College Behind Bars: How Education Transforms Lives

Do we truly believe that correctional facilities should be—well, correctional? If so, prison education opportunities have a lot to offer those behind bars—and the people and communities to which they return.

The latest PBS documentary, College Behind Bars—a film by Lynn Novick presented by Ken Burns—takes a look inside maximum and medium security prisons in New York State that have implemented the Bard Prison Initiative, a program hailed as one of the most rigorous college-in-prison programs in the nation. The initiative first received mainstream attention back in 2015, when three Bard College maximum-security inmates defeated Harvard undergraduates in a debate competition that went viral.

College-in-prison programs are not new, nor is the controversy that surrounds them. Critics argue that taxpayers shouldn’t be footing the bill for convicted felons to go to school. In the age-old rehabilitation versus retribution argument, many insist that prisons should be where people are punished, not given a second chance. However, studies show that prisoners who participate in prison education programs are significantly less likely to commit another crime than prisoners who don’t pursue these programs. And when you look at the cost to taxpayers when an ex-offender reoffends and goes back to prison, it’s much higher than the cost of a program like Bard’s. Beyond the financial impact, there are arguably even greater costs to society when we deny offenders a second chance through education.

Hager Sharp’s Education, Labor, and the Economy practice explores how education is linked to economic outcomes—not just for individuals, but for society. As an example, Lumina Foundation, the leading foundation focused on learning beyond high school, invests in efforts to expand access to quality education programs for everyone, including those in prisons. Investments like these help ex-offenders reenter society with the skills they need to find work, stay on the right path, and contribute meaningfully to our nation’s economy.

In 2016, the National Center for Education Statistics found that incarcerated adults in the U.S. had lower average scores in literacy and numeracy (the ability to use mathematics in everyday life) than the rest of the U.S. household population. We know that education can transform people’s lives. Access to high quality education at all stages of life provides a foundation for people—keeping them out of jail in the first place in many cases, but also giving them hope of a better life after being incarcerated.

Picture this: at least 95% of people who are behind bars in a state prison will be released at some point. What happens then? If they can’t find work or find a way to reenter society, data show that they’re more likely to fall back to a pattern of crime. If those people had access to education while incarcerated, there’s a higher chance of them not just bettering their own lives, but also improving the nation’s economy by being a meaningful contributor in the workforce.

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Emily Martin
Account Supervisor