Let’s Consider Prison Education (August/September 2016)

Share This

By Susan Krumholz

President, UMass Faculty Federation, Local 1895


The entire University of Massachusetts system is facing cuts and, much to our chagrin, our students will see tuitions increase.  I could write here about the value of a properly-funded state university or the importance of offering affordable education, but I have done that in several columns. Instead, I am going to write about something near to my heart - prison education.

Despite the fact that crime rates have steadily fallen since 1993, incarceration in the US increased to 1,508,636 in 2014 at an estimated national cost of $52 billion. Only 22.6% of the total those incarcerated have a high school diploma and 12.7% some secondary education. A recent study by the U.S. Justice Department found that prison education reduced recidivism by a remarkable 43%.  There are several well-regarded prison education programs and the hope is more will emerge since several pilot research programs have recently been funded.  Locally, programs at MCI Framingham and MCI Norfolk are run through Boston University's Metropolitan College.  Other prominent prison education programs include the Bard Prison Initiative that offers courses in six prisons across NY, and the CA-based Prison Education Project (PEP) that offers college courses in 11 facilities taught by faculty from over a dozen state colleges and universities.

All of these programs do good work, with few external resources.  I want to write, however, about something a bit different.

For the past decade, I have been involved with Temple University’s Inside Out Prison Exchange Program. Since 2003, Inside Out staff have trained over 300 faculty members from 37 states (as well as Australia and Canada) to teach college courses in prisons.  What makes this program unique is the joint learning environment.  “Outside” students from area schools enter the jail classroom and are asked to sit in every other seat. When the “Inside” students (i.e., the prisoners) arrive, they fill in.

Every Fall semester, I take 15 UMass Dartmouth students with me into the Bristol County House of Corrections to study the foundations of American justice with 15 incarcerated men or women.  By the time of the closing ceremony you can only distinguish Outside from Inside students by the clothes they wear. What makes this program special?  To begin, it costs relatively little to offer.  Salary is the largest expense, but the school is paying me to teach the 15 Outside students anyway.  Some schools bus the Outside students, but the facility also bears some of the expense, including providing books for Inside students.  For the Outside students, there is learning, but also growing.  They discover that we are not defined by our worst day and that the Inside students are not that different from them.  The Inside students have the chance to take a college course that otherwise wouldn't be available to them (especially in county jails where little is available after GED/HSE classes).  Many of them discover that they are intelligent and that school can be enjoyable. This is often in stark contrast to their early experiences in schools that were often less than successful. And they discover that college students are not so different, that they can fit in.  Perhaps most importantly is that, as many Inside students will be out soon , they will have a real chance to enter college, if only they can find their way there. Programs like this point the way.

As a teacher, there is nothing I do that gives me more satisfaction or feels closer to what I believe teaching is about.  I am not alone. As of last month, there were 38 trained instructors at a dozen schools - public, private, universities and community colleges.

Think this isn't about education budgets?  In 2014, Massachusetts had 9,670 "criminally sentenced" inmates in the prison system, with an annual cost of $53,040.87 per person.  Over 10,000 more are in county jails.  Jail costs vary by county but the average is about $48,000 per person. The prison education program at Bard College claims that inmates who participate in their program only have a 4% rate of recidivism; those who earn a degree in prison on have a 2.5% rate.  PEP estimates that educating just a fraction of those currently incarcerated would reduce overall recidivism by 1%.  A mere 1% reduction (200 individuals NOT incarcerated at approximately $50,000 a year) would be a savings of $10 million - money that could be spent on education!