As longtime faculty members in BYU’s Department of History, it has of late become clear to us that for all the challenges they face, our students have it pretty good.

COVID-19 disruptions and panics triggered by writing assignments and exams notwithstanding, they have a wealth of benefits and resources at their disposal: A world-class library, reliable internet access, a health clinic, safe and comfortable accommodations, meal plans, relatively affordable tuition, and a host of people — from psychological counselors to career advisers to (we admit) at-times-cranky history professors — who work hard to ensure that their university experience is a successful one. 

We are more aware than ever of those benefits and resources because, for the past year or so, some of our students have enjoyed virtually none of them. As volunteers with the University of Utah Prison Education Project (UPEP), we have each taught semester-long, university-level courses to incarcerated men and women at the Utah State Prison in Draper, covering topics ranging from the French Revolution to the American Civil War. These have been among the most challenging and meaningful experiences of our careers, and have impressed on us the critical need for state government and private institutions to invest in higher education for incarcerated people in Utah. 

The rationale for providing educational opportunities in prison is multifaceted but crystal-clear. Postsecondary education remains the best antidote to recidivism. In one study of over 400,000 released prisoners in 30 states, for example, 75% were re-imprisoned within five years — but those who participated in educational programs were more than 40% less likely to reoffend.

Prison higher education also represents an efficient use of taxpayer funds. Dollar for dollar, educational programming prevents more crimes and re-incarcerations than investments of any other kind in the penal system. 

GED programs, vocational training and Salt Lake Community College courses are already offered at the state prison, albeit to a limited number of students. Adding university level courses to this mix makes good sense. The higher the degree earned while incarcerated, the lower the recidivism rate. In the study cited above, 14% of those who earned associate degrees returned to prison, compared to 5.6% of those who received bachelor’s degrees (and 0% who earned master’s degrees!).

Such statistics reflect better employment opportunities, but we can attest that exposure to higher education also opens incarcerated students’ minds to new interests and passions in ways that statistics cannot convey, helping them become better neighbors, family members and citizens. 

Even before the pandemic, accessing education in prison was not easy. Many in our culture simply believe that those who have committed crimes merit punishment, not rehabilitation or redemption. Security protocols are more important to those who run our correctional facilities than facilitating university classes. COVID-19 and the vulnerability of incarcerated people to its outbreaks have only exacerbated such difficulties. But we have learned that with flexibility and determination from everyone involved, important work can be done, and cheaply.

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Tapping into the expertise and goodwill of university faculty along the Wasatch Front as UPEP moves forward, a combination of modest public and private funding for textbooks and tuition promises to enable higher education in prison on a large scale. 

This effort will not come at the expense of our BYU students. To the contrary, UPEP has mustered a small army of volunteers and interns among students at the University of Utah and BYU who have benefited from, as well as benefited, UPEP’s efforts. As teaching assistants, they have helped our incarcerated students review class content, master study skills, and compose effective essays (the latter in longhand, often with homemade footnotes). While honing their skills as teachers, our traditional students’ experiences in prison have also helped them appreciate the advantages their own educations have given them — and the obligations those advantages entail. 

Both the educators and the educated have been blessed in multiple ways by our work with UPEP. In our view, this should not be surprising, given Christ’s promises to those who venerate him via service to “the least of these.” Of course, the service to those marginalized people in His parable included specifically that “I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” (Matthew 25:34-40) 

Christopher Hodson is an associate professor in the Department of History at Brigham Young University. He lives in Sandy. Matthew Mason is a professor in the Department of History at Brigham Young University. He lives in Springville.

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