A Philosopher's Blog

College Education for Prisoners

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 5, 2014

At one time, inmates in the United States were eligible for government Pell tuition grants and there was a college prison program. Then Congress decided that prisoners should not get such grants and this effectively doomed the college prison programs. Fortunately, people like Max Kenner have worked hard to bring college education to prisoners once more. Kenner has worked with Bard College to offer college education with prisoners and this program seems to have been a success. As might be imagined, there are some interesting ethical issues here.

One approach to college education for prisoners is both ethical and practical. If it is accepted that one function of the prison system is to reform prisoners so that they do not return to crime after they are released, then there seems to be a very good reason to support such programs.

Since 2001 about 300 prisoners have received college degrees from Bard. Of those released from prison, it is claimed that less than 2% have been arrested again. In contrast, 70% of state prison inmates are arrested and incarcerated again within five years of their release. Prisoners who participate in education programs are 43% less likely to return to prison than former prisoners who did not participate in such programs.

Given the very high cost of incarceration ($14-60,000, with an average of $31,000 per year), reducing the number of people returning to prison would save the state and taxpayers money. There is also the cost of crime, both to the victims and society in general.

Of course, there is the practical concern that the prison-industrial complex in the United States is a key job and profit creator (mostly transferring public money to the private sector) and having fewer people in prison would actually be a practical loss, economically speaking.

In moral terms, as long as the cost of the programs is not high, then a utilitarian argument can be given in favor of such programs. Using the stock utilitarian moral argument, the benefits generated by the education programs would make them morally correct. There is, of course, also the moral value in having people not committing crimes and being, instead, productive members of the community.

One practical objection to the programs is that the cost of such programs might exceed the benefits. However, this is partially a factual matter, namely weighing the economic cost of crime and imprisonment against the cost of providing such programs. The positive economic value of such programs should be considered as well. The cost to the state can, obviously, be offset if the programs are supported by others (such as donors and private universities). Given the cost of incarceration, practical considerations seem to favor the programs. However, this can be debated.

Another practical objection is that the benefits being discussed arise only when a released prisoner does not return to prison because of the education program. If a prisoner is serving a sentence that will keep him in prison for life, then there would seem to be no practical benefit. The counter to this is that most prisoners are not in prison for life, so this would apply in only a very few cases that would be offset by the cases in which people do leave prison.

It could also be claimed that the education programs are not the cause of the former prisoners remaining out of prison. After all, this could be a case of a common cause (that is, what seems to be a cause and an effect are really both effects of an underlying cause): the qualities that would cause a prisoner to participate in such an education program are likely to be the same ones that would make it less likely that the former prisoner would return. If this is the case, then it could be argued that such programs are not needed since they are not actually the causal factor.

While it is always wise to consider the possibility of a common cause, it does make sense that an education program would have causal role to play in a former prisoner not returning to prison. At the very least, education would increase the chances of the person getting a job and this would have an impact on the likelihood that she would return to crime.

It can also be argued that even if the education did not have this effect (that is, the former prisoners who would have been in the program would not have returned to prison anyway), the value of the education itself would justify the programs. I do believe that education has intrinsic value. However, this is not a view that is shared by all and it can obviously be argued against, usually on economic grounds.

In general, though, the education programs do seem worthwhile, if only on practical grounds. In cases in which the programs are being privately funded, there seems to be no practical reason to oppose such programs, provided that they do have the claimed benefits regarding recidivism.

One moral objection that can be raised against these programs is that resources are being expended on prisoners that could be used to help those who cannot afford an education and are not convicted criminals. One might also add that prisons exist to punish people for their crimes and not to reward them. As such, prisoners should not receive such education. Instead, any resources that might have been spent on educating prisoners should be spent on assisting non-criminals who cannot afford college. Of course, there are those who would not want to assist even non-criminals who cannot afford college.

This moral objection does have some bite. After all, a person in need who has not committed crimes seems more deserving of the assistance of others than someone who has committed crimes. If it did, in fact, come down to a choice between helping a non-criminal or a criminal, then it would seem preferable to assist the non-criminal—just as it would be preferable to spend money on education and infrastructure  rather than on subsidies to corporations. It would also presumably be preferable to spend money on addressing the causes of crime rather than creating a prison-industrial complex.

