In a country where a third of adults under 30 are struggling with student debt, why would you go out of your way to offer free college tuition to people who have been locked up after being found guilty of break the law?
Because it makes our communities safer, because it reduces systemic inequalities, and because we can and should walk and chew gum at the same time.
Men incarcerated in the Hampshire County Jail in Northampton can take a number of tuition-free credit courses taught by UMass and by professors at Amherst College (including myself), often alongside registered students who go to the prison for lessons.
Maybe some of these professors and students are motivated by good old bleeding-heart liberalism to come and work with incarcerated people. But for the prison administration, educational programming helps achieve the institution’s self-proclaimed goal: public safety.
“Our reformatory is not a state prison, so all of these men won’t be leaving for 20 or 30 years. All of these men will be returning to the community,” says Yvonne Gittelson, the prison’s education coordinator. “Now, as someone who lives in this community, I want these people to be better than when they came here. And giving them an education, giving them treatment, working effectively with them is going to help them when they’re released from our custody and when they return to live in my county, so this is a program that helps the community.
The data backs it up. Ninety-five percent of those incarcerated will eventually be released and many will return to the communities in which they lived at the time of their arrest. When they leave, they face major obstacles to their reintegration, some economic (reluctance of employers to hire people with a criminal record, lack of continuous work experience, inability to access social benefits, etc.) and social (the stigma that accompanies doing the time spent in prison, strained family ties, etc.). An incredible 83% of people who are released from prison end up being arrested again within the next nine years.
Taking courses while incarcerated does not eliminate these problems. But a decade of scientific research has left no doubt that educational programs dramatically decrease the risk of recidivism (up to 43%!), improve the chances of getting a job after release, and even help children to avoid falling into the same traps as their parents.
With respect to bleeding-heart liberal ideals, consider this question: If you believe the criminal justice system disproportionately and unfairly targets the poor and people of color, and you believe in the power of education not not only to increase employability, but also to raise critical awareness, what better place to give free tuition than a prison?
Nationally, African Americans are five times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. Nearly half of people who see inside a prison cell more than once a year earn less than $10,000 a year, and two-thirds don’t have a college degree .
For Massachusetts, in particular, there is good news and bad news. The good news: Massachusetts has the lowest incarceration rate among the 50 states. The bad news: this incarceration rate is still twice that of the UK and Canada. While African Americans make up 7% of the state’s population, they make up 26% of its prison population.
Incarceration disproportionately affects those who have already drawn straws. Making education accessible in prison is a pretty good social justice goal.
And educational programming is indeed popular in every prison in Western Massachusetts. “We’ve been doing this for over 20 years because there’s a need and a demand,” says Susanne Campagna, education coordinator for the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department, which oversees Hampden County Jail in Ludlow. and the Chicopée correctional center for women.
Men’s Prison offers five three-credit college courses throughout the year, taught by faculty at Springfield Technical Community College. Prison for Women offers a transition to a college program taught by faculty at Holyoke Community College and is in talks with UMass and Amherst College for future credit courses.
But wouldn’t it be better to make education accessible to all, preferably before people have to deal with justice? Isn’t it crazy that for some, going to prison is the only realistic way to experience being in a college classroom? “It’s totally crazy, but those are the values of our society,” says Jenny Abeles, education coordinator at Franklin County Jail in Greenfield. (Her institution offers classes taught by professors from Greenfield Community College.)
“We refuse to fund early childhood education, or education in general,” Abeles said. “We refuse to fund programs that make it easier for families to raise their children. We refuse to fund health care and mental health care. We would rather leave a whole segment of the population to struggle and struggle and suffer and eventually make a mistake that lands them in jail. Then we funnel the money into jails and jails. It is a very retrograde way of looking at public safety and serving the public and the communities of the country.
Looks like we got the chewing part of the gum figured out. But we haven’t quite learned to walk at the same time yet.
Razvan Sibii is an associate professor of journalism at UMass Amherst. He writes a monthly column on immigration and incarceration. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.