Department of Correction Commissioner Rollin Cook and Sen. Chris Murphy listen to inmates at York Correctional Institution talk about the college classes they have taken behind bars. Ryan Lindsay / Connecticut Public Radio

Mass incarceration is the number one human rights issue of our time.

Mass incarceration disproportionately affects communities of color, and is only exacerbated by recidivism rates. Recidivism refers to the likelihood that someone will return back to prison once they are released, due to a subsequent conviction. These rates can decrease with the proper resources. The big question is: Are prisons doing what they need to do to make sure once people leave they never go back? The answer is, not really.

One of the most effective ways that they can do this is by offering educational resources.

This country needs to create more accessible educational opportunities such as college courses and vocational training to give those inside prisons knowledge and skills they can use to find jobs and provide them with the resources to do better. In the state of Connecticut, there are some educational classes, but they are not accessible to everyone.

During the Obama administration, in 2016, there was an implementation of the Second Chance Pell Grant that created a partnership with community colleges for inmates in Connecticut. This grant allows for inmates to take classes to earn credit for an associate’s degree. Many of them could not participate still because this was not enough money to help them cover everything they needed for the classes. This leaves inmates from communities of color in a lose-lose situation causing them to go back out and commit the same or different crimes instead of getting the necessary support.

The power of education allows prisoners to think about ways they can give back to their communities, build bonds with families, and stop the cycle of imprisonment.

As a current student of color, I understand the value of an education and how it can change the path that people are in. This is what we should be doing to support incarcerated individuals. We claim that prisons are a way to make sure people are held responsible for their actions, but if we don’t have accessible ways to make sure that they don’t return, then this is a failing system.

Fundamentally, educational opportunities decrease recidivism rates tremendously. I support the push for government aid such as the Pell grant because it will allow them not to worry about the cost of their education. This is just one way we can do our part.

I urge policymakers and taxpayers in Connecticut to fight for an increase in funding for educational programs because denying incarcerated people an education directly contributes to systemic racism. People of color in this country have been denied equitable education for way too long and this is simply a way to provide more to our community.

Taxpayers and policymakers may be reluctant to see limited funding providing educational services for incarcerated people. I would ask them to consider how much it costs to keep someone in prison and give them their basic needs such as toiletries, adequate food, and adequate health care. The Connecticut Department of Correction’s (DOC) 2012 study on recidivism reported that of the offenders studied, within five years of returning to society “79 percent were re-arrested, 69 percent were convicted of a new crime, and 50 percent were returned to prison with a new sentence” ultimately making it more expensive and continuing mass incarceration when we can make better investments in the educational system.

There are still a lot of questions that need to be answered to make sure that these programs are affordable and sustainable, so we need to evaluate some of the current programs. Overall, this issue of access is one that we need to think about when trying to support people who have made mistakes.

Renita Washington a Senior Posse scholar at Trinity College. She is an Educational Studies Major with a focus on Early Childhood and Prison Education reform.