Prisons Divert Billions of Tax Dollars From Education and Health Care Programs

By · Saturday, March 14th, 2009

Rachel and Ana asked me some poignant questions on prison reform that I appreciate. An article I wrote on work-release and study-release interested them. They are criminal justice students and they understandably expect prisoners to pay a price for the crimes they committed against society’s laws. Rachel thought it unjust that people in prison could access educational opportunities to advance themselves while some law-abiding citizens lacked the financial assistance to earn academic or vocational degrees. Ana wanted to know why I thought prison administrators would interfere with prisoners who were striving to prepare for law-abiding lives upon release.

I totally agree with Rachel. It is a travesty that any citizen in our country lacks the resources to advance his or her academic or vocational training. People who want to improve their qualifications to lead more meaningful lives and contribute to society ought to have ample opportunities to find support. It is in the interest of every American to improve the educational levels of our populace. The more we educate our citizens, the more we advance the goal of enlightenment in our society.

According to Solomon Moore’s article on 3 March 2009 in the New York Times, one reason that law-abiding citizens lack access to educational funding opportunities is that billions of dollars have been diverted from investments in social programs. Those funds have been swallowed by out-of-control spending to expand our nation’s prison system. Rachel is correct in that too much money is taken away from programs that can help advance our society; that money has been wasted on the pernicious system of the penitentiary.

Rachel’s concern about prisoners who earn degrees is misplaced, however. Although there has been a surge in prison spending, those funds have gone for construction costs, staffing, and the billions needed ot provide the goods and services necessary to keep millions of people locked up. Prisoners have not had access to Pell Grants since the mid-1990s. Even then, the emphasis was not on educating prisoners. I was confined in a high security penitentiary with more than 2,500 other prisoners, yet I was the only prisoner to earn a university degree in that institution.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission recently released a report available at That report shows the overwhelming growth of our prison system. The Pew Report showed the criminal corrections spending quadrupled over the past two decades, outpacing all spending other than medicaid. Much of that spending is wasted, as our system incarcerates far too many people, and it keeps them in prison for far longer than necessary, as one of our supreme court justices expressed. A consequence of this misguided public policy is that funds are available to the prison system, and those funds were diverted from more useful social programs that can help law-abiding citizens.

I am but one example. I could have been released after I served eight years. By then I had earned two degrees. I had made significant efforts to reconcile with society and was well prepared to make contributions that would provide a return on the investment in my education. Instead of being released, however, taxpayers paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to continue my confinement. I’ve served 21 years now. Yet taxpayers will spend more than $100,000 to confine me for another four years. Will this serve the interest of justice? I don’t think so. Though it will divert tax dollars from funding education programs for worthy citizens.

Administrators want this gravy train of funding for corrections to continue. To believe they want to see recidivism rates drop would be akin to believing tobacco companies want people to stop smoking. It is bad public policy, but the expenditures keep prison lobbyists busy. Unfortunately, the expenditures are diverted from useful programs that can help ordinary Americans.

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