Editorial, Opinion

EDITORIAL: College degree programs for inmates will combat recidivism

If you’re one of the millions of people who has watched the prison-centric TV show “Orange is the New Black,” you might have a deeper understanding of what it means to be in prison, but you might also have a perception of prison inmates smuggling drugs, getting into fights and spending their time causing trouble, rather than preparing for a future outside bars.

This perception is, in one sense, accurate — inmates are rarely given an opportunity to spend their time in prison working toward a higher education degree. Degree programs in Massachusetts are available to a small number of prisoners at a time, such that only a lucky few are able to put their time incarcerated to good use.

But now, Boston University will be one of more than a dozen Massachusetts colleges making the chance to earn a college degree more accessible to Massachusetts inmates. A $250,000 grant is funding a partnership between the colleges and law enforcement agencies to offer college courses to the incarcerated.

It’s not known yet how many students the program will reach and educate. In determining which inmates are able to participate in this program, there’s room for discrimination reflecting greater systems of inequality. We must wonder how prisons will determine which inmates get this privilege.

If the program is accessible to all inmates in any given prison, though, this initiative could transform the prison system and combat recidivism.

Though Massachusetts’ incarceration rate is the second lowest in the United States, our extremely high recidivism rate bridges that gap. Two-thirds of people leaving Massachusetts jails and half leaving state prisons end up returning to the criminal system within three years.

When people leave prison, they’re thrown into the deep end with no sense of direction and often no sense of confidence in their ability to compete against the rest of the workforce — those with job experience and college degrees. For those who are incarcerated for years on end, prison can become something of a safe haven, and a college degree can be the sword and shield an inmate needs to face the outside world with confidence.

Even when prisons give inmates work skills through work programs, a diploma gives inmates equal standing with the rest of the workforce in a way that practical skills cannot. Many employers will not hire those with felonies on their records, and thus, ex-convicts who cannot find jobs often relapse back to the lifestyle that resulted in their initial imprisonment.

Prisons historically invest in vocational training to help prisoners get back on their feet, but job options are limited these days with vocational training. A college education is becoming necessary to get middle-class jobs.

We can appreciate that colleges are stepping in to help education in prison evolve to match the demands of the workforce, but it’s disappointing that it’s taken this long. Vocational training has been going out out of style for years. People who have only been given access to labor programs have been set up for failure going back into the real world.

Some Boston Globe readers have responded to this program with outrage, due to the fact that prisoners are being given a free education, especially from a school like BU where a degree can cost over $200,000.

BU has had an inmate education program since 1972, but the program expects students to find a way to pay for their degree. Financial aid is limited to those who take a full load of courses.

This excludes a large portion of the population with work obligations, family obligations or a lack of financial resources.

A high rate of recidivism is detrimental to our state, and we all benefit from reducing it with free education. Massachusetts spends over a billion dollars a year incarcerating prisoners who have been in prison before, a huge amount of money that can be saved if we simply invest in education.

But even if we didn’t all benefit from reducing recidivism, expecting prisoners to be able to pay for their education while incarcerated simply doesn’t make sense. Convicted felons are already at such a disadvantage in finding a job — being one-half to one-third less likely to be hired than those with identical resumes — that they need all the help they can get.

Mass incarceration is a cycle, and the only way to break it is by giving prisoners an alternative. In the absence of that alternative, in many cases, they’ll have no option but to go back to what they know. The state has a responsibility to educate prisoners in subjects that are in demand in the real world so they can leave and not wind right back where they started.

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