Signs of the Times - Higher Ed in Prison - the Utilitarian View
November 2003
Criminal Justice: Higher Ed in Prison - the Utilitarian View
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If you were offered a guaranteed 1,000% annual return on an investment, you would certainly be wary. But, once you understood that it was real and well-founded, you'd take it, wouldn't you?

But look at that 'investment' from the other side. Suppose you were told that your tax money was going to be used to provide government-funded perks for convicted felons? You'd be outraged, would you not? 'Let me spend my money on my family's needs; don't tax me in order to subsidize a pack of undeserving miscreants.'

Less Education = More Crime

The simple fact is, the less educated a person, the more likely to become a convict. Here's what the educational attainment level of prisoners looks like, nationwide:

 Grade Completed

 Felons %

  General Population %
 8th grade or less



 Some high school





Included below

 High School grad



 Postsecondary/some college



 College graduate or more



That is, in the year 2000, while over 50% of the U.S. population (over the age of 23) had at least some college, only 11% of those in prison do. And while only 16% of the general population has less than a high school education, 40% of those in prison are in this category.

As the little chart shows, 'further education' for about 60% of those in prison will be higher education.

Although exact figures are hard to pin down, it costs somewhere above $20,000 a year to incarcerate a felon in the state of Virginia. And it costs around $2,500 a year to provide higher education to that person (community college, degree track) while he or she is in prison. For each person, then, who does not return because they were provided education while in prison, society gets a $20,000-a-year saving. The educational investment is made for a just a couple of years, while the return will be seen for as many years as the ex-felon might have been imprisoned.

In fact, since the average felon is arrested 18 times in the course of a lifetime of crime, the potential saving is staggering. Not just savings in actual incarceration, but a lowering of all the considerable costs of the criminal justice system.

We have had a stunning long-term increase in the number of felons imprisoned in Virginia: In the past twenty years, while the population of the state increased by 33%, the prison population went from 8,600 to over 29,000. The present annual state expenditure on prisons is about $800,000,000.

A study of recidivism rates conducted by the Virginia Department of Correctional Education found that: "of those who had no educational program … while incarcerated, 49.1% were reincarcerated in the Virginia Department of Corrections [within three years]; of those who enrolled in an academic program … but did not complete it, 38.2% were reincarcerated; and of those who completed an academic program, 19.1% were reincarcerated."

But it's moving in the wrong direction

In an authoritative report on the subject of education and criminality, the Soros' Institute maintains 'research shows that quality education is one of the most effective forms of crime prevention. Educational skills can help deter young people from committing criminal acts and can greatly decrease the likelihood that people will return to crime after release from prison. Despite this evidence, educational programs in correctional facilities, where they have proven to be extraordinarily effective, have in many cases been completely eliminated.'

Nationwide in 1991, 13.9% of the people in state facilities were enrolled in some form of higher education other than vocational. By 1997, this had dropped to 9.9%, and there's been a similar rate of decline in Federal prisons. We don't have specific numbers for the state of Virginia.

No one makes the case that providing education to prisoners increases the likelihood that they will re-offend. No, the reason more is not done is political: it has proven to be a successful strategy in Virginia (as elsewhere) to be seen as 'tough on crime.' And tough on criminals. George Allen, in his successful bid to become governor of the Commonwealth ten years ago, promised to do away with parole, and largely did.

This on the theory that incarceration is punishment. Back in the second Reagan administration, Attorney General Edwin Meese spoke of the 'substantially discredited theory of rehabilitation.' And in 1989 the Supreme Court upheld federal sentencing guidelines that removed rehabilitation from serious consideration.

The cutting-edge of penal philosophy two hundred years ago was to foster repentance, through soul-searching. The Quakers built the first 'penitentiary' near Philadelphia. It operated on a system of severe discipline, to encourage penitence.

"No prisoner is seen by another after he enters the wall. When the years of confinement have passed, his old associates in crime will be scattered over the earth, or in the grave and the prisoner can go forth into a new and industrious life, where his previous misdeeds are unknown." - Eastern State Penitentiary

There continue to be cycles in the public view of just what we ought to do with offenders (and, for that matter, what constitutes a felony).

