An Absolutely great article! (Kurt MC)


By Kevin Henry & Elissa R.

Kevin and I first published this essay in pamphlet form in 1996. Unfortunately, little has changed in the last near-decade except the increase in the total number of prisoners in the U.S. (As education OUTSIDE of prison disintegrates as well, we can only foresee this number swelling even more in the future.) Kevin, luckily, is still able to attend university extension classes and will soon earn his B.A. We offer “The Cost of Incarceration” here in honor of his upcoming graduation–and because his argument still needs to be heard. [Elissa R.]

As costs of incarceration in the United States soar, politicians, the media, and vocal portions of the public have clamored for cutbacks. The penal system has responded accordingly, slashing programs considered to be “non-essential.” In the cost-cutting frenzy, recreational programs have been eliminated, and education for prisoners has been gutted. Although the immediate result is indeed reduced costs to taxpayers, the overall, long-term result is going to be the exact opposite.

A number of outspoken U.S. senators have publicly stated that they support prisoner education only up to a high school or G.E.D. level. The primary reason they cite is the need to cut budgets. As a result of this, the funding which allowed prisoners to receive Pell Grants was recently cut off with a very few minor exceptions–in spite of the fact that less than two percent of Pell Grants were going to prisoners in the first place. A recent Reader’s Digest article entitled “Must Our Prisons Be Resorts?” is a testament to the level of ignorance regarding the actual situation of today’s prisons; author Robert James Bidinotto argued in favor of sweeping budget cuts, as well as the theory that prisoners should be entitled to nothing but the bare essentials. Bidinotto left the impression that most prisons are country clubs, when in fact, most in this country are just giving the bare essentials. The author’s viewpoint was entirely one-sided, refusing to even examine opposing views.

Bidinotto and his fellow opponents of prisoner education are merely riding the growing wave of public sentiment that incarcerated individuals are in prison for punishment, and should not benefit from their time in prison. They feel that, in a time when even many young people outside are unable to obtain opportunities for a college education, prisoners should not be afforded that opportunity. Yet no one is suggesting that people outside deserve or should receive less opportunity. In fact, education is the primary key to preventing people from coming to prison in the first place.

According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, the average person entering the penal system currently has a ninth grade educational level. Many such people are being incarcerated for crimes that can be directly related to their status and economic situation. Often, their lack of education has kept them in low-paying jobs, and they have turned to crime simply in order to survive and to care for their families. While it is true that many of these people created their situation by dropping out of school, it is the public at large which pays the debt for that mistake. The crimes committed by these people create higher prices at the store, higher interest and insurance rates, great personal loss in the case of robbery or burglary, and the additional cost of incarcerating the perpetrator. Providing them with the educational opportunities necessary to raise themselves higher on the rungs of the job market may be pivotal to lowering all of the involved costs.

But the benefits of education go beyond the acquisition of marketable skills; the cultivation of self esteem is just as important to preventing or discouraging crime. Self esteem issues play a major role in the creation of an individual prone to criminal activity. A poor self image and feelings of worthlessness will often lead a person to act accordingly–sometimes referred to as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Lack of education directly contributes to this feeling of inadequacy. Men in our culture are raised with the ideal that a “real man” is able to financially support and care for his family. Inability to comply with this ideal will leave many males feeling less than adequate as men in our society, lowering their feelings of self-worth.

While obviously not the only factor to be considered, education can be a major player in the raising of self-esteem. As one learns and sees that one is able to set and reach goals, self-worth increases. As the sense of accomplishment grows, so does one’s opinion of one’s self. At some point along this path, the person begins to better understand the effects his or her earlier actions had upon the victims of his or her crimes. Empathy is key to understanding, understanding to remorse, and remorse to correction/rehabilitation.

Education and Recidivism

Recidivism is to blame for much of the current cost of incarceration. Anyone that watches the news is well aware of the great numbers of people who are released from prison, only to return to the system almost immediately, often for more serious crimes than those for which they were originally incarcerated. A study completed by the Lifers United for Penal Progress at the Indiana State Prison clearly illustrates the effect that education can have upon the recidivism rate.

