Home > Uncategorized > Common Sense Compels Education in Prison… But Common Sense Loses Out When Austerity Reigns and Racism Persists

Common Sense Compels Education in Prison… But Common Sense Loses Out When Austerity Reigns and Racism Persists

An editorial  in last Wednesday’s NYTimes called for the funding of education programs in NYS prisons based on the common sense (and research-based) notion that recidivism rates would decrease if inmates left prison with skills that would make them employable. The editorial board bemoaned the fact that “Republican legislators in New York — which spends about $60,000 per inmate per year — remain mired in know-nothingism and argue that spending public money on inmates insults taxpayers.” They also offered a brief history of how it came to pass that prisons no longer offer job training or college courses as part of a rehabilitation program:

Prison education programs were largely dismantled during the “tough on crime” 1990s, when Congress stripped inmates of the right to get the federal Pell grants that were used to pay tuition. The decision bankrupted many prison education programs across the country and left private donors and foundations to foot the bill for those that survived.

During the 1990s I served as Superintendent in Washington County, MD which included the state prisons that served the state. I recall that the county community college president at that time was dismayed that he was forced to cut the services his college offered to students in the prison and the principal of the prison’s HS program was equally dismayed that he was forced to reduce his offerings. Both leaders saw the benefits of the program and both had success stories to illustrate the benefits of the programs they offered, but the legislators were facing budget cuts that compelled them to short change public education in general and post secondary programs in particular. They argued that offering free programs to prisoners seemed unfair when they were compelled to increase costs for “innocent” students attending community college and realized that their state cuts compelled counties to increase property taxes or cut programs in public schools. The local talk radio callers whole-heartedly agreed with that line of thinking, some complaining that the prisoners were able to get free cable TV as well as a free education.

The NYTimes editorial Board overlooked one factor in its history: race. The whole “war on drugs” cycle that led to the disproportionate incarceration of thousands of African Americans was also an implicit factor in the decisions to withhold prison funds…. and it is increasingly a factor in the decision to strangle the funding of public education. Maybe a positive by-product of the dispute over the removal of statues of Confederate civil war “heroes” will be an earnest discussion about how race continues to play a role in our funding decisions.

The toxic combination of austerity and racism has clearly contributed to the elimination of education programs for prisoners and subtly contributed to the ongoing underfunding of public schools at the state level. Our country can afford to build weapons of mass destruction and fund wars on three continents: we can certainly afford to provide a quality education to all of our citizens.

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