My View: Education for prisoners pays dividends to society

Rachael Hanel

Rachael Hanel

In an April 17 letter, Vivian Smith listed a variety of line items in the Minnesota House of Representative’s omnibus spending bill that she presumably disagrees with. Among the line items: funding for “poetry, art, and dance classes for felons,” which refers to HF2167.

For the past two years I have taught in Minnesota State University’s Scholars Serving Time program, created by Dr. Vicki Hunter and modeled after similar programs at universities across the country. Currently we have students at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee and the Federal Correctional Institute in Waseca. Previously we offered classes at MCF-Faribault as well. These students are all working to earn associate of arts (A.A.) degrees. They take the same classes and have the same professors as our on-campus students.

This semester I travel to MCF-Shakopee to teach an ethics in nonfiction class. This class is the highlight of my week. My students are dedicated and thoughtful and we have robust discussions. I can pose a question and they are still debating the question a half an hour later. I see evidence of their critical thinking skills and analysis every time I’m in the classroom.

Studies have shown that educational opportunities for incarcerated persons can reduce recidivism. In 2013, the U.S. Justice Department released information from a study that found those who had participated in educational programs while incarcerated reduced their odds of re-offending by 43 percent.

In addition, educational and/or vocational training increased employment by 13 percent after release. The study also found that any costs associated with educational programs in correctional facilities more than pay for themselves in terms of reduced recidivism.

Plainly stated, it costs money to send a person back to prison — more than it costs to provide education inside of correctional facilities. You can find detailed information on the study here:

A few of my students have published letters to the editor in the Minnesota State University Reporter to let the campus community know what a difference this program makes in their lives. Among some of their comments:

“I will continue to strive for excellence. I’m also looking forward to getting back out into the community to pay it forward.”

“It motivates me to keep going and keep fighting. It shows me that somebody (several somebodies) do care. That I do still exist. That I do matter. There are no words that can describe the magnitude of my appreciation for this program.”

And from a 2022 graduate of the program: “The one thing that I can honestly say I’m glad I had the opportunity to walk away with: hope.”

The sentences for many incarcerated persons eventually come to an end and they return to their communities. Wouldn’t you want people returning who 1) have a better chance of finding a job upon release 2) are less likely to re-offend and 3) have increased confidence and self-worth? Those are just three of many positive results that can arise from educational and enrichment opportunities for incarcerated persons.

Rachael Hanel is an associate professor of creative writing at Minnesota State University. She lives in Madison Lake.