Recidivism rates over a ten year period showed that there was a difference of over sixty percent recidivism between graduates of a vocational degree program and non-graduates. This rate is about the same for those earning an Associate’s Degree, while for those earning a Bachelor’s Degree, the figure jumps to seventy percent. In other words, some sixty percent fewer ex-offenders (70% fewer in the case of BA/BS earners) returned to the prison system within those ten years than those who had not been enrolled in the programs. This sixty percent plus reduction could easily save taxpayers millions of dollars each year. Yes, setting up educational programs could be costly at the outset…but in the long term, cost effective. With the budget cuts, however, vocational programs at Indiana and many other prisons were dropped.

Until several years ago, Indiana University operated a reduced-fee program that allowed men incarcerated to participate in a degree program that enabled them to earn either an Associate’s or a Bachelor’s degree in General Studies. Prisoners paid only five dollars per course in tuition, plus the cost of books and materials. In a state where the average prisoner is paid only $13.50 per month, this afforded them an opportunity to further their education.

In this era of budget cuts, however, the university was forced to sharply increase the cost to prisoners to $25 per credit hour, plus books and materials. With most courses being three to four credit hours, this immediately shot the cost of an average course to over one hundred dollars. While this is admittedly much lower than the student outside would pay, it is well beyond the reach of someone who depends on his thirteen dollars a month to purchase necessary hygiene items that the state does not provide.

Fortunately for Indiana’s incarcerated population, Ball State University and Grace College have established Associate and Bachelor’s Degree programs in the prisons with on-site classes. Funding for prisoners enrolled in these programs comes from Indiana Higher Education Award grants.

The Role of Recreation

A number of states have begun banning programs such as weightlifting and body building. Those supporting the bans claim that prisoners are succeeding in “bulking themselves up” and growing stronger, only to become harder to handle for the correction officers and then police once the inmates return to the streets. Supporters also cite the cost of the programs, both that of treating injuries incurred in sports activities while incarcerated and that of the equipment itself. This flame is easily fanned by the notion that prisoners do not deserve recreational facilities at all.

What is seldom mentioned, however, is that these recreational facilities are very often financially supported solely by the offenders themselves, or are even built by the offenders. In some states, such as Indiana, the recreational fund monies come from a number of sources: Some ten percent of all the profits from items sold in the prison commissary, which are marked up in price as much as twenty percent, go to the Recreation Fund. Moreover, all of the profits from the vending machines located within the prisons’ visiting rooms, at least part of the interest the institution receives on prisoner accounts, and as much as twenty-five percent of the money made by prisoner organizations all go into the Recreation Fund. Equipment is purchased with money from this fund, as are library materials. In a number of states, recreational facilities are not taxpayer-funded at all.

Supporters of inmate recreational programs, including many correction officers and prison wardens, recognize that programs such as weightlifting allow the prisoner a constructive channel through which to work out frustrations and vent excess energy. Our prisons are overcrowded to the point where the people within them trip over one another as they walk. Combine that with worsening conditions and the frustrations and aggravations of normal, day-to-day life within prison, and an environment that is already hostile by nature becomes a pressure cooker just waiting to explode. Remove the means through which inmates can vent these frustrations positively, and the already potentially explosive situation becomes even more dangerous.

Opponents of prison recreational programs cite the cost of treating recreational activity-related injuries in their fight to reduce spending, but this line of thinking is leading in reverse. The cost of providing health care to prisoners is admittedly already an extraordinarily large part of the states’ budgets going to prisons. However, reducing the amount of recreational opportunities to prisoners would only increase that health care cost.

Exercise is an essential element of good health and well being. It is necessary in assisting in the maintenance of weight, bone and muscle strength, proper organ and system function, and a healthy immune system. In an environment where nutritional needs are seldom met by the food served, exercise becomes doubly important. If the cost of treating illnesses etc. in prisons now is extreme, it does not take much of a stretch of the imagination to understand what the costs would be like otherwise.

