U.S. Prisoners Deserve College Educations - and the Right to Vote

During the Democratic debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in Milwaukee, Bernie Sanders made a bold pledge about criminal justice reform in America.

Critics quickly claimed that his pledge was pie-in-the-sky, especially because so many inmates are state inmates, not federal inmates.

But an important part of Bernie's plan is the idea that prisoners deserve access to education and job training if we expect them to re-integrate into society after they've served their sentences.

And a new op-ed from the New York Times Editorial Board shows how Bernie's goal is completely attainable, if we fundamentally shift our views of prisoners in America.

Right now, more than three-quarters of prisoners who get released end up back in jail within 5 years, and more than half of those prisoners who are sent back to jail are actually sent back during the first year after their release!.

The rate of non-violent offenders in state and federal prisons has been climbing ever since Nixon declared his "War on Drugs", but it wasn't until the 1994 crime that the prison population in America really exploded.

For the past decade, federal and state lawmakers have been working to roll back some of the minimum sentencing laws and "three strike" laws that filled our state and federal prisons with non-violent offenders.

They're working to get drug offenders into treatment instead of jail, and they're working to change our parole system so that parolees don't get sent back just on technicalities.

But as many studies show, the best and most cost effective way to decrease the prison population and reduce recidivism is to get prisoners the education and job training they need to enter the workforce once they're released.

A report from the New York State Bar Association points out that an associate's or a bachelor's degree is needed for approximately 21% - ONE-FIFTH! - of the available jobs in the United States in any given year.

And another 40% of jobs require applicants to have the equivalent of a high school diploma.

In contrast, back in 2003 when the Department of Justice released a Special Report on Education and Correctional Populations, 68% of state prison inmates didn't have a high school diploma, and only 12.7% of all inmates had any college education.

That's the problem, but is there any proof that educating inmates and preparing them for the job market actually works to reduce the recidivism rate?.

Turns out there is, and it saves money.

According to the New York Times "A prison education program created by Bard College in 2001 boasts a remarkable recidivism rate of 4 percent for inmates who merely participated in the program and 2.5 percent for those who earned degrees in prison."

Fiscal conservatives should love the idea of providing free access to education and job training to inmates, because research has shown that "The public saves 4 to 5 dollars in re-imprisonment costs for every 1 dollar it spends on prison education.".

But it's not just about cost savings, we need to make sure that society stops seeing people who come out of jail as "former inmates", we need to start seeing them as "returning citizens".

In Michael Moore's newest film "Where To Invade Next", the filmmaker visits the prisons in Norway, and what he finds is positively shocking.

Norway relies on a concept called "restorative justice", and it strives to maintain as much "normalcy" as possible for inmates, to help prepare them for a life once they're out.

In fact, the first principle of "normality" in Norway is that "The punishment is the restriction of liberty; no other rights have been removed by the sentencing court. Therefore the sentenced offender has all the same rights as all other who live in Norway.".

So politicians in Norway make campaign stops to prisons, because the prisoners can still vote except in exceptional cases.

Prisoners in Norway have access to health care, including mental and behavioral health care, and they have access to job training and higher education.

If the U.S. is to stop being the worst in the world when it comes to in incarceration rates, we need to start thinking and talking in terms of "restorative justice".

That means that we need to make sure that everyone, including prisoners, has access to college and high school educations.

But we also need to "ban the box", that “have you ever been arrested” check-box that creates an near-impossible barrier for returning citizens to overcome both when applying to college and for jobs.

And we need to not just let our prisoners vote, but encourage them to participate in politics, so that they actually have a stake in our democracy, and so that they can more easily re-enter society as "returning citizens" instead of "former inmates".


Ou812's picture
Ou812 7 years 5 weeks ago

What an idea! Instead of working hard in high school to earn a scholarship, go rob someone. Not only will you receive a free College education, but you'll have spending money from the robbery.

dtodd560's picture
dtodd560 7 years 5 weeks ago

In regards to the above comment, yes, that would be a danger. The college education offer would only be viable if college was free for all OUTSIDE of prison as well.

UNC Tarheels's picture
UNC Tarheels 7 years 5 weeks ago

No I disagree with free college tuition for felons! I have never broken the law my entire life I have worked a bevy of dead end low paying jobs since I was 15 I am 47 now and am unable to stand on my feet for long periods of time due to my diabetes. I would like the opportunity to attend college but I can't afford it. I can't ask my parents for help because they are deceased. With regards to voting states should make it easier for felons to vote.

