Education for incarcerated students is a wise investment

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Cartoon by Dan Cordero

Dr. Angela Davis said poor people of color are more likely to be found in prisons than colleges. She was right.

Almost 100 Southwestern College students will earn their Associate’s degrees without setting foot on campus or using the Blackboard system. These are the students of  Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, the only state prison in San Diego County, located 10 miles from the main campus.

Fall 2016 was the first semester that permitted face-to-face college education at the prison since 1994. SWC was awarded a federal Second Chance Pell Grant in July 2016.

Education is seen as the cure-all to poverty, crime and racial tension, yet adequate measures are not being taken at the state level. SWC administration aims to change that.

Patrice Milkovich, director of Crown Cove Aquatic Center, the SWC go-between for Donovan, said it is the college’s duty to provide educational opportunities to everyone within the district, including those imprisoned.

“All the things that help rehabilitate those who are incarcerated, such as mental health services, job training and access to education, also prevent this general population from becoming incarcerated in the first place,” she said.

Southwestern’s approach is proactive and far rarer than it should be. A study by RAND Corporation indicated that education while being incarcerated decreases the chance of recidivism, the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend upon release. The study also shows that with every $1 invested into the prison education system, $4-$5 is ultimately saved in the first three years post-release. RAND was not the first, last or only study that underscores the power of educational reform.

Research by Stephen J. Steurer in the Three-State Recidivism Study shows that education decreases crime rates and the probability of future crime. It also increases the chances of employment following inmate release. Yet until the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation starts focusing more on reform instead of punishment, the system will remain impaired.

An examination of the school-to-prison pipeline shows that lawmakers need to look beyond college education and go to the problem’s roots. School-to-prison pipelines develop when schools have zero-tolerance crime policies that lead to expulsion and, ultimately, into juvenile detention centers. This pattern often starts as early as preschool, where a zero tolerance policy, even with nonviolent crimes, can lead to a child being painted a pint-sized criminal and provided no education at all.

U.S. Department of Education data shows that African-American students are 3.6 times more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions than white children. This destructive cycle continues throughout K-12 systems where African-American children are almost twice as likely to be expelled from school without continued education than white children.

Children should not be treated as hardened criminals for their youthful mistakes. They are products of the environment they were raised in and it is the acting parental figures that need to be held responsible. When students are taken out of schools, a primary positive influence is stripped away and a beneficial reinforcement is no longer there. Criminalizing children stunts their development, and molds them into the convicts.

Formerly-incarcerated UC Berkeley student Steven Czifra was committing crimes before he was a teenager. He spent eight years in various forms of solitary confinement. Four of those isolated years were in the juvenile system.

Czifra said education was not made available to him while he was in prison. Correctional officers treated him and most other inmates as if they were animals undeserving of basic rights, he said. Pilot programs would occasionally spout up, but they were sporadic. Every time an opportunity would enter the prisons, he said, a fight among inmates and officials would take place behind the scenes as officials tried to destroy the program.

“We get no support with our education,” he said. “Cops say, ‘Fuck that. I have to pay for my kids to go to college. I’m not paying for these dirtbags.’”

This is a common complaint among critics. Taxpayers spend more than $71,000 a year on each inmate, according to The California Legislature’s Nonpartisan Fiscal and Policy Advisor. Only $1,200 is spent on education that could lead to meaningful reform.

Education, a proven recidivism reducer, has people clutching their wallets over a measly $1,200 per inmate.

Money is part of the problem, societal stigmas are a bigger part. Criminals are unsympathetic folks who have likely hurt others. It is easier to lock ‘em up and throw away the key than it is to recognize their humanity and invest in their redemption. By not supporting them, though, we are increasing the chance of uneducated offenders going back to their lives of crime because they have no other alternatives. That benefits no one.

Southwestern College is on the side of the angels by serving the least of our brothers and sisters. Investing in prison education is proven good policy, cost-effective and the right thing to do.

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