Author Victor Hugo famously said, “He who opens a school door closes a prison.” Modern research has proved just how right he was.
Research shows that people who receive education in prison reduce their chances of committing new crimes by 43 percent once they get out. How tragic, then, that many states actively block people in prison from bettering themselves through education beyond a high school diploma.
Now, a new study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, with support from Lumina Foundation, highlights a variety of barriers to education that appear in state law and the rules and regulations of departments of corrections. Few states are spared in the report. As many as 25 states bar people who are incarcerated from educational opportunities because of the length of sentence they’re serving. Twelve states restrict educational opportunities because of the type of crime people were convicted of. Over all, just 10 states allow access to all educational opportunities in their correctional facilities.
What’s more, the barriers aren’t eliminated when people leave prison. Half of all public universities in the United States require applicants to disclose their criminal history when they apply. And more than a third of states limit access to state-based financial aid for people in the community who have any kind of criminal record or who have been convicted of certain kinds of crimes, such as those related to drugs or alcohol.
The reality is grim: when it comes to accessing education, a person who has served time in prison often finds that release is not the same as freedom.
Barriers to education also hinder work and economic mobility. People who participate in prison education programs are 13 percent more likely to gain employment after release than those who do not. Education can thus help people overcome what are otherwise bleak odds: the unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated people is more than 27 percent -- higher than the U.S. unemployment rate during the Great Depression. In all, the United States loses approximately $78 to $87 billion in annual GDP because of the unemployment or underemployment of people with criminal records.
This is despite the fact that American employers have an acute need for talent. Our current national unemployment rate is near historic lows, and employers in many sectors, such as technology and health care, report significant challenges finding skilled labor. Over the next decade, this gap is likely to grow, with approximately five million projected job openings that will require applicants to have specific occupational licenses and/or at least a bachelor’s degree. Ensuring that people in prison can access postsecondary education is not only smart public safety policy; it will help states thrive economically in the years to come.
In Hugo’s famous novel Les Misérables, a man is paroled and forced to live under harsh conditions, marked as a former prisoner on his official state identification. Cast out with few options and no support, he turns back to crime.
In an example of life imitating art, America’s experiment in penal harshness has had similarly self-defeating results. And the people who are suffering aren’t just the ones with criminal records who are denied opportunities. They are also community members who are victimized by new crimes, employers who are unable to find qualified workers to fill open jobs and taxpayers who pay the high costs of maintaining large state prison systems.
Right now, every state could be doing significantly more to create pathways to success for people who have criminal records. Much of this work could be accomplished through simple rule changes in a variety of institutions. Corrections systems should re-examine their restrictions. Other state agencies must coordinate to spend the federal money they have to provide more educational opportunities. And public universities should dismantle their disclosure requirements and other barriers and truly embrace the idea of a second chance.
By opening more doorways to education, we may ultimately have less crime, fewer victims and less need for prisons.