One of the things I began thinking about, while in jail for a trial, as what the state could be doing to ensure that people who committed the crime had another shot at a good life. I’d never been in trouble before, so it was hard for me to understand how prisons can be a revolving door that sees the same faces come and go. But while waiting three years for a trial, which is a rather long time, but not completely uncommon when you actually want to fight a case, something became obvious to me.
Our state did almost nothing to help these people. The vast majority of the people that come in and out of the jail system have addictions, little education, and no employable skills. They’d plead out, do a portion of their time, until they could get back on the street and then return to whatever it was that brought them to jail in the first place. There was little in the way of programming to help these people overcome their addictions and add anything of value to their resume.
That is why, in those three years, I saw the same faces come through the jail, over and over again. I started to understand that something was wrong with the system. These people didn’t really have a chance to do differently. When you’re released from Prison with no money and nowhere to go, there’s not a lot you can do to make it in the world. When you’re worried about where you’re going to sleep and how you’re going to feed yourself, going to a trade school is the last thing that matters. If you can’t afford a roof over your head, you certainly can’t pay the tuition bill.
Our state called this system, their Department of Corrections, yet little was done to correct the behavior or fix the situation that initially led to incarceration. Nationwide, many prison systems have reduced their education budgets, viewing education as a luxury. That is one of two basic viewpoints when it comes to paying for college education. The first is that investing in these people is worthwhile. They understand that educating inmates, means there will be less of a need for the incarcerated to return to crime upon release. The other side thinks we shouldn’t spend taxpayer money to help the criminal get ahead. But they are ill-informed. The cost of reincarceration is actually higher to the public in the long run.
That’s why I’m so passionate about Prison Education Programs, like the UW System Prison Education Initiative, in Wisconson. This plan puts qualified prisoners on the path to a bachelor’s degree by creating a pilot program involving three prisons, three universities, and the UW Extended. It will be able to serve several hundred prisoners. More university systems need to step up and do the same in their states.
As Tommy Thompson, President of the UW System explaints in this article from the daily Union Explains:
- Two-thirds of prisoners have less than five years to serve, which means they will be returning to society in the relatively near future.
- It also can build Wisconsin’s workforce and economy, save tax dollars, and make communities safer by reducing recidivism.
- Currently, 37 percent of those released from prison will return within 10 years, and for most it’s not because they’ve committed a new crime.
- And consider that it costs between $35,000 and 45,000 per year to house an adult prisoner.
- The greatest deterrent to re-incarceration is a good job, and the key to a good job is a good education.
Funding for corrections now exceeds funding for the Univesity System in that state. What does that say? We spend more money incarcerating people than we do preparing them for the future. That’s a serious flaw in our government system. Tommy Thompson has a vision though, “I want to be so successful that eventually Wisconsin will want to turn a prison into a university.” Imagine that. An entire prison dedicated to improving the people sent there.
There will be a number of obstacles, as there always are in institutional settings involving bureaucracies. But so far, this initiative has received encouragement and support from elected officials on both sides of the political aisle. They recognize that there are serious problems with our correctional system. Perpetuating the problem would be easier. But we’re talking about people. People like you and I. So sure there will be obstacles, but we should focus on the outcome: a safer society and a better community. And it will save money.