I “opened up” the on-line version of the Burlington Free Press this morning to see an article about the huge disparity between what Vermont is spending on higher education versus “corrections”. It turns out far more of Vermonters’ tax dollars are going towards supporting incarceration than higher education. If individuals who committed crimes actually had the opportunity to recover and become productive members of society through the tax dollars spent on corrections, this use of public funds would not be so frustrating to me. There have been some very innovative and successful educational initiatives in prisons that have allowed individuals who have committed a crime, but are no longer a danger to society, to re-enter their communities successfully after incarceration. An article in Education Update from May 2005 entitled “Prison College Programs Unlock the Keys to Human Potential” explains the successes of some of the educational programs in America’s prisons. It also explains the cost efficiency of education relative to incarceration and how America is moving away from the rehabilitation model to a justice system that focusing on retaliation and “getting even” with criminals.
Statistics have indicated that the cost of keeping a prisoner in prison for one year exceeds the cost of educating prisoners for one year by a 10 to 1 ratio. Despite the obvious advantages, the movements away from prison reforms that educate and rehabilitate have been cut severely in the past ten years. The concept of prison reform has been replaced by policies that are punitive and in favor of permanent incarceration.
Here is another example that supports that wonderful quotation, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance”. Why is our prison population exploding? What is this relationship between the rising cost of the “corrections’ system and the inaccessibility of higher education to low and middle income citizens?
Let’s look at a possible scenario of a 22-year old from a low-income family who graduated from high school, but could not afford to go to college. What are the career possibilities for a young adult with no college education in Vermont? Many of the blue-collar jobs that were available 50 or even 15 years ago have moved overseas because of the cost of labor in America compared to China, Honduras, Sri Lanka, or other nations where the cost of living is considerably lower and the labor laws are considerably less rigid. So, what jobs are left for those individuals without a college degree. There are seasonal jobs based on the tourist industry or retail positions, which have a very low wage scale and usually no health benefits. So, here is this 22-year old, a member of Vermont’s “next generation” who is working multiple jobs to try to become independent, but still can’t make ends meet. Along comes an opportunity for a chance to get some “real” money through stealing or selling drugs. This life of crime might actually mean that they could have a “livable wage”. If they end up in prison, at least they will have health insurance. So, who can blame this young adult who was unable to pursue higher education or find a job as a skilled laborer for turning to crime. Compared to the life of a minimum wage worker, prison might actually not seem like a bad option. Perhaps this is why the following alarming set of statistics that I found on the Real Cost of Prisons Project website is the brutal reality of America today.By the end of 2001, one in every 37 adults in the U.S. has either done time in a prison or were incarcerated in a state or federal prison. If current incarceration rates hold, 6% of all Americans, 11% of all men, 17% of Hispanic men and 32% of all African American men born in 2001 are likely to end up in prison at some point in their lifetime.
So, how do we end this trend of escalating prison populations and “corrections” costs? Education, education, education. First, higher education needs to be affordable all of those who are qualified and interested. Second, there needs to be more opportunity for skilled labor for those who prefer not to pursue higher education. These are preventative measures. If they do not work and an individual winds up incarcerated, unless they are a real danger to society, there needs to be a model of restorative justice that offers those who are incarcerated training and/or education so that when they do re-enter a community, they are able to be successful.