My father was chief of police in Centralia. Every day, when my brothers and I left the house, he would say, “What you do out there is a direct reflection on me.” We didn’t have a lot of financial stability, but we had guidance, and that was priceless.

We were lucky, especially because people who lacked similar guidance walk into state prisons every day. It was never my intent to establish a career in corrections, but after my first years as a corrections counselor, I realized I wanted to immerse myself in helping people achieve a positive course. I came to understand that the majority of inmates lacked the one thing I was blessed with — a nuclear family, and someone to teach the basics of leading a good life.

If you make bad decisions, you’re going to have a bad life. Good decisions, good life. It’s critical to capture people while they’re young to encourage good decision-making while focusing on sound, fundamental principles. A strong sense of self helps guide young men and women to make the positive choices that lead away from the roadblocks to success, like teen pregnancies, having multiple children outside of marriage, choosing negative associates, and failing to focus on educational opportunities.

It’s also imperative to learn the value of hard work while understanding that instant gratification is only temporary. Too often, I talk to inmates who don’t understand that their need for immediate reward of some sort is what landed them in their current predicament.

If we can instill positive values in children through early childhood education, that is a huge step forward. It’s a way to break the cycle that brings inmates here, because generations of problems tend to create generations of more problems. Pennsylvania incarcerates 47,000 inmates in state prisons, and we spend $43,000 a year on each one. That money is an investment in public safety and in turn works to return those individuals to our communities as productive citizens. In contrast, we spend about $8,500 a year per child, for much bigger returns.

High-quality pre-k delivers many benefits that help guide at-risk children in the right direction. Solid research shows that children from high-quality pre-k are more likely to be ready for school, not experience grade retention and graduate from high school. They are less likely to be arrested or incarcerated.

A survey of all incoming male inmates in early 2018 found that those who were suspended in elementary school had higher school dropout rates and were more likely to have been placed in a residential juvenile justice program compared to inmates who had not been suspended.

High-quality pre-k programs instill the basics of reading and math, so children aren’t already behind by the time they enter school. Just as importantly, they teach impulse control and getting along with others. They also partner with parents to teach the importance of reinforcing positive behaviors and reading together. The results add up to starting children off on the right foot, equipped to make good decisions and overcome challenges.

The 2018-19 state budget being considered now proposes an additional $40 million investment in high-quality, publicly funded pre-k, which would serve an additional 4,400 children. As a new report from Fight Crime: Invest in Kids Pennsylvania shows, this investment would save $150 million over the lifetimes of all these kids.

With early childhood education, we pay now for quality assurances that changes lives. Otherwise, as the prison population dictates, we pay much more later. I compare it to planting a tree. It’s very difficult to move an oak once it’s grown. We can try to dig around the roots to change what the tree feeds off, but that can only do so much.

It’s a lot simpler and more effective to straighten the sapling while it’s young. That’s my hope for the children of the inmates under my guidance. I love working with families, and I believe that effective early childhood education can help give children the guidance they need to grow up into quality citizens, equipped to make good decisions and contribute to society.

Thomas McGinley has worked in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections since 1997 and was appointed superintendent of SCI Coal Township in February 2016. Find the report “Pre-K Key to Cutting Pennsylvania Prison Costs and Boosting School Success” at www.strongnation.org/FightCrimePA.