Oklahoma has made encouraging progress on justice reform in recent years. Reforms passed in 2016 and 2018 will slow prison population growth and spur investments in rehabilitation. While these are important steps in the right direction, criminal justice reform should not only lower prison admissions or hasten release. Nearly 27,000 individuals are in Department of Corrections (DOC) custody, and approximately 90 percent will eventually be released. For justice reform to be successful in the long-term, we must prepare those currently incarcerated for meaningful re-entry back into our communities.
One crucial component to successful reentry is access to postsecondary education. Incarcerated individuals are under-educated. Among the general public, about one in three adults have a college degree; for formerly incarcerated, fewer than one in 20 do. On average, men entering Oklahoma prisons have a sixth-grade education; women have an-eighth grade education, according to DOC staff. Despite its budgetary difficulties, DOC has been proactive in providing high school education to incarcerated individuals at no cost to the individual. Going further to expand access to postsecondary education for Oklahoma’s incarcerated individuals would yield benefits not only to incarcerated individuals, but to the state’s safety and budget as a whole.
Investing in postsecondary education in prisons brings multiple benefits
Postsecondary education lowers recidivism primarily by helping formerly incarcerated people get a job after they’re released. According to one study, providing incarcerated individuals with postsecondary education reduces recidivism by 46 percent. Incarceration without programming has a minimal, even potentially adverse, effect on a person’s likelihood to reoffend post-release. Secondary education and vocational training programs also reduce recidivism, but these effects are smaller than those of postsecondary education. The reason is because those who receive some postsecondary education while incarcerated experience higher rates of post-release employment than those who do not. This may in part be because those who receive only vocational training while incarcerated face difficulties obtaining employment due to Oklahoma’s licensing restrictions for those with a criminal record. As more jobs require higher education, it is important that incarcerated individuals pursue postsecondary education in order to improve their employment options.
Investing in postsecondary for incarcerated individuals is also cost-effective for states. In 2003, Texas helped 66 incarcerated individuals achieve associate’s degrees at a cost of less than $2.6 million. By the end of three years, the savings from avoiding re-incarceration for this cohort exceeded the cost of educating them by nearly $274,000. One study calculated that for every dollar spent on prison postsecondary education, the state receives a four to five dollar return on investment by decreasing the number those of returning to prison.
Prison postsecondary education programs also have a positive effect on prison safety by providing a sense of agency and opportunity. This improves the social climate and overall safety for both inmates and staff.
Oklahoma inmates lack access to postsecondary education programs
Oklahoma DOC provides 27 degree programs and postsecondary courses at 22 of its 27 facilities. However, they are out of reach for many. Only 11 percent of eligible incarcerated individuals participated in postsecondary education programs nationwide in 2003-04, primarily due to financial barriers. Individuals are responsible for paying for the costs associated with taking college courses, but most are from low-income backgrounds and often cannot afford classes. In 2014, the median income for people prior to incarceration was less than $20,000. While some individuals earn some money while incarcerated, this income is often far below the minimum wage and must be partially allocated to other obligations, like restitution and toiletries.
In 2015, President Obama with the Department of Education launched the Second Chance Pell (SCP) Program after Congress had eliminated Pell grant eligibility for incarcerated individuals in 1994. This program allows students to apply for financial assistance for postsecondary education while incarcerated. SCP selected 70 colleges to participate in the program, including three Oklahoma institutions: Connors State College, Tulsa Community College, and Langston University. According to Connors State, SCP has been instrumental in boosting enrollment among incarcerated Oklahomans.
Oklahoma must make prison postsecondary education a priority
Without financial assistance, postsecondary education is an impossibility for the vast majority of incarcerated individuals. The success of Second Chance Pell in boosting enrollment demonstrates the need for financial assistance, but Oklahoma cannot rely solely on federal funding. SCP provides funding for only a few hundred Oklahoman students and precludes those with drug-related convictions from eligibility, effectively excluding over 26 percent of Oklahoma’s incarcerated population. Further, SCP must be renewed by the Department of Education every year, making it a precarious source of funding.
Oklahoma DOC has struggled to fully support programs amidst insufficient funding, leaving prisons badly understaffed and facilities in dire conditions. If legislators want to reduce recidivism and save money through postsecondary education, they have options: increasing DOC appropriations to allow for postsecondary financial assistance or creating a specialized scholarship program through the State Regents for Higher Education, to name a few possibilities. These steps would take relatively small investments and pay big dividends. Postsecondary education may not be possible for all individuals in DOC custody. However, expanding access to prison postsecondary education can provide immense benefits to the individual, the corrections system, and the state.