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Beyond bars – Boosting higher education for prisoners

Universities and governments must not lose sight of the higher education needs of the world’s 10 million detained people. Access to education should be improved and technology harnessed to deliver cost-effective, quality programmes, to enhance prisoners’ chances of rehabilitation, employment and reintegration into society.

A 2012 study indicated that unemployment levels among released offenders are higher than among other members of society, due to inadequate education and job skills.

The five-year follow-up study revealed that recidivist offenders were likely to be unemployed or under-educated. Most importantly, the study that showed formal education is an important element for re-entry into society, impacting on both post-release employment and recidivism.

People behind bars: Worldwide view

Over 9.25 million people are detained globally, either as pre-trial detainees or as sentenced prisoners. Almost half of these are in the US (2.19 million), China (1.55 million) or the Russian Federation (870,000). And prison populations are on the increase in an estimated 73% of the world's countries, according to a 2009 UN report titled The Right to Education of Persons in Detention.

Women represent a small proportion of the global prison population; available figures suggest the rate is between 2% and 9%, with the global average at roughly 4%.

“Nearly seven in 10 formerly incarcerated persons will commit a new crime, and half will end up back in prison within three years. Given that roughly 95 of every 100 prisoners will eventually rejoin society, policy efforts to decrease the likelihood of recidivism are important on both social and economic grounds,” according to the May 2011 report, Unlocking Potential: Results of a national survey of postsecondary education in state prisons.

John Daly, a science and technology consultant and former director of the office of research at USAID, told University World News that in the US prisoners are incarcerated for longer periods and for less serious offences than elsewhere.

He pointed out that adding a criminal record to the problems that led initially to crime makes it doubly hard for such people to get decent jobs and rebuild their lives when they are again free.

He argued that higher education programmes that help prisoners obtain skills and certification seem to pay off, by allowing them to work on release: “Graduates of these programmes have lower recidivism rates."

Significance of boosting higher education for inmates

Aileen Baumgartner, director of the Bedford Hills college programme at the US-based Bedford Hills correctional facility, told University World News: "Practically speaking, college degrees help people – and inmates – procure viable employment in hopefully more fulfilling jobs…employment drastically diminishes the recidivism rate, which is good for all of us since incarceration is very expensive for the taxpayer."

Rebecca Ginsburg, director of the Education Justice Project at the US-based University of Illinois, highlighted similar benefits: "By significantly lowering recidivism rates, prison education saves taxpayers money and increases public safety.

"Research has demonstrated that college-in-prison programmes reduce arrest, conviction and re-incarceration rates among released prisoners more than any other prison-based intervention."

Those interviewed also mentioned the combined intellectual-community value of higher education. “College students (not all of course, inside or outside) learn there are many roads to conflict resolution, and that facts and research matter in such resolutions, and that violence is a sign of failed communication,” said Baumgartner.

She also spoke of the “ripple effect” of offering education to prison inmates. “Most of our students are mothers. Now they are in college, they want their children to attend college, and they dedicate themselves to the fulfilment of that goal. What did not seem to be a possibility, in short, now does."

Problems of university access

On the question of the value of a higher education for prisoners, Baumgartner suggested that the question itself indicates societal ambivalence about spending “scarce resources” on the incarcerated – despite statistics indicating that such investment will be returned in lower incarceration costs.

Ginsburg agreed that the primary obstacle to increasing educational access to prisoners was not cost. "The biggest obstacle is the widespread sentiment, in the United States, that education is a private good, that in educating incarcerated people we are rewarding them, and that prisons should be uncomfortable, punitive sites of vengeance.

“The political will to critically address such attitudes is weak, since being seen as ‘soft on crime’ is something American political leaders try to avoid."

She suggested that this problem could be overcome by a range of approaches: political courage; studies that demonstrate the cost-effectiveness and safety-effectiveness of prison education (which would make it easier for public officials to come out in favour of them); and a “shift in public sentiment away from the vengeance and retribution model towards rehabilitation".

She also emphasised the importance, for reducing high incarceration rates in the US, of a commitment to addressing the roots of violence: “Poverty, disenfranchisement, poor public education systems, and historic patterns of racism”.

Hilmi Salem, an international higher education consultant and the director general of applied sciences and engineering research centres at Palestine Technical University, told University World News that for political reasons and in countries under occupation, many prisoners have restricted access to higher education.

For example, since June 2011, the Israeli prison service had decided to stop all Palestinian political prisoners from studying higher education courses in Israel’s Open University, Salem indicated.

According to a 5 July report, despite the fact that some 1,550 Palestinian prisoners had ended their month-long collective hunger strike in May, in exchange for a series of steps promised by Israel to better their conditions, the ban on their access to higher education continued.

One of the reasons for the strike had been the prevention of higher education within prisons for Palestinian inmates only.

Salmi argued that this is “a violation of the right to education for persons in detention”, and urged human right associations and educational organisations to stand against such violation.

Enhancing education for prisoners

Ginsburg said there are already several models for providing low-cost, high quality education to the incarcerated. “The problem is not the lack of models, but the lack of discussion about these models, and retreat from rehabilitation as a goal of incarceration," she said.

A partial assessment of 17 prison higher education programmes in the US was published in an October 2010 report produced by the Education Justice Project.

Ginsburg indicated that universities could make a difference in several ways.

These include campus curricula that critically examine criminal justice and incarceration. Such courses can be found in departments of sociology, African-American studies, anthropology, criminology and law.

Universities could also support engagement efforts with local departments of corrections. Such engagement can take the form of facilitating faculty teaching in prisons or students offering workshops or tutoring sessions.

In addition, universities – particularly public universities – could advocate publicly for greater access to higher education for all, including the incarcerated.

Furthermore, universities could build coalitions across institutions that support prison higher education, so the provision of educational programmes to incarcerated populations in the community becomes an expected part of the task of American universities.

According to a May 2012 report, Online Education for the Incarcerated, many organisations are working to increase education opportunities through online programmes, which may cost less and therefore be more affordable for prisoners. The University of Utah was among the first to offer online courses for inmates.

"With computer- and internet-mediated educational services such as those being used successfully for remedial education in some community college programmes, offering education to prisoners should be both affordable and effective," concluded science and technology consultant Daly.

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