Sentenced to Knowledge

By Sheridan Miller

NEBHE explores higher education and incarceration …

Congress voted in December to lift the 26-year-old ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated students.

A bipartisan effort to direct Pell Grants to a population that has long been deprived of federal funding for higher education reflects the growing desire for increased education in our prisons and jails across the U.S., especially in this time when bipartisan agreement is so rare.

The implications of this decision provide a new hope to the roughly 35% of prisons that have existing college level courses, and a rallying cry to institutions looking to further their work in equity and access to nontraditional learners, and incarcerated people specifically. Last month, the Policy and Research team at NEBHE released a brief about the effects of higher education on incarcerated people in New England prisons and jails. Using relevant examples of regional data, and first-person narratives from professors, formerly incarcerated people and Department of Corrections (DOC) employees, the brief presents an analysis of how higher education in New England serves incarcerated people. Specifically it looks at how postsecondary education reduces recidivism, increases employment opportunities for previously incarcerated people, increases benefits for New England taxpayers, improves the self-concept of incarcerated people, improves prison culture, and ultimately provides a myriad of advantages for  individuals impacted by the justice system and the  region at large.

Nearly 202,000 people are incarcerated, on parole or on probation in New England. This constitutes 1.4% of the region’s population. While New England has a lower rate of incarceration than do other regions in the country, prison populations vary drastically by state. In 2020, for example, Massachusetts had the lowest rate of incarceration in the country, whereas Connecticut had the 13th highest.  Click here to view interactive data about the number of incarcerated individuals in New England.

A key finding featured in this brief is the demographic composition of New England prisons. Due to policies of institutional racism, discriminatory policing and poor social supports for neighborhoods of color, the demographic makeup of most prisons nationwide is disproportionately Black. Protective factors against incarceration in this country (due to all the aforementioned discriminatory factors) are whiteness, old age and gender (men are more likely to be incarcerated than women). Because New England’s general population is whiter and older, we have a smaller prison population than other regions in the country, and the general composition of jails in most states reflect predominantly white inmates. The exception is Connecticut, which incarcerates more Black people than any other demographic population. Although there are more white prisoners in our region, Black, Hispanic and Native American people are still incarcerated at higher percentages than other groups in New England.

Of the 45 New England prisons that publish educational data, 40 (89%) offer GED or high school courses, 28 (62%) offer associate degree-granting courses, and 8 (17%) offer bachelor’s degree-granting programs. Federally, only 35% of state prisons offer college programming (including bachelor’s and associate degree-granting programs). Click here to see a map and complete list of prisons with degree granting capabilities in New England.

It has been shown time and time again that the more education a prisoner receives, the less likely they are to recidivate. Federally, those without a high school education recidivated at a rate of 60%, whereas formerly incarcerated people with some college experience recidivated at a much lower 19%. In Connecticut, prisoners who had a bachelor’s degree were re-prisoned at a rate of 14%, whereas prisoners who had less than a secondary education were re-prisoned at 31%. In Maine, graduates of the Maine Sunshine Lady program (which provided bachelor’s degrees to inmates) recidivated at a rate of 0%, while those who had less than a secondary education recidivated at a rate of 28%. For more state breakdowns, visit here. More than 95% of incarcerated people will be re-released into the community one day, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, so it is beneficial to both incarcerated people and their local communities to decrease recidivism to create greater mobility for previously justice-involved residents and create safer neighborhoods.

Providing postsecondary education behind bars offers a plethora of benefits not only to incarcerated individuals, but also to taxpayers. For each dollar spent on educational programming behind bars, taxpayers save $4 to $5 depending on the state. This is because, with lowered recidivism rates, less money has to be spent on corrections—which already constitute a large chunk of state budgets. These funds could be allocated to social supports or community services to buffer the incarceration epidemic before people have a chance to become justice-involved, or could be spent on trying to impede the school-to-prison pipeline which puts certain children (especially Black and Brown) on the road to incarceration due to factors such as disproportionate punishment measures as early as pre-school.

Providing postsecondary education to prisoners could also improve our economy by helping to fill employment gaps. The more education a formerly incarcerated person has, the more likely they are to successfully find a job. This is an especially important concept in Northeast states, which have gaps in industries due to the “brain drain” of younger, college educated people fleeing to larger cities to find employment. Higher rates of employment also have a favorable personal impact on formerly justice-involved people: it betters their lives, improves self-esteem and has a significant generational impact. If a person receives higher education behind bars, it has been shown to increase the likelihood that their children will pursue higher education, and will decrease the possibility that their children will be later incarcerated.

Being incarcerated is a uniquely dehumanizing experience, in which a person is stripped of their freedoms and individuality. This lack of control over bodily autonomy, health and safety has become especially evident in the midst of the current coronavirus pandemic. Given the close living quarters, and often unstable living situations, disease can spread rapidly within prisons and jails. As of Jan. 21, 2021, 355,780 people in prison in the U.S. had tested positive for COVID-19. At least 2,143 incarcerated people have died from the illness since March 2020. In New England alone, 7,627 incarcerated people have contracted the virus. It is becoming increasingly important to provide pathways to freedom for incarcerated people because of these conditions, and because the U.S. jails more people than any other country in the world by a long shot. It is clear that incarceration is not the only option to solving societal ills and actually, in some cases, causes more inequities and safety problems than not jailing individuals in the first place. However, there are certain tools we can use to aid our currently justice-involved New England citizens, starting with higher education. To learn more check out our brief here.

Sheridan Miller is coordinator of state policy engagement at NEBHE.

Related Posts:

Second Chances: More Colleges Added to Program Providing Pell Grants to Prison Inmates

Courage of Convictions


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