When I was growing up, my father taught community college classes at Folsom State Prison, made famous by Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”
As a psychology professor, he was fascinated to read inmates’ assigned essays. Some evenings, he would share them with me as bedtime stories – narratives of regret, hopelessness and optimism in changing their lives if given a second chance. Many prisoners were thirsty to learn and, even at 9 years old, I recognized the importance of my father’s work.
Hundreds of college programs served 1.5 million Americans incarcerated in jails and prisons. That all came to an abrupt end in 1994, when Congress banned Pell Grants for inmates. Overnight, funding dried up for the college-in-prison programs, including the one that employed my father.
Today, fewer than 50 programs serve 2.3 million people who are incarcerated. The tide has turned again.
On Friday, I was excited to watch as the U.S. Department of Education announced a pilot program allowing a limited number of inmates to seek Pell Grants. This is encouraging news for anyone who is worried about the costs – financial, societal or personal – of locking up millions of Americans.
This kind of movement on criminal justice policy was unthinkable until recently. Through the 1980s, ’90s and into the 2000s, most politicians contentedly signed on to whatever “tough on crime” legislation landed on their desks without thinking about the underlying drivers of crime.
But the conversation has now shifted amid concern that daytime television, the primary distraction in most prisons and jails, isn’t the best preparation for getting a job or re-entering society. Watching “16 and Pregnant” isn’t the best substitute for a real parenting class. And with “The Jerry Springer Show” as behavioral therapy, it’s no surprise inmates aren’t well prepared for the real world. Currently, within five years of release, 77 percent of former inmates are rearrested.
This is where education comes in. Education is the one proven and cost-effective tool for reducing recidivism.
A comprehensive 2013 report from the Rand Corp. found that participation in an education program reduced an inmate’s risk of reoffending by 43 percent. The same report found that for every $1 invested in correctional education, $5 is saved in reincarceration costs. And we desperately need to save: A year at a California prison costs the same as a year at Harvard University.
In 2013, I founded Edovo, a tablet-based learning program for prisoners. We’re serving inmates in California and across the country. Edovo provides tens of thousands of hours of personalized self-improvement content. The most popular courses include math, auto mechanics, Christian studies and cognitive behavioral therapy. If there were ever a question of whether inmates desire to make a positive change in their lives, consider it answered.
I am thrilled to see this window of opportunity opened again through the return of Pell Grants, and I am excited to see how technology can help in reaching more inmates. My father is retiring soon and may not make it back to teaching in prison, but I hope last week’s announcement makes it possible for me to rekindle his spirit of change and education at Folsom prison and nationwide.
Brian Hill of Citrus Heights is founder and CEO of Edovo.