James McGuire of Liverpool University, a leading expert on the effects of prison policy, has been raising doubts about the benefit of tougher sentencing on the person imprisoned. He finds little or no impact of sentence length on rehabilitation or recidivism - comparable persons sentenced for comparable offenses serving two years are as likely to never offend again as those serving ten year sentences--incurring eight years less cost to society. Education while in prison is not a factor in this analysis.

And throw away the key

The contrary view is that if he's inside, he's not outside. That is, released after two years or after 10, the felon will be back in the system about 60 percent of the time, and back in prison 40 percent of the time. Tougher sentences keep the potential re-offenders off the streets longer, thereby reducing crime.

And there are those who feel that education, for many--especially white-collar--criminals will just make them more effective criminals. A recent anti-education review of the subject offers this rationale: "It is also the case that victims' rights groups view the education of prisoners as rewarding unacceptable behavior and that helping prisoners is a form of ignoring the victims. Education … does not provide the promise of a crime-free life for the educated. Given the expense of higher education, at a time when financial resources for all vital services are spread so thin, security, not education should be the focal point of correctional spending."


Where higher education is offered, as at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women in Troy, 10 miles east of Charlottesville, the prisoner can pay for it herself--but few have the means. There is some money available for education costs through the U.S. Department of Education Youth Offenders Grants:

 The "Workplace and Community Transition Training
for Incarcerated Youth Offenders" Grant

The Virginia Department of Correctional Education is a recipient of a "Workplace and Community Transition Training for Incarcerated Youth Offenders" grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Correctional Education. This grant enables us to pay for tuition, textbooks and educational supplies for eligible inmates. To be eligible for these funds, inmates must meet the following eligibility criteria:

- GED or High School Diploma
- Age 25 or younger
- Within 5 years of release
- Accepted into the Community College
- No infractions for 90 days prior to enrollment. (DCE Website)

In the last year for which there are complete figures, 2001/02, there were 496 Virginia prisoners getting assistance from the Youthful Offenders Grants program; The state received $331,000, or about $667 per inmate, which funded Community-College sponsored academic and vocational courses. (Last year, the grant was 'enhanced' to $404,000, but because of tuition and other cost increases, it bought about the same amount of education.)

Female felons too old to qualify--over 25--can apply for Kates Foundation Scholarships. Elizabeth Kates was the warden of VCCW in Goochland. A bequest at her death started the foundation, which has paid for college correspondence courses as well as providing assistance in GED programs and purchasing academic materials and supplies.

Pell Grants provide federal money for higher education to poor people. Felons were as eligible as anyone else, until the 'tough-on-crime' congresses of Newt Gingrich. At the time (1994), grants to felons amounted to less than one percent of the Pell Grants given; even so, the politically expedient thing was done, and felons were removed from the category of eligible persons.

And felons can apply for government-backed student loans, but may not receive them while incarcerated.

Prisoners as People

Connie Jorgensen is known in the Charlottesville area as the Legislative Aide and maid-of-all-work to (beloved) Del. Mitch Van Yahres. Less well known is her ongoing commitment to teaching--she regularly teaches a course in government at Piedmont-Virginia Community College, and has taught the course at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women as well.

How was that experience? "Fabulous, Great, Wonderful." She found the women who opted to take the course ("it was at 8:00am, and it was me or English") "bright, engaged, … not shy." Connie says that one challenge to teaching the course was the lack of context--these women live a cloistered life and lack a feeling of direct connection to outside events.

Many of her students were "smart people who did stupid things…. [these courses] increase the likelihood that these women will become self-realized, socially productive people. And teaching American Government to prisoners offered an interesting perspective--after all, these are people who are interacting with the government on a daily basis."

Elizabeth Haysom is imprisoned at FCCW. This website recently published an intensely personal and moving article by Ms Haysom, about the benefits of education to the person receiving them. "... in spite of everything, there are more people in prison than you realize who really would like to do something meaningful and purposeful--good--with their lives. They just need the tools and opportunities. Give them an education and you'll have rescued a whole group of people who will not only not come back to prison, they will contribute to the success of the economy and the community."

She shows us that prisoners are after all us, not them. (Dave Sagarin, November 26, 2003)

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