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From Shackles to School: Should Prisoners Have Access to Education?

By Meghan Keates

I’m a huge fan of TED Talks, and the other day I watched one in particular that left me thinking. In an emotionally charged speech entitled “How we’re priming some kids for college – and others for prison,” urban sociologist Alice Goffman states that there are two major institutions in the U.S. which guide today’s youth on the path to adulthood: college and prison.  

As she explains, the contrast between the two couldn’t be starker. “Young people on this journey are meeting with probation officers instead of with teachers, they’re going to court dates instead of to class; their junior year abroad is instead a trip to the state correctional facility.” It is a disturbing reality for too many of today’s young adults, who find themselves in prison – in many cases, for minor offenses – and are eventually released back into society lacking in both skills and education.

These are the facts: at this moment, there are over 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States.  On average, it costs the government over $30,000 per year just to house a single inmate.  At the same time, the majority of states annually spend less than $10,000 per student on K-12 public education.  Two-thirds of prisoners are rearrested within three years of release.  And even though integrating education into a prisoner’s sentencing has been proven to drastically reduce recidivism rates and increase the likelihood of meaningful employment upon release, Pell Grants have become nearly impossible for inmates to obtain due to the damage of the Tough on Crime era.

The Path to Mass Incarceration

On June 19th, 1986, Len Bias, a first-team All-American college basketball forward at the University of Maryland, died of a cocaine overdose. This tragic event caught the media’s attention and quickly became politicized during the midterm elections. Seeing an opportunity to recover from their soft-on-crime reputation, Democrats introduced a bill which pushed for mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. This bill became a catalyst for the Tough on Crime era.

The Tough on Crime movement caught steam when Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. This law increased funding for new prisons and created mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders. The majority of mandatory minimum laws only apply to drug-related crimes, leading to inflexible sentencing and a drastic increase in state and federal prison populations.

The Clinton administration’s signing of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 led to the devastating loss of Pell Grants for prisoners and overly harsh punishment for nonviolent offenders, meaning that more people were given prison sentences, and less were being educated. The Department of Corrections shifted it focuses on punishment.

More and more funds were taken away from educational opportunities and instead were being allocated to building in-demand prisons, pushing drug-related crime laws, and more. By