Do prison education programs help inmates to rehabilitate? | opinion

When Brandi first entered prison, she had no voice. She explained that she was “so full of pain and shame and so devastated” that she didn’t want people to see or hear her. With the encouragement of a fellow prisoner, she signs up for a psychology class. Then another category and another. “I slowly got my voice back,” said Brandi, who found confidence and self-esteem through her success in her classes.

Brandi is one of more than 220 incarcerated students, both men and women, who participate in the Salt Lake Community College prison education program offered at the Utah State Corrections Facility. That equates to 10% of the prison population, and about 300 students are expected to enroll this fall.

The self-transformation that results in providing access to education for inmates can have specific ripple effects across society. From an economic and practical point of view, inmates who have gained professional or educational opportunities in prison are less likely to return and be better able to enter the labor market with skills and qualifications. In Utah’s tight labor market, more workers are needed.

A 2013 study by the Rand Corporation found that the odds of recidivism were 48% lower for people who participated in post-secondary education programs in prison. Through education, we try to provide hope that life abroad is not a dead end, but potentially a new path forward.

Most of the imprisoned students use Pell grants to pay for tuition, and this ultimately saves the community money. According to advocacy group The Vera Institute of Justice, every dollar invested in prison education yields $4 to $5 in taxpayer savings in reduced prison costs.

With funding from the Utah State Legislature, SLCC began a pilot program in 2017 serving 40 students. Since then, it has grown to offer six associate degrees and certificates. Davis Tech also plays an integral role and has provided technical training to inmates since 2010.

Today, SLCC is the 10th largest prison educational program in the country, and 24 prison faculty maintain the same rigor in these classes as their classes on the SLCC campus.

This personal model provides an incubator for students to build community skills as they respectfully interact with their peers and teacher. One prisoner said, “These classes give a semblance of reality to be able to work as if I were there… It allows me to practice.” Another inmate, who had completed courses in anthropology, criminal justice, and American history, denounced his allegiance to white supremacy.

One of the ripple effects found in prisons with university programs is reduced incidents of violence, which creates a safer environment for staff and inmates. Students often have discussions outside of class and support each other with their homework. “The camaraderie is about forms of learning,” said Becky, an inmate with a college degree who has plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

More ripples. Providing access to education can end cycles of breakdown. When parents, incarcerated or not, complete college, their children are more likely to do so, disrupting the cycle of poverty and incarceration. This filled me with hope, as I watched 23 of our students graduate this month in a Utah prison.

For Brandy, finding her voice generated a lot of action. Another semester, and you’ll have a general education associate’s degree you’ll hopefully add to your straight line. She said, “When I get out of here, I will have a sense of accomplishment. And I certainly won’t be back.”

David Bukovoy, PhD, is the director of the Prison Education Program at SLCC. He has served as chaplain at Harvard University and is deeply committed to promoting interfaith dialogue and social justice. He has also been a member of several rock and blues bands.

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