If someone were to ask you what leads to success, what would you say? Wealth? Fame? Happiness? 

What about education? A college degree?

These benefits cannot simply be brushed aside. As today’s society continues to morph into one in which higher education seems to be a prerequisite for life, the life-changing value of a college degree is undeniable. In our world, it is clear that career paths are continuing to follow more intellectually advanced directions with emerging areas of STEM, business, and finance – by 2020, it is projected that 2 out of every 3 jobs will require a bachelor’s degree. 

Not only does the completion of a college degree open up new fields of career opportunities and directly link to higher wages in the workplace, but college degrees also contribute to personal development by fulfilling the human potential and creating self-confidence and critical thinking skills. This is not to say that there is only one track to self-fulfillment and a “successful” life that includes going to college, as happiness and personal success are unique to the individual, but rather that education helps create self-dependent, knowledgeable individuals who are better prepared for the modern workforce.

So, why not apply these principles and standards to everyone? Are we excluding incarcerated people from the conversation of education?

America currently has the highest incarceration rate in the world, housing over 2 million prisoners. If it were a city, America’s prison population would be the 5th largest in the nation. These individuals are, in fact, people just like everyone else. Assuming that they have been fairly convicted and tried, they are serving their time for crimes of various degrees with appropriate sentences. This includes years, sometimes decades, of their lives being spent behind bars, awaiting their release – or, in some cases, with the knowledge that they will live out the remainder of their lives incarcerated.

So how are they being treated, how are they living out the months and years of their sentence? It is immoral to treat incarcerated people as animals, sub-human, uncivilized, and incapable of transforming their lives. Additionally, it is inappropriate to treat them as you would a child in a time-out, expected to sit in silence until they have “learned their lesson.”

What we need are active measures of restoration and rehabilitation in our prison system and the acknowledgment that at some point, the majority of individuals will return to the free world. This process begins with education.

One organization that has been instrumental in this effort is the Bard Prison Initiative, or BPI, a highly selective prison education system run by Bard College through which incarcerated students have the opportunity to earn both associate and bachelor’s degrees while in prison. In New York state, approximately 300 residents in 6 different prisons are enrolled in the program. Various courses of study are offered, as well as tutoring opportunities, arts programs, and debate teams. These courses are not any less rigorous than any college course— they are simply taught in an unconventional setting. The BPI debate team has had astonishing success over the past few years, making headlines in 2015 after defeating the Harvard College debate team in a discussion about the right of undocumented children to attend public school.

The outcomes of BPI are astounding. While an average of 40% of released prisoners will find themselves back in prison in three years and over 75% in the next five years, the recidivism rate for BPI graduates is less than 3%. Dyjuan Tatro, BPI alum class of 2018, describes how the program transformed his life in this heartwarming op-ed. He explains how he left prison not just with $40 and a bus ticket like most, but with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Bard College. That summer, Tatro went on to work as a criminal justice policy advisor for an attorney general campaign, then as a project manager for a major software developer, and today holds the position of government affairs officer at the Bard Prison Initiative. Tatro attributes these successes to his experience over four years at BPI and the liberal arts education he acquired. The rigor and critical thinking fostered in the program has kept him occupied and motivated to redefine his life’s path.

Over the past four years, directors Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein and producer Ken Burns have been creating a four-part documentary series, College Behind Bars, that follows the lives and stories of a small group of men and women in medium and maximum security New York State prisons who are working towards degrees through the Bard Prison Initiative. It follows their personal journeys and struggles and poses pressing questions about our society: 

What is prison for? Who has access to education? Who is capable of academic excellence?

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the film’s premiere a few weeks ago and hear speeches from BPI alumni, during which some of these questions were clearly answered for me. The prisoners demonstrated incredible potential, academic ability, and drive to turn their lives around. BPI created independent citizens who, upon being released into the world, followed career paths, contributed to their communities, and have been inspirations to many. Virtually none of them will ever return to prison.

Additionally, the film did not fail to acknowledge a common concern that many have about prison education systems – it is free. While many families go thousands of dollars in debt after paying for their children’s degrees, prison students are able to earn the same degree without paying a single dollar of tuition. Why should taxpayer dollars be helping criminals?

This comes down to a simple conversation of basic values with two main components – do those who have committed serious crimes deserve a chance at education and reparation, and is prison education spending any more money in the long run?

The first part is opinion-based. Yes, many of those incarcerated can be considered to be violent, sinful, dangerous, unlawful. They may be rapists, murderers, or burglars. Various opinions on whether they deserve a chance at repentance are unique to each person’s morals and values.

The second part, however, can be backed up by facts and statistics. Prison education is actually cost-effective in the long run. According to a survey by the Vera Institute of Justice, the average taxpayer cost for housing a single inmate is over $30,000, and some states pay as much as $70,000. Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of these inmates find themselves back in prison within the next few years after their release, while numerous statistics show that BPI graduates nearly never return. 

Prison education is cost-effective, transformative, and instrumental in reducing crime rates. If access to college education opportunities for prisoners was more widespread, it would very likely result in lower retention rates and a formerly incarcerated population that would succeed in careers rather than lack the necessary resources for livelihoods, increasing the odds of them resorting to the same kinds of crimes that got them in prison in the first place.

Education is restorative justice. All humans have the potential to work hard, learn, and succeed. Prisoners should not be defined only by the crimes they once committed, but more importantly by how hard they work to come back from their mistakes. I urge you to take a second look at how you view prisoners, challenge the American education system, and watch the four-part PBS documentary series, College Behind Bars, here for a perspective about hope and new beginnings from the BPI students themselves.