The American public tends to balk at any prison amenities or “luxuries.” Others, however, challenge the idea that prison is meant to be stark and bleak. Those who look to a rehabilitative view of prison’s role include Dr. Reid Helford, a sociologist from Chicago’s Loyola University who works in areas outside traditional academia, such as prisons. Recently quoted in a Seattle Times article, Helford states that teaching in prison is “the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done.” Personal fulfillment aside, why should society spend public efforts, time, and funds on providing college courses and instructors for prison inmates?
Sociology helps us look past the surface morality of this debate and consider the broader contexts in which our prison system operates. Regardless whether one believes prison should offer punishment, rehabilitation, or a hybrid, society clearly benefits from lower rates of recidivism (criminals returning to crime). But what does education have to with recidivism? Helford was quoted:
Education does more than offer inmates a credential… it teaches them how to be the people we want our fellow citizens to be—thoughtful, critically aware of the world around them, disciplined and able to recognize authority.
Thus, Helford and his colleagues believe a college course (or eve degree) can help an inmate succeed in the outside world. The benefits of inmate education also spread into the communities to which they return after finishing their sentences. The Seattle Times cites a 2013 study that “concluded that prisoners who participated in education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years of release, and also found that every dollar spent on inmate education translated to $4 to $5 saved on re-incarceration.” This study considered GED, college, and vocational inmate-education together, and new studies are already in motion. A sociological understanding of those findings will be key to implementing and perfecting inmate-education programs like the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which works to create nation-wide partnerships between universities and state and federal incarceration centers.
A short film via Temple University’s Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program: