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Unlock the door, free the mind


One of the root causes of incarceration in America is the lack of education, which can create substantial difficulty in finding meaningful employment and also result in increased poverty and even possibly a life of crime.  

There were nearly two million people incarcerated in America in 2023, 800,000 on parole and three million on probation among a total population of 335 million people. The average daily population in New York City jails was about 6,000 with over 10,000 on probation and more than 50,000 incarcerated in state prisons with 25,000 on parole, costing New York taxpayers billions every year.  

Let’s put this issue into perspective. It costs city taxpayers $550,000 to hold someone in jail for a year. The cost of a bachelor’s degree from the City University of New York runs about $40,000, which is only enough to keep one person in custody for less than a month. It costs $240 million for 6,000 students to earn a four-year degree from CUNY. Compare that with the $3.3 billion a year it costs the city to incarcerate 6,000 detainees.  

It is essential for government to do all it can to provide educational opportunities and job training in order to reduce poverty levels and encourage self-sustaining financial independence. Notwithstanding, many Americans will inevitably be incarcerated due to a myriad of other reasons besides being educationally disadvantaged. And despite the reality that not all persons in custody want to pursue postsecondary education, more prisons should be transformed into universities, vocational academies and centers for inner development for those who seek pedagogical experiences.  

According to the National Center for Education and Statistics, 79 percent of American adults “have medium to high English literacy skills” compared to only 25 percent of incarcerated adults with that literacy level. The rate of illiteracy is more than three times higher for incarcerated persons. Clearly, there is a correlation between lack of education and a prison sentence. 

About 95 percent of state and federal prisoners will be released at some point. It benefits the individual, their family, the community, taxpayers and the entire nation to return well-versed and proficient persons to society with an educational degree or a vocational expertise to financially sustain themselves and contribute to a better America.  

In addition, prison education reduces the rate of recidivism. The Bureau of Statistics reported that 67 percent of the released prisoners they tracked were rearrested within three years and more than half returned to jail within one year. 

And although many programs are effective in reducing recidivism, according to the Prison Studies Project, which promotes the phrase “the higher the education, the lower the recidivism,” prison education “outperforms” other forms of rehabilitation programs reducing long-term recidivism by 29 percent. In Indiana, the recidivism rate for those who received their GED while in custody was 44 percent lower than those who did not.   

In 2015, President Barack Obama implemented the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, providing higher education opportunities for persons incarcerated in federal and state prisons. In a 2016 USA Today article, Obama’s secretary of labor, Tom Perez, said, “We’re squandering opportunity by not giving people with a criminal record a second chance. Many of the people we’re trying to help, frankly, didn’t have a fair first chance.” 

About two million bachelor’s degrees were awarded in 2023 in the United States. Since 2015, the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program enrolled 40,000 incarcerated students, 12,000 earning certificates or diplomas, liberating their potential. With two million incarcerated individuals throughout America’s prisons, college enrollment numbers still have plenty of room to thrive.

John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where I teach, is one of the universities that provide college level classes to incarcerated persons. According to their website, in conjunction with the New York State Department of Correction, John Jay directs a program called Prison-to-College Pipeline in which prisoners in state custody who will be released within five years can attend classes at Otisville Correctional Center and upon release all students that pass are guaranteed admission to a CUNY college to complete their studies.   

In 2017, New York University accepted a candidate into their Ph.D program after the person served two decades in prison and earned two degrees while incarcerated. And in 2022 a Minnesota state prisoner serving a life sentence enrolled in Mitchell Hamline School of Law attending classes remotely. 

Postsecondary education, vocational training and literacy classes for incarcerated persons should be the norm, not the exception or the door to freedom will remain locked for many.  

Marc Bullaro is an adjunct assistant professor at John Jay College and a former DOC intelligence commander.

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