11/24/2014 02:08 pm ET Updated Jan 22, 2015

America's Prisons: A Road to Nowhere

By Ben Notterman

Video of Henry McCollum's release shows the exonerated death row inmate making his way through a crowd of excited onlookers and into his family's car, where he could not figure out how to fasten his seatbelt. In his defense, many states did not begin mandating the use of seatbelts until well into the 1990s, by which time McCollum had already spent a decade in prison. Like most of the 650,000 inmates released from prison each year, McCollum brings no vocational skills or educational background into a world that must appear to him a strange and distant future, thrust on an unsuspecting present. From this perspective, the severity of punishment is never greater than at the time of release.

Finding employment and independence after leaving prison is extremely difficult; without a decent education, it is virtually impossible. Access to academic and occupational programming in American prisons has declined significantly over the past twenty years, while overall spending on corrections has exploded along with the country's prison population. Inmates are twice as likely to lack a high school education as the rest of us. Meanwhile, job skills are more quickly rendered obsolete by accelerating technological development, and education level is more determinative of income than ever before. As a result, a sentence of, say, three years - the average doled out for drug possession - probably does more to undermine one's employability than it would have in past decades, particularly as most prisons forbid access to computers and other staples of modern communication. Unable to secure income or sense of purpose, over 65% of inmates re-offend within three years, all but guaranteeing that our prison population remains many times larger than that of other nations of world. The financial impact has been immense. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, incarceration cost the public $75 billion in 2008.

Congress could take a major step toward reducing recidivism--and therefor mass incarceration--by once again allowing inmates to receive Pell Grants, the federal government's need-based financial assistance program for post-secondary education. Inmates were made ineligible for Pell Grants in 1994 at the height of "tough-on-crime" politics, by a relatively obscure provision of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. As most inmates quickly became unable to pay tuition fees, many of the college-level programs available to them disintegrated. Terminating inmate eligibility immediately reduced participation in correctional education programs by nearly one half.

In the years since inmates became ineligible for Pell Grants, empirical evidence has consistently shown that educational programming in prisons yields lower recidivism and greater employment rates after release. An impressive 2014 meta-analysis by the RAND Corporation concluded that inmates who participated in academic and vocational programs exhibited a 43% decrease in recidivism, were more likely to find jobs, and scored higher on verbal and mathematic proficiency tests. Observations of correctional facilities abroad also indicate the systemic impact of educating the incarcerated. European prisons, which generally strive for rehabilitation rather than retribution, invest more heavily in inmate education, leading predictably to far lower rates of recidivism.

For the purposes of gaining political traction, the RAND study's most striking finding was that every one dollar spent on prison education saves five dollars in corrections expenditures. While not everyone appears moved by the social consequences of mass incarceration , which are absorbed almost entirely by communities with no political clout, the economic effect of housing a full quarter of the world's prison population is clearly borne by us all. State and local governments have struggled to contain burgeoning corrections budgets in the face of waning liquidity. Cutting in half the incarceration rate for non-violent offenders would save the public an estimated $16.9 billion per year. Investing in inmates is not merely an ideological imperative; it is also sound fiscal policy.

Meanwhile, the arguments against extending Pell Grants to inmates are unconvincing. The claim that funding for inmates substantially compromises funding for law-abiding citizens was debunked by a 1994 report of Government Accountability Office, which found that "grants to inmates do not affect the eligibility or size of grants to other students." Others may argue that educating inmates is an insult to the victims of their crimes, and perhaps there are cases where that would be true. But, in a nation where the majority of inmates are serving time for drug crimes, the most common victims appear to be inmates' own families, who certainly do not benefit from their loved one's prolonged unemployment, and who suffer from disproportionately high levels of poverty. One compromise would make Pell Grants available to only certain classes of offenders, or simply require that inmates serve a certain number of years before applying for funding.

Inmate education seems like a controversial issue. Cast in economic rather than moral terms, however, there is plenty of common ground. The question is not whether inmates "deserve" to learn like the rest of us, but whether we all benefit if they do. According to every available measure, the answer is yes.

This article first appeared at

Ben Notterman holds a JD from NYU School of Law and a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology from Cornell University. He has examined the economic effects of incarceration as a clinic student with NYU's Brennan Center for Justice, in support of the Center's program to reduce mass incarceration. He currently works for the global law firm Jones Day in New York, where his bar admission is pending. His professional interests include criminal justice, labor law, and intellectual property.

The views set forth herein are the personal views of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the law firm with which he is associated.