcerated national criminal justice leader. She is executive director of College & Community Fellowship, a nonprofit that helps justice-involved women earn college degrees.
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