At one time, inmates in the United States were eligible for government Pell tuition grants and there was a college prison program. Then Congress decided that prisoners should not get such grants and this effectively doomed the college prison programs. Fortunately, people like Max Kenner have worked hard to bring college education to prisoners once more. Kenner has worked with Bard College to offer college education with prisoners and this program seems to have been a success. As might be imagined, there are some interesting ethical issues here.
One approach to college education for prisoners is both ethical and practical. If it is accepted that one function of the prison system is to reform prisoners so that they do not return to crime after they are released, then there seems to be a very good reason to support such programs.
Since 2001 about 300 prisoners have received college degrees from Bard. Of those released from prison, it is claimed that less than 2% have been arrested again. In contrast, 70% of state prison inmates are arrested and incarcerated again within five years of their release. Prisoners who participate in education programs are 43% less likely to return to prison than former prisoners who did not participate in such programs.
Given the very high cost of incarceration ($14-60,000, with an average of $31,000 per year), reducing the number of people returning to prison would save the state and taxpayers money. There is also the cost of crime, both to the victims and society in general.
Of course, there is the practical concern that the prison-industrial complex in the United States is a key job and profit creator (mostly transferring public money to the private sector) and having fewer people in prison would actually be a practical loss, economically speaking.
In moral terms, as long as the cost of the programs is not high, then a utilitarian argument can be given in favor of such programs. Using the stock utilitarian moral argument, the benefits generated by the education programs would make them morally correct. There is, of course, also the moral value in having people not committing crimes and being, instead, productive members of the community.
One practical objection to the programs is that the cost of such programs might exceed the benefits. However, this is partially a factual matter, namely weighing the economic cost of crime and imprisonment against the cost of providing such programs. The positive economic value of such programs should be considered as well. The cost to the state can, obviously, be offset if the programs are supported by others (such as donors and private universities). Given the cost of incarceration, practical considerations seem to favor the programs. However, this can be debated.
Another practical objection is that the benefits being discussed arise only when a released prisoner does not return to prison because of the education program. If a prisoner is serving a sentence that will keep him in prison for life, then there would seem to be no practical benefit. The counter to this is that most prisoners are not in prison for life, so this would apply in only a very few cases that would be offset by the cases in which people do leave prison.
It could also be claimed that the education programs are not the cause of the former prisoners remaining out of prison. After all, this could be a case of a common cause (that is, what seems to be a cause and an effect are really both effects of an underlying cause): the qualities that would cause a prisoner to participate in such an education program are likely to be the same ones that would make it less likely that the former prisoner would return. If this is the case, then it could be argued that such programs are not needed since they are not actually the causal factor.
While it is always wise to consider the possibility of a common cause, it does make sense that an education program would have causal role to play in a former prisoner not returning to prison. At the very least, education would increase the chances of the person getting a job and this would have an impact on the likelihood that she would return to crime.
It can also be argued that even if the education did not have this effect (that is, the former prisoners who would have been in the program would not have returned to prison anyway), the value of the education itself would justify the programs. I do believe that education has intrinsic value. However, this is not a view that is shared by all and it can obviously be argued against, usually on economic grounds.
In general, though, the education programs do seem worthwhile, if only on practical grounds. In cases in which the programs are being privately funded, there seems to be no practical reason to oppose such programs, provided that they do have the claimed benefits regarding recidivism.
One moral objection that can be raised against these programs is that resources are being expended on prisoners that could be used to help those who cannot afford an education and are not convicted criminals. One might also add that prisons exist to punish people for their crimes and not to reward them. As such, prisoners should not receive such education. Instead, any resources that might have been spent on educating prisoners should be spent on assisting non-criminals who cannot afford college. Of course, there are those who would not want to assist even non-criminals who cannot afford college.
This moral objection does have some bite. After all, a person in need who has not committed crimes seems more deserving of the assistance of others than someone who has committed crimes. If it did, in fact, come down to a choice between helping a non-criminal or a criminal, then it would seem preferable to assist the non-criminal—just as it would be preferable to spend money on education and infrastructure rather than on subsidies to corporations. It would also presumably be preferable to spend money on addressing the causes of crime rather than creating a prison-industrial complex.
The reply to this objection is based on the fact that when a person is imprisoned, there will be a significant expenditure to simply keep that person in prison (an average of $31,000 a year in 2010). While it would be preferable to avoid having to imprison people, once they are in prison it would seem desirable to invest a little more to keep them from returning to prison. Calculating this would involve using the cost of the education, the cost of keeping the prisoner in prison, the likely chance of returning to prison and for how long. To use a made up example, if it cost $31,000 for a prisoner to get her degree and $31,000 a year to keep her locked up, then if there is a good chance that her degree would keep her out of prison for another four year sentence, then it would seem to be worthwhile even as a gamble. After all, expending $31,000 is likely to save much more money. If the fact that she is likely to be a contributing member of society is factored in, the deal is even better. So, the gist of the reply is that spending the money education does make sense, provided that it has a good chance of saving money and doing some social good. If the money is not spent on education, then it seems likely that even more will be spent on dealing with recidivism. Either way society pays, the question is whether one should pay more or less or whether to pay for something positive (education) or negative (locking someone up). So, it is not a matter of spending money that could be spent to assist non-criminals, it is a matter of how to spend the money that will most likely be spent either way.
I do, of course, understand how someone struggling to pay for her or her child’s college would be outraged that prisoners are getting an education for free. However, I would simply refer back to the previous argument: paying for the education of a prisoner, assuming it reduced recidivism, is cheaper than paying to keep locking the prisoner up.
It might be objected that the problem should be addressed before people go to prison, that there should be education programs designed to assist people who are at risk for prison, but are also likely to be able to complete college and avoid prison.
In reply, I would say that I agree completely. It is better that a person never go to prison in the first place and education certainly seems to be a much better investment than prison. There are, of course, those who would disagree and argue that it is better to let people end up in prison than to spend public money on college education. Others could argue that while such plans might be good intentioned, they would not work—the money would be spent and the result would merely be educated criminals. These objections are worth considering, but I would still contend that spending on education to keep people out of prison is preferable to spending money to keep people in prison.