UNC Tarheels's picture
UNC Tarheels 7 years 5 weeks ago


I don't know about you but I would not want convicted rapists and sexual predators attending classes with my daughters. They should be barred from attending college. Build a college for male sex offenders staffed with an all male faculty.

Mark J. Saulys's picture
Mark J. Saulys 7 years 5 weeks ago

Ou812, typically facile, if on point. If Bernie succeeds in making college free for everyone and makes employment with a living wage a basic right that will take away the "middle class resentment" people feel about convicts getting free education while they have to work hard for it. Anyway, prisoners are often MADE to work hard in prisons on road gangs and liscence plate manufacturing shops, etc..
Just have to make your solution TRULY just.

Kend's picture
Kend 7 years 5 weeks ago

UNC rob a bank. Either you have the money for your education or you get caught and you not only get educated your meds are free in jail as well.. What happen to America Sneak into the country illegally and work Without paying taxes and you get citizenship, break the law and you get free collage. Are you guys losing your minds

Queenbeethatsme's picture
Queenbeethatsme 7 years 5 weeks ago

This is an article written by well intentioned yet clueless people. I put it right up there with the Obamacare which meant to supply affordable health care to all but ended up costing many any chance at actual real care and they are now the new fringed uninsured.

I am speaking about my own family. Before Obama care we had a bill of 4300.00 annually for insurance through an employer with a 2300.00 deductible and an 80/20 cost sharing. After Obama we are now paying 10,300.00 per year and have a 7500.00 deductible.

We prefer to not pay out 7500.00 first before our insurance will help out in any way so we don't go to the doctor. On top of this, we pay 2300.00 as some sort of additional tax to "help out Obamacare" this is not a voluntary payment it is part of our tax scheme.

The fact is you cannot have a socialist medicine ideal and a for profit enterprise because you cannot cap either charges, or salaries or incentives to bilk the public--instead you just turned over the purse strings to the Healthcare industry. NO wonder so many are building mega campuses and pushing unnecessary care and surgeries--a free for all.

In this present article, what many well many people fail to realize is the state of the prisons no matter what access to education there is.

Men and women are so institutionalized that they tend to engage deliberately in behavior that will send them back to the life they have come to know and understand.

It is like an abused child seeking similar treatment because it is familiar. I happen to work with and know many people who have been incarcerated and have observed that a great many view prison as their second home. Many even want to return not because they like the life there, but because they have learned to navigate that better than life on the outside.

When a person has become inculcated or inured to a certain circumstance, then NO INCENTIVE any well meaning person can come up with will change that mindset.

I recently worked with a young man who wants to return to prison. He felt "safer" there. Not physically, but in the fact that as a person who did find gainful employment and was being helped, he had trouble interacting with or even understanding civilian behavior in the work place. He had learned so many "tells" and manipulation techniques in his 20+ years as a criminal, that when confronted with only being a regular, law abiding citizen--he sucked at it.

Not only did he suck at it, he felt the average person was stupid and weak and beneath him and he seemed to believe the ability to manipulate, coerce and intimidate should be the norm--after all, he was good at it in prison.

He began to talk about returning and also contemplated doing certain acts just to be sent back--he said he was "okay" with a return to the institution. There is more to the revolving door than a lack of education or degree..as any prison population can show, many of those who are in prison of all races, already have degrees.

This is far deeper than platitudes and bandaids but because bleeding hearts always just want to pat heads and wear a fake halo, they never dig deeper than what they want to feel good about, in this case, college degrees for felons means nothing if people don't want to hire them or are afraid of them or do not trust them ... it is just another drain from the harebrained peeps who gave us Obamacare without Obamaknowledge.

Queenbeethatsme's picture
Queenbeethatsme 7 years 5 weeks ago

Several things: nothing is free. Health care is not free.. someone has to pay and pay a LOT and a lot of others make a lot of money from others paying.

Schooling is not free. Someone has to pay and pay a lot. I used to live in Europe and my husband is from Europe. Secondary education and college is free to a large extent BUT it is also heavily regulated with most kids locked into a major and trajectory that they can neither change or improve on if they are to get it free.

This "choice" is normally made during middle school (by the 8th grade) and they are locked into this choice by the 9th and must only pursue coursework for the track they are locked into.

Any deviation UP to another level would be at their own expense and they would lose their slot at a different school. For instance, if a person only tests to vocational level, they have to take a course for a trade school. But maybe they wish to get a college degree? Not on the public dime. They MUST go to trade school. But what if they proved to be so smart that they really should get another shot at a university track? NO. They can learn to work on cars.. or computers.. or make beds, or wherever they fit in, they are locked in--also the costs schools can charge are locked in and the salaries people at these institutions can make is capped and locked in.

