Inmates’ right to learn

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Every year, more than 650,000 people leave prison and return to communities across America. In most situations, they are lucky to be released with some spare change and a bus ticket. With an immense lack of access to some of the most basic rights and privileges and bearing a deep social stigma called ‘social prison,’ they fight to make ends meet with the branding of their criminal record as their main characteristic.

Higher education is one of the largest factors in attaining socioeconomic mobility. Too many incarcerated Americans are never given the chance to achieve it. 40 percent of inmates lack a high school diploma, barring them from the majority of jobs upon release. New Yorkers pay about $60,000 a year per inmate, a considerable burden when 40 percent of those who are released return within three years, the major cause being for economically driven crimes. But inmates who attended college classes before release fare better. Bard College’s prison program, launched in 2001, shows an incredible recidivism rate of 4 percent for inmates and 2.5 percent for those who earned degrees in prison. If education is the key to redeeming lives in prison, why are prison education programs in the minority of our country’s prisons? In the 1990s, federal and state legislators cut funding to show how tough on crime they are — so tough that they are creating a cycle of crime by barring inmates from the basic right of education.

It is counterproductive to block individuals from the very opportunity that could prevent them from repeating the same crimes.

There are definite steps we need to take to stop this cycle. First, we need to lift the ban on access to Pell Grants for incarcerated individuals. The 1994 crime bill excluded incarcerated individuals from receiving federal funds, diminishing nearly 350 prison education programs. Second, expanding access to all student federal loan programs is key. Individuals who receive education in prison are nearly half less likely to end up back in prison and 13 percent more likely to obtain employment when they get released. Third, we must provide financial aid and loans to individuals convicted of drug-related crimes. It is counterproductive to block individuals from the very opportunity that could prevent them from repeating the same crimes.

Lastly, we as students must break the barrier between us as college students and incarcerated individuals who are equally as motivated to obtain that college education. Professor Linda Miller is taking this step next semester, launching a Writing in Prisons course. According to Capstone, students in this course will help facilitate a creative writing class in a minimum security unit at Lehigh Valley County Corrections Center or Northampton County Prison, both in Bethlehem. In addition to facilitating weekly workshop sessions, students meet periodically with the professor to discuss assigned readings and discuss required writing. At the end of the semester, students will also be required to create an anthology of the prisoner’s work.

While securing Pell Grants for prisoners or lifting the ban on aid for individuals convicted of drug-related crimes will require immense advocacy and action from lawmakers, this course is an important first step.

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