Doing Time, With a Degree to Show for It

Illustration by Michael Glenwood

November 28, 2010

Jonah lives in a correctional facility in upstate New York, where he is serving a sentence of 12 years to life on a felony conviction. While others spend time lifting weights, Jonah reads W.E.B. Du Bois and John Dewey, studies genetics, and wants to find time to read Walter Isaacson's biography of Albert Einstein. His friend Damian is finishing his senior thesis on the conservative tradition in American political thought. Both men have dates with the parole board in the next few months. Having already earned associate degrees, and well on the way to their bachelor's, they hope their academic accomplishments will help them win release (although there is no guarantee that will be the case). They are eager to join some of their already-released college friends now working in jobs ranging from serving as a counselor for AIDS patients in New York City to managing a waste-treatment plant in Westchester County, N.Y.

Jonah and Damian are among the more than two million men and women behind bars in America. Like them, most incarcerated individuals are likely to be released and to return to their old communities. Thanks to their prison education, Jonah and Damian have a good chance of doing well once they go home.

The same is not true for many of their prison peers. We must ask ourselves: Would we rather help those we incarcerate build constructive lives, or have them return to prison—as more than 50 percent currently do?

The answer seems self-evident: Prisons are a drain on national resources. Last year prisons cost the nation upward of $55-billion, which exceeds the Department of Defense's 2011 spending request for the war in Iraq. The waste in human resources is staggering. Beyond whatever talents prisoners themselves possess, children of prisoners are more likely to end up in prison, too. It is urgent that we find ways to help more people leave prison ready to work and to contribute positively to their families and communities.

Education is an obvious, proven first step toward gainful employment after release from prison. It has been well documented that earning a degree in prison is the best strategy available to reduce recidivism. Studies conducted from 1991 to 2004 found that those who earned postsecondary degrees in prison were significantly less likely to return than those who did not. A study conducted at the correctional facility for women in Bedford Hills, N.Y., found that among women released between 1985 and 1999, those who had participated in the prison's college program had a 7.7-percent recidivism rate after 36 months, while those who had not gone to such classes had a 29-percent rate.

Despite such evidence, most college-in-prison programs closed their doors after the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 removed prisoners from eligibility for Pell Grants, the main federal vehicle for student financial aid.

In the past few years, raising the rates of college enrollment and completion has become a high national priority. Despite the welcome focus on postsecondary education, however, few people are considering the importance of educating the multitude of college-age individuals now in prison. I feel keenly about this issue because I teach in one of the few remaining college-in-prison programs—the Bard Prison Initiative, part of Bard College. The program offers liberal-arts study, culminating in Bard degrees, in five New York State prisons. The curriculum is writing-intensive and includes literature, foreign languages, history, social science, science, art, and mathematics.

I have taught for over 30 years at Columbia, New York, and Harvard Universities, but teaching in the Bard program has been eye-opening. Students are selected on the basis of motivation rather than prior accomplishment. Only one in 10 applicants is admitted. Just 17 percent had graduated from high school before being incarcerated. From the start, they are held to high standards, challenged intellectually, and supported (some with undergraduate tutors from Bard) as they acquire basic skills along with college-level content. The combination enables them to move up the academic ladder with amazing speed, facility, and success—some are completing Calculus III, many have become fluent in German, and some now write as well as the undergraduates I taught at Harvard.

Last winter I met several former students from the prison program for coffee in New York City. All had been released in the previous few years, and all were doing well. One especially impressed me: He was tall, well dressed, and had a Bluetooth headset in his ear. He now lives in Queens with his wife and 13-year-old son and works with at-risk youth at a social-service agency. Having earned an associate degree from Bard, he had enrolled in a B.A. program at the City University of New York and wanted to move on to a master's in social work.

Participating in the Bard program, he said, had not directly helped him get a job, but it had "put the puzzle together" for him and enabled him "to get ready to be different when he got home." As I pressed him to explain, he talked of growing up in Harlem, where his friends in the street always wanted to know "who was putting us down." Bard taught him, he said, to think critically about statements like that. His classes in history and anthropology had enabled him to understand his situation in a social context. "Now," he said, smiling, "I know life is more than 'us versus them.'"

The Bard Prison Initiative is a beacon of light in a few American prisons. I have found it inspiring—but also dispiriting. Leading the world in the rate of incarceration is not a benchmark of which we should be proud. And yet our political and philanthropic leaders seem indifferent to the potential of education to help bring incarcerated people back into the mainstream of American society.

Skeptics claim that college in prison is an unjustifiable expense. At a minimum, the programs require about $5,000 per student, per year. At a time when so many Americans are struggling to pay for college, that cost is difficult to swallow. But crime carries a high price tag, too. We need analyses of how incarcerated students might contribute in various ways, including through public service and post-release repayment, as well as a better public understanding of costs relative to benefits. Researchers at Iowa State University have calculated that dealing with a single murder, after all expenses are accounted for—those of the victim, of the criminal-justice system, and in lost productivity—costs $17.25-million. College is cheap by comparison.

Have we lost the faith in education that once made the United States a place of opportunity for so many people? I hope not. But demonstrating that faith, and with it continuing optimism about the nation's future, requires extending the national agenda to include college in prison. Not all, but many, people in prison can benefit from education. Opening the doors to incarcerated men and women can help strengthen our democracy and raise our standing around the world.

Ellen Condliffe Lagemann teaches history at Bard College, where she is a senior scholar at the Levy Economics Institute and a distinguished fellow at the Bard Prison Initiative.