The reply to this objection is based on the fact that when a person is imprisoned, there will be a significant expenditure to simply keep that person in prison (an average of $31,000 a year in 2010). While it would be preferable to avoid having to imprison people, once they are in prison it would seem desirable to invest a little more to keep them from returning to prison. Calculating this would involve using the cost of the education, the cost of keeping the prisoner in prison, the likely chance of returning to prison and for how long. To use a made up example, if it cost $31,000 for a prisoner to get her degree and $31,000 a year to keep her locked up, then if there is a good chance that her degree would keep her out of prison for another four year sentence, then it would seem to be worthwhile even as a gamble. After all, expending $31,000 is likely to save much more money. If the fact that she is likely to be a contributing member of society is factored in, the deal is even better. So, the gist of the reply is that spending the money education does make sense, provided that it has a good chance of saving money and doing some social good. If the money is not spent on education, then it seems likely that even more will be spent on dealing with recidivism. Either way society pays, the question is whether one should pay more or less or whether to pay for something positive (education) or negative (locking someone up). So, it is not a matter of spending money that could be spent to assist non-criminals, it is a matter of how to spend the money that will most likely be spent either way.

I do, of course, understand how someone struggling to pay for her or her child’s college would be outraged that prisoners are getting an education for free. However, I would simply refer back to the previous argument: paying for the education of a prisoner, assuming it reduced recidivism, is cheaper than paying to keep locking the prisoner up.

It might be objected that the problem should be addressed before people go to prison, that there should be education programs designed to assist people who are at risk for prison, but are also likely to be able to complete college and avoid prison.

In reply, I would say that I agree completely. It is better that a person never go to prison in the first place and education certainly seems to be a much better investment than prison. There are, of course, those who would disagree and argue that it is better to let people end up in prison than to spend public money on college education. Others could argue that while such plans might be good intentioned, they would not work—the money would be spent and the result would merely be educated criminals. These objections are worth considering, but I would still contend that spending on education to keep people out of prison is preferable to spending money to keep people in prison.


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  1. Max Collinge said, on December 5, 2014 at 7:27 pm

    I think that the arguments about “prisons exist to punish people,, not to reward them” Is ridiculous. The aim of a prison is to punish and to rehabilitate and the statistics about re-incarceration speak volumes about the efficacy of prison education programs.
    To address the point about prison education using valuable resources: the re-incarceration which would follow more often in uneducated prisoners would surely be more expensive than educating them and empowering them to not get arrested again.

    • wtp said, on December 5, 2014 at 10:31 pm

      I think that the arguments about “prisons exist to punish people,, not to reward them” Is ridiculous.

      Oh, I agree. The primary purpose of prisons is to cull the perpetrators from productive society. To keep them, for the period of their incarceration anyway, from committing further offenses and doing more harm. A secondary purpose is to put them in a somewhat solitary location and give them time to (hopefully) reflect on what they have done to cause themselves to be put in a situation where they are no longer able to do as they please. To give them time to think about the error of their ways. Now granted, they will not always react to their situation with the hoped for self-reflection, but such is the minimum. Beyond that, it is somewhat reasonable that some early offenders can be rehabilitated. The earlier the more effective. But to think that one can broadly be effective in such an endevour is quite presumptious and, depending on the people attempting to implement the program, something of a God complex. Another secondary purpose of prison is to provide a sufficient disincentive for others to commit crimes. To a simmilar effect to rehabilitation, this latter purpose is not always effective as most ciminals are quite certain they will never get caught. But it does deter the weaker ones and dampers the taxing of the system.

      The idea that prisons exist to punish people is quite often presented as a straw man. As if society gets some sort of satisfaction from thinking that the evil SOB is rotting in prison and that makes society feel good. The creators of such a strawman seem to me to be trumping up a feeling their own moral superiority in relation to a percieved aggrandizing sense of moral superiority by society. Which I believe the shrinks call “projection”, but what do they know. Seriously. Now granted, for the direct victims of a given crime, a sense of satisfaction the the perp is suffering may be, somewhat justifiably be the case. But most people really don’t care one way or another what happens to a criminal, just so long as the threat to themselves is reduced.

