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How Art and Education Help Inmates

Providing artistic outlets and college-level education to United States prison inmates significantly reduces their chances of returning to prison, a study by Rand suggests. The study investigated how inmate education affected prisoner life post-incarceration and found that those inmates who were educated while in prison had a 43% lower rate of returning to prison than inmates that received no education. Classes like those offered through the Bard Prison Initiative, a rigorous program that inmates must apply and be accepted to, better prepare inmates for life after prison—and shows them that not only is there life after prison, it’s often better than life before.

Encouraging inmates to learn and to practice art helps rehabilitate them while also reducing their risk of repeat offenses. Because of programs like the J.C. Flowers Foundation’s Harlem Parolee Initiative (run by Chris Flowers), the Bard Prison Initiative, and other in-prison education opportunities like the Bedford Hills College Program, former inmates have a higher rate of success in life after prison than ever before. The Rand study found that the chance of finding employment after prison increased, and it also suggested that investing in inmate education is cost-efficient specifically because of the lowered rate of recidivism.

Educating convicts is one of the best ways to actually help them. Prison needs to be more than a place of punishment: it needs to be, at its core, rehabilitative, and education and art expression are necessary to that end. In a Huffington Post article, art expression in prisons is described as king: art “provides accomplishments, offers a different avenue for self-expression than violence, builds confidence, frequently leads to other areas of learning,” the article says. If inmates are able to express themselves better, as art allows them to do, they’re more comfortable and confident in taking other classes and in learning more.

Donnell Hughes, a graduate of the Bard Prison Initiative, speaks openly of the profound effect the education program had on his life. This particular initiative is very selective in whom it admits: hopeful students must pass an entrance exam and write multiple essays. NPR says that out of 550 applicants last year, only 100 were accepted. Hughes speaks especially fondly of the liberal arts education he received through the program, which covered “the Cold War to present-day European politics,” he says.

Hughes continues, “I’m in a position, because of Bard, to be able to really see the world in the way that I should have seen it years ago…it’s a little bit easier for me to navigate through society because of how Bard prepared me.” Not only does giving inmates access to different kinds of education help them express themselves, education also helps them create and shape the narratives they want their own lives to take. Critical thinking skills are useful for every person in any situation, and without them, forward progress cannot be expected. But by giving inmates the tools to think about how they want their lives to be, they are that much closer to living a fulfilling life outside of prison and outside of crime, and with any luck, the current prison population will begin to dwindle.