A college degree, whether stated or unstated, is often a prerequisite for a career. For prisoners, a career is integral to adjusting after getting out and education plays a major role — and UCF professors agree.
A recent op-ed in the New York Times, written by John J. Lennon, a prisoner inmate at the Attica Correctional Facility, paints education as a beacon of hope for prisoners.
Lennon says that inmates watch television all day and companies such as Coursera already record university lectures so it would be easy for massive open online courses to be streamed on prison TVs.
"The MOOCs, which are free for the rest of the world, could help American prisoners become more educated and connected," Lennon writes.
Education was once an important part of prison life. Lennon reports that in the early 1980s there were 350 college degree programs for prisoners nationwide.
Later in the decade, as crime rose due to the crack epidemic, the public mentality turned harsh on criminals and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, along with other legislation, quashed educational grants for prisoners in the '90s.
Criminal justice professors at UCF agreed that despite public opinion, educating prisoners would be beneficial to the prison system and society as a whole.
"There's a lot of very solid research that demonstrates that prison inmates who complete a bachelor's degree have lower re-arrests or return to prison rates," said Roberto Potter, a professor and research director of UCF's criminal justice program. "They tend to get employed faster and stay employed longer than prisoners who do not have that advantage."
Potter said researchers have a good idea of the factors that predict criminal behavior in people. One of the clear risk factors is a lack of educational attainment.
"The best predictor of going to prison in the United States is not completing a high school degree," Potter said.
Currently, prisons focus on vocational courses, which Sue Mahan, associate professor in criminal justice, finds to be behind the times.
"Vocational courses for prisoners are super out of date," Mahan said. "They were just a way to fill time like a petitions course that didn't have the proper equipment, a broom-making course where they were still doing things by hand, which in the actual world hasn't been done in 50 years. Those were the kind of courses that were often available to inmates."
While she knows that educated prisoners, on average, are much less likely to return to prison, Mahan also mentions that the public does not want inmates to have anything they cannot have.
"There's a perception out there that we're doing something for people who have sinned against the rest of us that we don't do for people in the community and that sort of an approach really began to take hold in the '90s," Potter said. "One of the things that people argued is we shouldn't be giving quote "free" education to prisoners when we're not giving it to people in the community."
Potter understands the public's knee-jerk reaction to the issue, but he also heeds that citizens need to understand that there are students who have past felony and misdemeanor convicts wandering around college campuses on a daily basis.
"Prison inmates, in a number of respects, have a lot of different needs and it's hard to meet all of them," said Kenneth Adams, professor of criminal justice. "It's certainly difficult to bring them up to a level where most of us are at, but they're often well behind in education, they're often well behind in job skills, they're often well behind in health treatments and society has an obligation to treat them at some decent level and so we have to provide these services for them."
Adams says the average reading level of a prison inmate is fourth grade, an obvious disadvantage in the workplace.
"Education programs keep inmates busy and that's a benefit to security," Adams said. "So keeping them active, keeping them involved, keeping them engaged, keeping them busy, keeping them moving all helps to manage the prison and keep it safe because you've heard of the old saying "idle hands are a devil's workshop" and if you have 2,000 violent men all in one big building sitting around all day with nothing to do, sooner or later people are going to get antsy and they're going to get into trouble."
Alex Wexelman is a Senior Staff Writer for the Central Florida Future. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.