      For consistently repeating offenders, there is nothing much you can do but to keep them from harming others. Prisons do this quite well. Attempts at rehabilitating such is beside the point.

  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on December 6, 2014 at 3:22 am

    This is an example of modern man’s belief in education as salvation. Prisoners don’t have a knowledge problem, they have a sin problem. See: The Messianic Character of American Education: 50th Anniversary – http://www.garynorth.com/public/11822.cfm

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 6, 2014 at 7:05 pm

      Now that is a classic problem about why people do evil. Socrates thought people did evil out of a lack of wisdom/ignorance. Aristotle politely said that this view contradicted the known facts.

  3. nailheadtom said, on December 6, 2014 at 10:55 am

    The American industrial prison complex is a direct implementation of the ideas of the Puritan forefathers, whose concept of Christianity contained no hint of that faith’s central tenet, forgiveness. When most people think about incarcerated felons, they see in their mind’s eye brutal rapists and killers. In reality, the cell blocks are full of individuals that have engaged in victimless crimes or petty theft. These people are currently receiving an education in prison, an education in how to game the system, how to receive government benefits like social security disability benefits and how to be an effective criminal.

    Now, with the increasing use of background checks in employment and housing, a situation has been created where even a minor felon cannot possibly secure a job or rent an apartment. People like this still have to eat, wear clothes and get out of the rain at night. They’re not going to commit suicide. But they are going to do whatever it takes to keep body and soul together. There’s four possibilities, the generosity of friends and family, the dole, gray market labor and housing, and crime. That’s it. And once on the background check failure list, one never leaves. Ergo, this group will continue to expand for the foreseeable future. It will be a future most people couldn’t imagine.

    • TJB said, on December 6, 2014 at 12:42 pm

      Excellent point, NHT.

      • wtp said, on December 7, 2014 at 10:45 am

        Really, TJ? Reads like old hippie rambling based on excuse making, whining, and hearsay history. Even Mike can do better.

        While there are, without a doubt, ridiculous laws on the books for drug possession and such, very, very few people do prison time for it and when time is served, it is in low security prisons. Gun laws as well, though given the context of generally law-abiding citizens, sentencing is more politically and media driven.

        Talk to a cop about how many times they have to arrest some criminals before they serve time. This statistic never seems to show up when people whine about prison population.

        Again, see my post above. The PRIMARY purpose of prison is to keep offenders from repeating whatever harm they were doing to society. This is 100% effective while the individual is in prison. Crime has dropped with increased mandatory sentencing, though crime statistics are fraught with sophistry and nuance.

        And again, as AJ points out, ’tis folly to believe that you can cure a “sin” problem with education. People who fail to respect the norms of society are highly unlikely to change simply because they have become educated. Education does not address the underlying problem and is more likely to make the problem worse as you have now, depending on the kind of education, given the offender more power. This is not to say that people can’t be reformed and then educated to becoming productive members of society, but the reform must happen first.

        Nor would I deny that mandatory minimum sentencing needs some adjusting. But what is actually being said here? Nothing, really, unless one considers closing prisons is a good thing. And where will that lead? Especially at a time when preventative measures taken by police are under attack, some for good reasons but most for bad.

        • nailheadtom said, on December 7, 2014 at 3:44 pm

          “Talk to a cop about how many times they have to arrest some criminals before they serve time.”

          Cops, members of a well-compensated criminal class themselves, have the task of arresting a perpetrator for a specific crime. What happens after that isn’t their concern, there is a mechanism in place to address the arrestee, who is presumed innocent. Unless you’re a cop. Then you shoot to kill.

          • wtp said, on December 7, 2014 at 4:24 pm

            TJ, I rest my case. You notice there’s never a Magus around when you need one.

