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Higher education is a necessary component of Minnesota prison reform

One critical effort we should undertake is to provide a pathway for more offenders to complete a community college degree (or vocational credential) during their time served.

As a community, we benefit from rehabilitation, education and reintegration whenever possible.
REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn

Considering President-elect Donald Trump’s “law and order” campaign statements, recent prison reform efforts may soon stall in Washington, D.C. I hope that is not so here in Minnesota. One critical effort we should undertake is to provide a pathway for more offenders to complete a community college degree (or vocational credential) during their time served.

Zack Sullivan
Zack Sullivan

In recent years I taught college-level American government courses at Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) facilities in Faribault and Shakopee. In both places, my students were among the most motivated I have worked with in my 12 years of teaching.

Teaching in a prison requires that you stay on your toes. Obviously this is due to the no-nonsense security protocols and, somewhat surprisingly, because the inmates I worked with were incredibly engaged, prepared and motivated. They actually read as assigned! Student questions were detailed and thoughtful. Papers went through several handwritten drafts since access to a computer is sporadic or nonexistent. In general my DOC students were incredibly appreciative to have a seat in a college classroom and didn’t want to screw up the opportunity.

Recurring themes: addiction, mental illness, abuse

It is now clearer to me that avoiding the corrections system is as much about luck and privilege as it is about bad decisions. Addiction, mental illness, and formative years of abuse are recurring themes. Evidence of racial and economic inequity within the broader criminal justice system is everywhere.

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Through the latter years of the Obama administration there has been some bipartisan momentum to reassess sentences for nonviolent offenders and others not likely to reoffend. This is important considering that a recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice argued that 39 percent of people incarcerated in the U.S. could be released without posing a threat to public safety.

Much of this work has been accomplished in Minnesota. We have among the lowest incarceration rates in the U.S. as a result of treatment options, community-based supervision, and at-home monitoring for lower-risk offenders. High recidivism rates for the remaining offender population continues to pose a stubborn problem, though.

Unfortunately, the impact of higher education on prisoners has not garnered much attention in the Minnesota public affairs community. Age-old tensions between the conflicting goals of punishment and rehabilitation underscore this omission.

Benefits to society

Educational opportunities for inmates are beneficial to society because they boost inmates’ ability to succeed and live productive lives outside of prison. A 2013 Minnesota DOC study [PDF]  that examined prison-based educational programming, recidivism and employment found that 1) earning a college degree was positively associated with more hours worked and higher wages, and 2) it significantly reduced recidivism (14 percent for rearrests, 16 percent for reconviction, and 24 percent for new offense incarceration). Unfortunately, the demand for higher education continues to exceed opportunities.

Yes, it would be an investment to expand post-secondary programs within our prisons, but this would be much less costly than higher recidivism and longer-term dependency on Minnesota social programs. Further reductions in incarceration for those who do not pose a public-safety threat may offset the cost.

The Minnesota State higher education system has much of the infrastructure to be a vigorous partner with the DOC. Colleges tend to increase in enrollment during periods of higher unemployment (when people enroll to retrain or improve credentials) and enrollment declines during times of lower unemployment (as we see today). We have the capacity to serve more DOC students.

I recognize that the vast majority of those incarcerated in Minnesota deserve their stay in our facilities. I also understand that, at an individual level, it is tempting to support policies that avenge victims and punish perpetrators. As a community, however, we benefit more from rehabilitation, education and reintegration whenever possible. In many cases it is not possible but we have the tools in Minnesota to do better. All we need is the leadership, vision, and determination to break down bureaucratic barriers between public higher education and our correctional institutions.

Zack Sullivan is a professor of political science at Inver Hills Community College in Inver Grove Heights.


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