U.S. Prisons Don’t Fund Education, and Everybody Pays a Price

After a murder charge at 13, Xavier McElrath-Bey earned a college degree behind bars and now saves lives. All convicts should have that chance.

Inmates at the Orange County jail in Santa Ana, California

Inmates sit in a classroom at the Orange County jail in Santa Ana, California. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Matt Fleischer was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

Xavier McElrath-Bey was locked up as an accomplice to murder before his 14th birthday. A participant in a gang murder, McElrath-Bey spent 13 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections for his crime between 1989 and 2002.

Though many young people in similar circumstances would be written off as lost causes, McElrath-Bey discovered something inside the prison walls that street life had prevented him from seeing—the power of education. After continuing his high school studies on the inside and graduating with a GED, McElrath-Bey felt he was only just beginning to learn.

So he started taking college classes offered by the prison.

“I had a very good professor,” McElrath-Bey tells TakePart. “His name was Zaric. He challenged us and introduced us to things I didn’t realize applied to my daily life. I started to understand more about myself.

“There’s a therapeutic component to education. It gives a sense of belonging. Inmates receiving an education start to realize they can be agents of social change. The first time I gave a presentation in front of my fellow student inmates, I felt great. It made me want to go out and get my masters when I came out.”

McElrath-Bey did just that, earning an advanced degree in counseling and human services from Roosevelt University upon his release, the same school he earned his bachelors degree in social sciences—graduating with a 4.0 grade-point average—while still in prison.

McElrath-Bey’s transformation is so profound it could have been crafted by TV execs as an after-school special. These days, however, success stories like McElrath-Bey’s are nearly impossible.

He now works as a field researcher for a Northwestern University study on inner-city Chicago violence, examining the mental health needs of juvenile delinquents. His work was just written up by the New York Times.

McElrath-Bey’s transformation is so profound it could have been crafted by TV execs as an after-school special. These days, however, success stories like McElrath-Bey’s are nearly impossible. In 1994, something changed when it came to educating inmates. America decided to enhance its “tough on crime” reputation, which meant not simply locking people up by the thousands, but throwing away the keys—the keys, that is, to rehabilitation and reintegrating into free society.

As part of this new mindset, Congress banned inmates with felony convictions from accessing Pell grants for their college education. The program that allowed McElrath-Bey to turn his life around lost its funding—as did hundreds of other similar programs in prisons around America.

“There used to be around 300 prison higher education programs across the country,” Sean Pica, executive director of Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prisons, a nonprofit that helps facilitate educational opportunities for inmates in New York State, tells TakePart. “The government said, ‘You can have programs, you just can’t have funding.’ Many programs began because there were good financial incentives in place for these programs.”

Once the money was gone, however, so went the programs.

Now it’s up to nonprofits like Hudson to fill the void. Pica says his group boasts 249 college graduates from inside the prison system over the 14-year history of the organizaiton. Hudson currently has a total of 300 students enrolled in classes in four different facilities across New York.

With a prison population of 54,000 in New York State, however, Hudson can only do so much.

“It’s all about money,” says Pica. “That’s the entire issue right now.”

The real tragedy, says Pica, is that denying prisoners educational opportunities is simply poor public policy. Instead of simply warehousing people, and waiting until they reoffend to warehouse them again, prison education has proven to be a worthwhile investment.

“Every dollar we spend on higher education in prison sees an 18 dollar return,” he says.

Getting the government to actually invest in inmates, however, is the hard part.

McElrath-Bey argues that investment can’t be limited to higher education. Though GED programs exist in most prisons, many inmates are still unable to take advantage. Typically, inmates who have financial support from the outside—from family or friends—are the ones who earn their degrees. Inmates with no help are forced to take prison work, to pay for the food, clothes and toiletries—like soap and toothpaste—that make life bearable inside prison walls.

“You can either go to school, or you can work to earn the basic necessities you need to survive,” says McElrath-Bey.

Most inmates have little choice but to opt for survival.

McElrath-Bey says that if correctional institutions incentivized education with the same meager offerings they provide for prison labor, more inmates could make the same turnaround he did.

“When I was in prison, state pay was $12 a month. You can earn $30 or more if you choose a labor job instead. Why not give someone the same amount to attend school? Why reward washing pots and pans, instead of rewarding someone bettering themselves with a college education?”

Should prison inmates be given educational opportunites? Leave your “for” or “against” in COMMENTS.

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