Do prisoners deserve to be educated?

When someone commits a crime, especially a serious crime, your first reaction might be to lock the criminal away. After all, if he is kept behind bars, he cannot commit more crimes. For many people, prison is viewed solely as a place to contain those who "don't know how to behave." Prisons serve to punish the wicked and protect the law-abiding citizenry.

But is that all prisons should do? Could prisons also rehabilitate criminals so that, after they serve their sentences, they can return to society and be a benefit instead of a drain on it? Educators have believed for some time that there is a link between low education and criminal activity, that more-educated people are less likely to attempt crimes that land them in the hoosegow.

The government saw merit in the idea for a long time, and funds have been available specifically for inmate education. But as prison populations ballooned and budgets became strained, the federal government during the 1990s began constricting funds that were earmarked for inmate education, and many states followed suit.

Although this freed up money for the basic maintenance and upkeep of prisons, it didn't solve the problem. Prisons are still overcrowded, to the point that inmates are being released early to make room for incoming prisoners.

Fairly recently, advocate groups and government agencies have tried to refocus the government's eyes on the need for rehabilitation within prisons rather than just punishment. And now they have some evidence to back up their claims.

A study by the National Center for Education Statistics has shown a strong link between low literacy and incarceration: People who end up behind bars have an average lower literacy rate than their counterparts outside of prison. Their study shows that education, on the whole, is a crime deterrent.

But that's outside of prison; what about those who are already incarcerated? A 2007 study by the Correctional Education Association compared released prisoners who either had or had not participated in education programs while they were incarcerated, and the results are pretty telling. After they were released, ex-cons who had participated in educational programs were less likely to be re-arrested, re-convicted, and re-incarcerated than those who had not participated.

Those who had participated in education programs also, on average, found higher-paying jobs than those who hadn't participated, which in and of itself is a crime deterrent.

There is a lot of evidence that education — including education of prison inmates — can lower future prison rates. So the question might not be "Do prisoners deserve to be educated?" but "Can we afford not to educate inmates?"