There are many “smart on crime” reasons to reinstate prisoners’ eligibility for Pell grants and other need-based financial aid. When we look at the benefits of educating prisoners we see reductions in recidivism, increases in pro-social thinking, enhanced post-release employment prospects, and strengthened ties to children and communities. The list goes on and on. Today, I’d like to touch upon the ideas that funding prison education programs is not a reward for crime, improves the economy, and reduces the number of victims (more specifically, new victims of repeat offenders).
Not A Reward for Crime
Perhaps the most important reason to reinstate prisoner eligibility for Pell grants and other need-based financial assistance actually concerns the refutation of arguments to defund it. The argument goes something like this: The prisoner broke the law, so they should not be rewarded with a college-level education while they serve their term of incarceration. The problem here is that prisoners don’t see educational restrictions as a punishment, but life as usual. Prisoners usually come from an educationally disadvantaged population. They are poor, have very few employable skills, and often don’t even complete high school. Telling a person like this that they cannot go to school isn’t a punishment to them, it is life.
The vast majority of those in American prisons feel as though they never had any meaningful access to education prior to their criminal lifestyle, even if the public school system was open to them. Often they feel as though their only option was a life of crime. This has a lot to do with the families and communities they grow up in. Restricting an education from a person like this — a person who desperately needs the life-saving tool of education — is plainly cruel. It’s setting the already disadvantaged prisoner up to fail. If we do so, we shouldn’t be surprised when they do.
Preventing inmates from obtaining scholastic financial assistance clearly doesn’t punish prisoners, it punishes us, the American people. Restricting funding for prison education programs merely prevents those who want a better life after their release from prison from obtaining one. When these tools are restricted — either by means of banning prisoners from educational pursuits or by refusing to fund such programs — we are really hurting ourselves much more.