All controlled when it is socialist. As for insurance schemes, health care costs are regimented and capped so there is no incentive for drs or nurses or specialists to lie or talk patients into unnecessary treatments, which goes on a lot over here in the states. But back to school...

In other words, the wrong focus or test scores, may actually allow them to only apply to trade schools and forces them to either choose through a few trades or none. For this pleasure, the public who can afford it are taxed up to 80% of their gross. This is the case in Holland.

Americans can flirt with socialism in all of its guises because most are clueless idealogues. Socialism can be a boon to a society BUT it CANNOT be practiced along side capitalism because where profit is the impetus, the welfare of all cannot be the goal or the focus.

As for ex cons, there are a lot of factors that have nothing to do with education and which cannot be controlled such as once degreed, proving the reason the felon did not get the job was due to him being a felon, but really--who wants to work alongside , with or for most felons?

Queenbeethatsme's picture
Queenbeethatsme 7 years 5 weeks ago

Seriously? And HOW pray tell, would Bernie succeed in changing the laws of the land? He running for all of Congress as well as the Presidency?

Come to think of it, is he running also for the SCOTUS? Because, as President he would have NO SAY or means to coerce any state to change how the present system is run.

Bernie says a lot of feel good things but even a 4th grader with basic civics information would recognize Bernie is whistling out of the side of his neck with remarks about "free education for all"

He cannot enforce it or even bring it up on the Congressional floor and if he did, it would be shot down as a challenge to states sovereignty and states' rights.

So many obstacles, the majority being that no one wants to pay 70 to 80% of their income so that children who are not their own can go to school and certainly will not pay for felons to be able to do so.

Bernie is a feel good politician with a lot of great ideas--a chicken in every pot, and in his case, a microwave, stove and new kitchen also--but it is not deliverable, NOT if we are to continue to have the Congress actually write the laws and not the President and NOT if we still plan to abide by the Constitution but maybe.. if we overthrow and fight each state and make the Federal rules the laws of the land and every Congress man go along with it..

Wait a minute.. all of Congress going along with such a plan.. and abdicating states' rights.. NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN.

With all due respect, anyone who wants to vote for a Presidential candidate should first be tested on understanding not only their job but the LIMITATIONS of that job so that no matter what the candidate says, they know when smoke is being blown up their whazoo.

Hephaestus's picture
Hephaestus 7 years 5 weeks ago

Bernie needs all the help and support he can get

America is not some kind of utopia

Shame! Despite the highest ranking 5th at nominal GDP... the 2nd largest economy in the World ranked by GDP

America has the poorest rate of health care takeup in the western world ranked 15th ... education comes in around 28th

The highest incarceration rates

The highest murder rates

Suicide the 10th leading cause of death

Amongst the highest cardiovascular disease rate

+40% population obesity rate

I won't go into items like public indoctrination, media propaganda, paranoia, journalistic integrity, fascism, corporate lobbying. political malfaesance, bent politics, rigged politics

This all from a country that preaches to the World and leads in war... and, nothing more!


Kend's picture
Kend 7 years 5 weeks ago

Queen bee pretty much said it all. Queen bee for president.

Mark J. Saulys's picture
Mark J. Saulys 7 years 5 weeks ago

Queen, nobody is unaware of what you said but we know our system needs a major overhaul and the longer it's delayed, the more it's gonna need. Sure, Bernie's gonna need congressional and a lot of different support, that's what the "political revolution" is about but it can't hurt to have a president who is down with it. Even if he doesn't win he's already succeeded in effecting a good public information and rallying campaign instructing the public and giving voice to their concerns.
Whatever you want to say about socialized healthcare, any problems you might be able to mention, it's still superior to what we have now.
In the United States, before Ronald Reagan, all hospitals were required to be not for profit institutions. As long as that was the case the situation was somewhat tolerable but after it changed it just became unacceptable.
Of course we know it isn't free but if you listen to Bernie you'd know it's even less free now.
Free higher education is not without precedent even in the United States. California had such a system - until Ronald Reagan - and their system had some very competitive schools. Furthermore, nobody is suggesting private schools be banned.
Gotta have faith and courage, "Yes we can!"

Mark J. Saulys's picture
Mark J. Saulys 7 years 4 weeks ago

Prisoners have rights also so they deserve a voice. In the United States they've become quite a large demographic and could sway an election.

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