            • nailheadtom said, on December 8, 2014 at 12:29 am

              Here’s a link that might interest you: http://nailheadtom.blogspot.com/2012/11/scottsdale-taxpayers-foot-bill-for.html

            • WTP said, on December 8, 2014 at 11:00 am

              Six shootings by a cop is highly unusual, but given what I could find on the latest shooting from a more reliable source it seems he had been a member of a SWAT team. I would think such would significantly increase the likelihood of having to shoot suspects:

              The Arizona Republic reports that on Tuesday evening, Officer Peters and two others responded to the home of James Loxas, whom neighbors said had been threatening them with a gun. Loxas reportedly came out of the house carrying his young grandson, and when officers perceived him reaching for a weapon, Peters shot the man in the head.

              The child was unharmed.

              Although there is no comprehensive national data on officer-involved shootings, according to the Department of Justice, police killed 406 citizens in 2009, the most recent year for which there is data.

              Klinger says that there are several factors that may explain why Peters has used deadly force so many times.

              “You have to look at his assignments, where was he? What were the circumstances? It could be that he has been involved in 20 situations where he could have shot but held his fire 14 times,” he explains.

              According to the Republic, Peters had served on the department’s SWAT team, a notoriously dangerous assignment, where officers often encounter suspects who are armed.

              It is unclear whether Loxas was, in fact, armed when he was shot, or whether he had explicitly threatened the officers or the child in his arms. The Republic reports that Peters and another officer told investigators that they saw a black object in Loxas’s hand before shots rang out. A loaded pistol, shotgun and “functional improvised explosive device” were all reportedly found inside the man’s home.

              From the conservative nut jobs at CBS News:

              In contrast to the biased source you’ve got there. My advice for someone like yourself would be to stay the hell out of Scottsdale, AZ. The vast majority of us OTOH will feel quite safe.

  4. TJB said, on December 7, 2014 at 8:15 pm

    I think NHT made a good point about how it is becoming harder to escape getting punished again and again for relatively minor offenses due to computerized background checks.

    Let say one is caught urinating in some public area. That person can be labeled as a sex criminal and it can follow him around for the rest of his life.

    • wtp said, on December 7, 2014 at 8:32 pm

      I don’t think that sort of behavior is what NHT is on about. Cops aren’t shooting people dead for peeing. But even in your own context, I’d like to see the case where such has happened. Got a link?

  5. TJB said, on December 7, 2014 at 9:31 pm

    Here are some of the more surprising ways you can end up on a sex offender registry:

    1) Taking naked photos of yourself — if you’re a minor. Teenagers who take nude photographs of themselves could get charged with child pornography and be put on sex registries, according to a 2013 report from Human Rights Watch. Kids who send naked photos that are viewed in another state could be charged with a federal crime, personal injury lawyer Linda Jane Chalat has written.

    A 15-year-old girl in Pennsylvania was charged in 2004 with spreading child porn after taking nude photos of herself and putting them online, according to Human Rights Watch. She was still on the sex offender registry as of 2012.

    2) Visiting a prostitute. While former New York governor Eliot Spitzer does not appear to be on New York’s sex offender registry, patronizing a prostitute is considered a “registerable offense” in the Empire State. Until recently, some prostitutes in Louisiana could be registered sex offenders, too.

    3) Peeing in public. At least 13 states require sex offender registration for public urination, according to Human Rights Watch’s comprehensive review of sex offender laws in 2007. Two of those states specify that the urination must happen in front of a minor.

    4) Flashing your breasts. You can get arrested for indecent exposure in California if you flash your breasts in front of a lot of people in order to gratify yourself or offend somebody else, according to the Shouse Law Group, a group of California criminal defense lawyers. And indecent exposure can land you on the sex offender registry.

    5) Having consensual sex with a teenager, even if you’re a teenager, too. At least 29 states require teenagers who have had consensual sex with each other to register as sex offenders, according to the Human Rights Watch Report from 2007. In Georgia, a woman named Wendy Whitaker was on the sex offender registry for years for having sex with a classmate when she was 17 and he was 15.

    6) Sleeping with your sister. Incest is not just a social taboo; it’s also illegal in a lot of states. Football player Tony Washington learned that lesson the hard way after getting in trouble for having sex with his 15-year-old sister when he was 16. “I didn’t know it was illegal,” Washington told ESPN in 2010.

