Course Correction: College Behind Bars Gets a Big Boost

Once upon a time, there was wide support for the obvious idea that we should do everything possible to educate prisoners, including helping them earn college degrees. That way, released inmates would be less likely to return to places called "correctional" institutions for a reason. 

But federal funding for college courses in prison was a notable casualty of the get-tough approach to crime in the 1990s, and modest efforts to reverse that mistake have lately struggled amid budget cuts. Now, as the pendulum swings on criminal justice toward less punitive policies, college education in prison is getting a major second look—and attracting increased support from the philanthropic sector. The Ford Foundation, for example, supports longstanding efforts by Bard College in New York and the Prison University Project in California to bring higher education to prisoners in those states.

Related - See Who's Funding College Behind Bars

Most recently, the Andrew Mellon Foundation awarded $1 million to the Center for Justice and the Heyman Center for the Humanities, both at Columbia University, to support the "Justice-in-Education" initiative over the next three years. This program will provide education to currently and formerly incarcerated individuals in New York state correctional facilities. It also will help better integrate the study of justice into the Columbia University curriculum.

The funding from Mellon will expand existing efforts at Columbia to bring postsecondary opportunities to the incarcerated. Already some Columbia faculty are teaching courses in local prisons, and one instructor, philosophy Professor Christia Mercer, published a Washington Post op-ed piece about the experience.

Justice-in-Education aims to offer courses taught by Columbia instructors in New York prisons, as well as offer former inmates the opportunity to continue their education at Columbia or one of its partner institutions. The initiative also offers incarcerated youth a chance to re-engage with education, and change public perceptions about the value of access to higher education for the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated.

The Center for Justice and the Heyman Center will have its hands full with that latter goal. Research has shown that educational opportunities for prisoners reduce recidivism. But for many policymakers and members of the public, the notion of college courses for inmates carries the stigma of being "soft on crime," a label that elected officials still fear, even as the public debate on criminal justice shifts. A 1994 crime bill signed into law by then-President Clinton authorized billions to construct new prisons but eliminated Pell Grant funding for prison higher education. This cut eliminated hundreds of prison education programs within a year.

More recently, Congress has not renewed funding for the "Specter Funds," a grant program named for the late U.S. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a former Republican and advocate of prison education, that funded higher education classes in prisons. This action at the federal level compounded actions by many states to reduce educational opportunities for prisoners. These cuts help strapped states close budget shortfalls, but studies suggest these actions may be short-sighted. A RAND Corporation study found that every dollar spent on education behind bars saves states between four and five dollars on reincarceration by reducing recidivism.

With budget pressures remaining tight, it's not clear when these cuts might be reversed, creating an opportunity for funders who are willing to look past the short-term politics and see the long-term benefits of these programs. In New York, the Bard College program funded by Ford Foundation has shown a recidivism rate of only 4 percent among its participants, compared to a statewide recidivism rate of 40 percent. Currently, more than 20 state correctional facilities in New York offer higher education programs, most of them funded by private money.

The positive outcomes from programs such as the one at Bard, as well as the involvement of Mellon and Ford in funding these initiatives, should signal colleges and funders in other states of the possibilities offered by these admittedly politically sensitive programs.