WMU philosophy graduate students propose prison education program

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LEGAL NEWS PHOTOS BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by CynthiaPrice
Legal News

Some idealistic Western Michigan University graduate students are proposing to start an education program for inmates at Lakeland Prison, citing the benefits for both prisoners and society at large.

Unfortunately, they have run into that least idealistic of problems: how to pay for it.

At one time, most of the prisons in the state of Michigan offered post-secondary education aimed at prisoners receiving a degree. The program was started by Jackson Community College in the 1970s, and grew to be the largest in the country, but the attendant tuition was paid for by Pell Grants prisoners received. In 1994, the Violent Crime Act eliminated eligibility of incarcerated people for those subsidy funds, and the state eliminated funds as well.

Though Jackson CC?has taken advantage of the Second Chance Pell Grant program, started in 2016, which now allows the funds to go to prisoners, the college currently operates a smaller program at the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility on a self-pay basis.

The WMU graduate students, who study under Prof. Fritz Allhoff,  feel that such education should be affordable to those who have little or no money, ensuring equitable access. At a presentation Monday at WMU-Cooley Law School Grand Rapids, they presented a number of ideas on why the benefit to society is well worth the investment.

Andrew Marquis, who spoke first, said that there were basically two prongs of thought the group pursued about those benefits.

First, there are studies which show that tangible cost reductions result from educating prisoners. A study by the Rand Corporation published in 2013, authored by Lois M. Davis, Robert Bozick, Jennifer L. Steele, Jessica Saunders, and Jeremy N. V. Miles, found that there was a 43% reduction in recidivism within three years among the population that had received education in prison. They were also 13% more likely to gain employment after release.

Since, as Marquis reported, there were about 1,500,000 people in prison in 2015, and approximately 700,000 are released every year, common recidivism rates would mean that about 280,000 recidivate.
Reducing that by even one third would result in an obvious gain in public safety and lower prisoner housing costs. (One estimate says $4-5 reduction for every $1 spent on education.)

But even more important to the students is the second train of thought. If we are, crudely put, all in it together, then improving the lot of prisoners benefits everyone. (Marquis quoted Dr. Martin Luther King “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”)

“And so participation in an education program does bring about worthwhile goods for prisoners, but it also brings about a good for society—namely, it constitutes a particular channel towards greater justice,” Marquis concluded.

Student Lainie Erwin showed a couple of video clips with testimonials from prisoners who had obtained education while behind bars, and they attested that one of the greatest benefits was the sense that someone valued them and cared enough to help them pursue a better future.

Erwin also talked about the history of prison education reform, starting with the Philadelphia society that saw deplorable conditions in 1787 and sought to reform them. Even then, that society was of the opinion that prisoner education benefited everyone.

As Erwin said, the Michigan Department of Corrections has put its support behind vocational training. They met with so much success in their first Vocational Village at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia that they started another in 2016 at Parnall in Jackson.

Sean Kermath added another potential benefit, one he said he had encountered support for anecdotally: it seems to result in a less combative inmate population and fewer violent inter-group confrontations.

A fourth student, Dale Brown, was unable to attend, but he has been instrumental in the project all along.

The students proposed starting with a class in Critical Thinking, which they felt would give inmates a good background for any future classes.  However, they are now thinking about scaling back to a non-degree reading group to begin with.

How to fund it is uppermost in their minds. They met with legislators, and one said he thought there might be an opportunity for matching funds if they could obtain other sources. They are now thinking about asking WMU to offer a reduced tuition cost, an in-kind contribution which could contribute to a match, as well as seeking other more traditional funding sources.

Prof. Allhoff said there are other graduate students interested in the program as these students move on.


 

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