The Costs of Depression

Depression is a fact of everyday life within the walls of prison. It is not something that comes and goes, but something that one lives with throughout one’s entire incarceration. Most inmates learn to deal with it and function with relatively few serious effects most of the time. The causes involve much more than simply losing one’s freedom. The daily frustration in dealing with the detached machinery that is the prison system, the courts, seeing family problems happen while the incarcerated individual can do little or nothing to help: these all play major roles in determining each day’s level of depression.

Psychologists have long understood the direct effects that exercise–and the lack of it–has upon depression. Exercise can be as crucial to maintaining proper mental health as it is to maintaining physical well-being. To reduce the few opportunities for recreational activities that prisoners have is to remove one of the most effective means of handling depression.

Prison psychosis is a term that refers to the mental and emotional problems that are brought on by long periods of incarceration. It is the process of mental deterioration which begins at the first moment of incarceration, and continues, growing in severity, dependent upon a number of factors. Prison life can be mundane and routine. Every man, woman, and child incarcerated suffers not only the loss of freedom, but privacy and free will. Prison life can become extremely violent without notice. Even when one is not directly involved in the violence, merely the repeated witnessing of the extreme violent acts that occur often in prison induces a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

An almost complete lack of self-determination and responsibility serves to further the onset of prison psychosis. Life within the prison is regulated by a strict schedule. The prisons have bells which tell the inmate when it is time to leave his or her cell to go to work, meals, or recreation. Another set of bells sends him or her back to the cell. Rent is charged only in the form of a piece of one’s soul each day. Medical and dental care is provided either free or at low cost. Productive activity is thus wholly disconnected from one’s obligation to meet basic bodily needs.

Instead of teaching personal responsibility, prisons govern inmates’ behavior through a system of strict rules and at times severe consequences for violating said rules. The loss of “good time” (days earned toward early release for “good behavior”…or rather, lack of bad behavior) is a constant threat, as is the possibility of being moved to a segregation unit. Some institutions have created “semi-segregation” units, where for even the suspicion of having violated some institutional rule the prisoner may not even be aware of, he or she may well be housed for months or even years.

Since prisons are meant to be institutions of rehabilitation, one might expect that they would provide some form of counseling, in order to show inmates what effects their crimes have had upon the victims. This would be especially crucial in cases involving crimes of violence committed against other people. The truth, however, is that only a very few prisons offer counseling of this type, and even fewer make participation in them mandatory. Often, the criminal goes through life never fully understanding the impact his or her actions may have had upon others.

1,000,000 Time Bombs?

All of these factors serve to deteriorate whatever sense of responsibility the convicted individual may have had upon entering the system. Combine this with the boredom created when the prisoner sits in a cell, experiencing fewer recreational privileges and fewer educational opportunities, and one creates not only a time bomb within the prison, but one that might simply simmer until his or her impending release.

There are currently well over one million people incarcerated within our state and federal prisons, and many more serving sentences in local and county jails. This country is second in the world in its rate of incarceration per capita. With the crime rate as high as it is, with more and more people being sent to prison, one would think that foremost on the minds of legislators and corrections officials would be exploring means of lowering the number of “revolving door criminals.” Lowering the rate of recidivism would significantly reduce the amount currently being spent on our prisons.

The plain truth of the matter is that the vast majority of incarcerated people will eventually be released from prison. We can incarcerate them in places designed to counsel them, educate them, and give them the vocational skills to use upon release. Or, as certain factions would seem to prefer, those people can be incarcerated, simply serve their time sitting in cells, and then be released again, having no more education, no more job skills, but harboring resentment and hostility based on their experience of incarceration.

Those released ex-convicts could well become your next door neighbors or even family members… Which kind of training, preparation and attitude would you prefer them to have? The choice is yours.

©1996, 2005 Kevin Henry

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