According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 2.2 million Americans are locked up—a figure that translates into roughly one whole percent of the country’s adult population, and is higher than the incarceration rate of just about any other developed country. To make matters worse, nearly 1 million American prisoners are African Americans, which means that blacks are incarcerated about six times as frequently as whites.

Numbers aside, a lot of those who find themselves in jail are non-violent drug offenders. And others are folks who have simply made mistakes and are paying for them behind bars. They are all human beings—we must never forget that—and while some are undoubtedly hardened criminals, odds are most of them, or at least many of them, are decent people who want nothing more than to get their lives back on track.

And therein lies the problem. Without access to decent education, these prisoners frequently find themselves unable to rejoin society in any meaningful way once they’re released. As a result, more than three-quarters of those released from prisons end up behind bars sometime down the line. Altogether, these figures reveal something many Americans probably choose to ignore: the fact that our prison system is completely broken.

The good news is that distance learning technology, America’s wealth, and the emerging consensus that recognizes the dignity of American prisoners, have all conspired to rob us of our last excuses.

Pushing Prison Reform

In July, President Barack Obama visited a federal prison in Oklahoma, becoming the first sitting president to do so.

“I think we have a tendency sometimes to almost take for granted or think it’s normal that so many young people end up in our criminal justice system,” Obama said last month. “It’s not normal. It’s not what happens in other countries. What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things.”

The president went on to say that oftentimes when youngsters get arrested, they don’t have a good support system in place (e.g., supportive parents, enough resources, etc.) so that instead of getting the proverbial slap on the wrist, they get the book thrown at them. The problem is, it often feels like an entire set of encyclopedias.

Just because some kids grow up in worse circumstances than others doesn’t mean that those who are less fortunate should be erased from society. To help prisoners make more of themselves—and reduce the likelihood that many of them will end up back inside a cell once they’re released—the president’s administration is trying to bring education to prisoners who are proactively seeking to better themselves.

“The cost-benefit of this doesn’t take a math genius to figure out,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said recently. “We lock folks up here, $35,000, $40,000 every single year. A Pell Grant is less than $6,000 each year.”

New Technologies Solve Old Problems

More than 6.7 million students took advantage of at least one online course during the fall 2011 semester. So the question is not whether this technology can be applied to bettering the lives of America’s inmates, but rather When? and To what extent? Twenty years ago, the government voted to keep Pell Grants out of federal prisons—falling back on the “tough-on-crime” mantra for justification.

But distance learning could provide the most obvious solution. Indeed, colleges and universities across the country are already providing inmates with online courses; even a cursory Google search will turn up such initiatives from Adams State University, Palo Verde College, and the University of West Georgia.

It’s long been assumed that cutting off inmates from the perks of citizenship—such as pursuing higher learning—would serve as a suitable deterrent to committing crime.

What ends up happening, though, is that the convicts who are released back into society lack the education and experience necessary to provide for their families on the straight and narrow. They already have the cards stacked against them by having to admit they’re felons on their job applications.

And so, with no real job prospects and few (if any) resources to call on for help, many of these folks seemingly have no other choice but to turn back to crime in order to pay their bills and feed their families. And lo and behold, that’s precisely why they end up back inside prison walls. It’s called recidivism, and in the grand scheme of things it’s really not that different from drug relapse, which most of us recognize as a very real problem for patients facing life after rehab. The only practical solution for either type of backsliding is a strong network of support resources—whether they’re family, friends or, in the case of inmates, a measure of clemency and dignity from the government.

But let’s put it another way: America is the land of opportunities. It is not the land where you lose everything and face public humiliation (or potentially worse—including wrongful death—if you’re a member of one of America’s minorities) if you make one careless mistake in your youth. By investing in our young prisoners—many of whom didn’t have much (if any) support growing up—we are investing in our country’s future from both a financial and a societal perspective.

It may not cut our prison population in half, but it’s a good start.

Dan Wilhelm
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Copyright 2015 The Moderate Voice
  • JSpencer

    “It’s not normal. It’s not what happens in other countries. What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things.”

    Obama’s common sense observation seems brilliant and compassionate in this medieval era of the prison industrial complex. Let the nonviolent drug offenders go! And yes, by all means, increase opportunities for education!

  • Sal Monela

    There was an article in the NYT a few weeks ago about a young man who had sex with his underage girlfriend. He was caught, convicted and sentenced to a short stay in jail . He had been a computer science student at a local university and part of his sentence was a ban on computer use, consequently he is unable to continue his education. When he ask what he was supposed to do, they told him to get a job as a welder or a truck drive.

    What he did was of course wrong, but why impose a sanction that is irrelevant to his crime? He wasn’t trolling for sex with kids on the internet. By imposing this condition on him, the state is telling him to seek a job that he is probably unsuited for, uninterested in, and consequently sets him up for failure.

    Education and/or job training is the most important thing that we can do to keep offenders from re-offending. The appropriate punishment for crime is in most cases a temporary loss of freedom not the blocking of future employment and career opportunities.

  • KP

    I am trying to imagine how thrilling it was to have the president visit you and others in a federal prison.

    Brilliant of Obama.

    Instead of “Scared Straight” …

    Educate and get “Cared Straight”.