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Building Hope Through Education

by Linda Dolloff

As an incarcerated student participating in the home confinement program, I am grateful to be part of the Second Chance Pell program for college education. I am the first woman from Maine in the prison education program to apply to graduate school. Even before my release, education changed my and my family’s lives. Education increased my self-worth, expanded my social capital, and given my family hope for a stable and productive future.

According to the National Institute of Justice, 44% of the 600,000 Americans released annually from prison return within one year, and 68% in three years. After five years, the recidivism rate jumps to an intolerable 76.6%! Our society, communities, and families can no longer absorb the financial and emotional costs of this cycle.

However, there is hope. Prison education programs are the answer to lowering recidivism rates. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the higher the degree an incarcerated person receives, the lower the recidivism rate (14% for an associate degree, 5.6% for a bachelor’s degree, and effectively 0% for a master’s degree). Prison college programs offer skills and pathways that provide living wages for men and women returning to our communities.

For every dollar spent on prison education, the government saves four to five dollars on the cost of re-incarceration (Brookings). The 1994 crime bill eliminated Pell Grants for incarcerated individuals, closing off the pathway to higher education for many. But, Congress has now reinstated access to Pell Grants for incarcerated people beginning this summer. A Second Chance Pell pilot program currently offers associate degrees in a select number of schools across the country (Brookings). There are financial, technological, and other hurdles to the successful completion of a degree while incarcerated; however, incarcerated students persevere.

I have personally witnessed how a college degree changes lives by making a difference in a safe and successful reentry. Educational opportunities generate self-respect, which reflects in a positive attitude toward family, community, and society. Formerly incarcerated individuals who have participated in prison education programs form networks to help ease the transition of others, pursue advanced degrees, and transform communities. In Maine, a formerly incarcerated Ph.D. student volunteers at a juvenile facility to prevent future incarceration through hope, education, and setting a good example. A member of a prison education program in New York helped found a non-profit organization called the Hudson Link to provide college education, reentry services, and life skills for incarcerated individuals.

I intend to help others pursue an advanced degree and am now a member of the University of Maine Augusta Prison Education Partnership Board, which will develop trauma-informed and anti-racist pedagogies and launch a statewide coalition to expand emancipatory education.

The U.S. needs to support prison education programs to close the yawning gaps that currently exist. Only 2.4% of federal and state prisons have a college degree compared to 22% of the general population. Three-quarters of those incarcerated in state prisons lack a high school diploma.

Why should anyone who works to make ends meet, does not break the law, and cannot afford a college education support spending tax money to fund education in prisons? Offering access to education to incarcerated people redirects taxpayer dollars into a more sustainable and safer future for everyone. When we reduce the prison population – which access to education does - a portion of the $80 billion annual costs taxpayers fund for incarceration (Interrogating Justice) may be used for a higher purpose. Dropping the current astronomical rate of recidivism generates funding for educational scholarships, grants, and low or no-interest loans for working-class families. The statistics are stunning: states save $182.9 million when 25% of Pell-eligible prisoners participate in postsecondary education and $548.8 million when 75% participate (Vera Institute of Justice).

Quality prison education reduces the prison population by lowering recidivism and preventing entry into the criminal justice system. America is paying a heavy price for the illusion of safety by locking up over 2 million Americans (The Sentencing Project). Supporting prison education is an investment in our future, which shifts billions of dollars back into our communities. I urge you to support prison education through the power of your vote, through volunteering your time to teach in juvenile or adult facilities, and through becoming an informed citizen. Imagine what $80 billion could do redirected towards educational programs!

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