    Washington, who had an incredibly troubled home life, pleaded guilty to prohibitive sexual conduct, according to the Toronto Star. He was charged under a Texas law that bars sexual contact between family members. He became a registered sex offender. His past continued to haunt him.

    7) Giving another child a hug. There’s been momentum recently to get rid of requirements that children register as sex offenders, the Wall Street Journal reported. Five residents of Colorado who were found delinquent for sex crimes as kids recently sued the state to fight a law that forced them to register as sex offenders, according to the Journal.

    One of those Colorado residents had been accused of trying to hug a girl at his elementary school too much when he was 13.

    Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/surprising-things-that-could-make-you-a-sex-offender-2013-10#ixzz3LGX3Ulgt

    • WTP said, on December 8, 2014 at 11:09 am

      Yes there are problems with items 1, 5, and 7. The other stuff, don’t do that and there won’t be a problem. Getting back to my original question re public urination. When I first started working, a group of us from work had a little beach gathering (wouldn’t even call it a party). One guy, who went by the dubious moniker of Mad Dog, went off to take a pee. Well according to his story, two old ladies saw him and notified the police and he was in legal trouble for several months. Now at the time, we all assumed that this was a case of the law gone crazy due to two crazy old bats. At first it was all a big joke that he seemed to take with an ironic sense of self-deprecation. But at some point later on he suddenly became very sensitive at being teased about it. As I recall, that case finally got dropped. But then a couple years later he did get busted for a real public exposure incident. There was no getting out of it and he lost his security clearance and thus his job as a result. Then a couple years after that, a guy he was somewhat friends with (and I always found their friendship rather odd as they seemed to have no discernible common interests) also got busted for exposing himself to children at a Catholic elementary school. At first I thought that was a case of cops gone wild. But they had video tape. And it turned out he had past convictions in other states for doing the same thing. What odd, odd coincidences. Of course there’s always the far fetched excuse that they were both a victim of soicomstance. Some people will believe any sob story, I suppose.

      To be falsely accused of a sex crime or have charges trumped up to sex criminal is a terrible, terrible thing. But like anything in life, no system is perfect. We should of course vigorously prosecute those who make such false accusations. OTOH, one also could be a fraternity or a university who gets blindsided by very serious accusations concerning an event that has absolutely no evidence of having occurred, aside from a purported victim’s incongruant and shifting story as related by a reporter from a very weak “news” organization. Which brings us ’round to the original source of this witless diatribe. And as an aside, perhaps Rolling Stone should stick to interviews with old hippies, has-been pop stars, and whatever Kennedy has most recently washed up on the shores of the scandal rags.

      But moving on from there, let’s take the Lena Dunham biography where she claimed she was raped by a college “Republican” by the name of “Barry”.

      After a month-long investigation that included more than a dozen interviews, a trip to the Oberlin campus, and hours spent poring through the Oberlin College archives, her description of the campus remains the only detail Breitbart News was able to verify in Dunham’s story of being raped by a campus Republican named Barry.

      On top of the name Barry, which Dunham does not identify as a pseudonym (more on the importance of this below), Dunham drops close to a dozen specific clues about the identity of the man she alleges raped her as a 19-year-old student. Some of the details are personality traits like his being a “poor loser” at poker. Other details are quite specific. For instance, Dunham informs us her rapist sported a flamboyant mustache, worked at the campus library, and even names the radio talk show he hosted.

      To be sure we get the point, on three occasions Dunham tells her readers that her attacker is a Republican or a conservative, and a prominent one at that — no less than the “campus’s resident conservative.”

      For weeks, and to no avail, using phone and email and online searches, Breitbart News was able to verify just one of these detail


      And I could go on and on about various fabulists such as Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, Mary Mapes, Jack Kelley, etc. etc. Should we shut down the media because of these stories? Do they not do as serious harm and on a much broader scale? Where is the public and academic outrage? And what about those who “train” these journalists? And what about certain college professors who use sophistry and at times down right lies to endorse a party line while being heavily subsidized by tax payers? Are these not also babies that must be thrown out with the bath water? On top of all that, this beer tastes funny. False accusations of public urination, overzealous prosecution of prostitution, academic and media bias and lies, my beer. This world is just a veil of tears I suppose.

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