Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Future of Correctional Education Under the Trump Administration

By Girisha AroraPublished January 1, 2017

Obama's administration had pushed for various reforms in the prison system to ensure greater education access to all inmates to help reduce recidivism. That may be set to change under President Donald Trump.

The United States of America has the highest incarceration rate among all the developed nations in the world. If this is not worrying enough, a study conducted found that within five years of their release, 76.6% of individuals were rearrested – usually for assault. This percentage is even higher among those who were incarcerated as children and then released before the age of twenty-one.  The Obama administration had seen these figures and had decided to listen to the views of a majority of social scientists, law makers and correctional administrators to bring back federally funded education into the prison system. This had led to a significant decrease in recidivism, a person's relapse into criminal behavior, but it seems as if President Donald Trump does not believe in the validity of this system.

On November 30, 2016, the Justice Department introduced a set of critical reforms, including a ‘school district’ for inmates as they hoped that this would ease the process of reentry for the prisoners being released. The current pick for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions has shown his cynicism for the prison education program, saying that he wishes to reduce recidivism, but doesn’t think that education and “other kind of character building programs”[i] help achieve that. Ex- Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates however pointed out that, “inmates participating in correctional education programs had 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison than those who did not,” and hence it would only be practical if the current administration continues the prison reform efforts.

The belief that correctional education can make a beneficial impact on a prisoner’s life has been in place since 1965, when the U.S. Congress passed Title IV of the Education Amendments and introduced the Pell Grants which allowed prisoners to borrow federal funds for college without having to repay them. Subsequent studies conducted measured how effective the system was by measuring recidivism and the ability to retain employment. The results were overwhelmingly positive and hence the Pell Grants were retained as an important part of the prison reform system since then. These grants were disbanded under the Bill Clinton administration when the economy was in disarray and when it did not make sense to take subsidies from the public, who couldn’t afford college themselves, to pay for the incarcerated.

Under Obama, this earlier action was reversed with the introduction of the Second Chance Pilot Program, where sixty-seven colleges and universities across twenty-seven states were selected to reintroduce correctional education in the prison system. Though the program is far from perfect since it requires the prisoner to be five years away from release to be eligible to enroll for the program and that means most of the inmates do not have access to the quality education that is offered, this program has still been a substantial step in the right direction and must be continued.

The importance of education is underscored even further when we see the number of incarcerated juveniles who have their lives ahead of them but who usually cannot get access to any kind of education or employment because of the prison systems. The United States has one of the highest juvenile correction rates among all countries, with its rate being five times higher than the next highest country. It is important these juveniles get access to education because they are at that juncture in life where an interruption in social growth and education can lead to further criminal activity and a reduction in further wages.
The criticism for the abnormally high rates of incarceration in the United States had led the Obama administration to also try and reduce the number of people in prisons and correctional facilities by half. For that to occur, the Second Pell Grants Pilot Program was essential for readying people for re- assimilation into society. Trump has also admitted that there is a need to reduce the number of people in prisons but he has not presented a concrete plan to implement it. Thus, it may be a better idea for the current administration to continue the implementation of these policies and reap its benefits. After all this program allowed a team from the Bard Prison Initiative to beat Harvard’s debate team.