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Recidivism in Educated vs Uneducated Inmates: Post-Release

Updated on December 12, 2010

There is some dispute publicly and privately over the true purpose of correctional facilities in the justice system.  Is their role to house, support, rehabilitate, punish, or educate the inmates in their care?  Prisons across America house inmates for a variety of crimes ranging from embezzlement and delinquent child support to child abuse and first-degree murder.  Many people that people in prison should not be given concessions or benefits while serving their time, and that the time served should be as inhospitable and inhumane as possible (thereby serving the "punishment" aspect of incarceration).  Other people feel that inmates should be encouraged to improve their situation and themselves in prison through educational and social programs, thereby making them more capable of becoming productive members of society once they are released.  And other people feel that rehabilitation efforts are wasted because inmates will eventually return to the "life of crime" that led them to prison in the first place.

The rate of recidivism, or the likelihood that a former inmate will once again become incarcerated via a new crime or a parole violation, is a justifiable concern for everyone.  Law enforcement agencies deal with the former inmates when they once again break the law.  Prison officials deal with them when they come back to a correctional facility.  Politicians deal with them if the inmate's crimes bring national attention upon some flaw in the justice system or the protection of private citizens.  And private citizens deal with them if they become victims of a crime, and because a large portion of the funds used to house inmates in prisons across the country come from taxpayer dollars.

Most inmates are males (93% in December 2003) with little or no employable skills.  They are also frequently high school dropouts who have difficulties with reading and writing skills and poor self-concepts, and negative attitudes toward education.  Many were homeless prior to arrest, and almost four times as many were unemployed.  Over half the prison population in the United States are between the ages of 18 and 34, and the ethnic distribution is 35% white, 44% black, and 19% hispanic (IHEP Nov 2005).

Numerous studies have been conducted that show that the recidivism rate is reduced for inmates who receive vocational and/or educational training while they are incarcerated.  The rate declines even further for those who complete a college degree program, and for those who receive a Master's Degree while in prison, the recidivism rate is zero.  Despite these proofs that educating inmates reduces their likelihood of committing further crimes once they are released, opportunities for inmates to receive education while incarcerated are not as prevalent as they should be, and funding toward prison education programs is sparse.

A 1991 study in New York showed that inmates who earned a high school diploma while in prison were half as likely to return to jail or prison compared with those who did not earn the same diploma (based on inmates who did not have the diploma at the time they entered the facility).  A 1997 study in Ohio showed that while the overall recidivism rate in Ohio was 40%, the rate for inmates enrolled in college programs was only 18%.  In addition, the Ohio statistics showed that inmates graduating from the college program reduced the rate of recidivism by 72% when compared with inmates not participating in any education program.  In Canada, a 1997 study showed that inmates who completed at least two college courses had 50% lower recidivism rates than the norm.

Even if educational and vocational programs were standard in all prisons across America and freely available to those who wished to participate, there would still be a roadblock toward the eventual success of an inmate in one of those programs, and that is the fact that nearly half of the adults incarcerated in state and federal prisons can neither read nor write, and they have less than a 8th grade education.  Getting beyond the basics is a hurdle that goes unchallenged more often than not, and remedial education for the majority should be a baseline "norm" rather than college level classes for a select few.

In a December 2004 article in the Journal of Correctional Education, the Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control conducted a study to determine the uses and usefulness of prison literacy and vocational programs of 65,000 inmates in the federal prison system.  The study results showed that inmates were more inclined to participate in programs when they saw clear opportunities to improve their capabilities for success after being released.  The basic ability to read and write drastically boosts a person's chances for success on its own.

Upon release, former inmates automatically have a strike against them when it comes to finding jobs, obtaining subsidized housing, or receiving temporary government benefits while transitioning from life inside to life outside.  They are convicted felons, and even though federal law prohibits employment discrimination against someone solely because they have a criminal conviction, nearly all employers find a way to justify their refusal to hire a felon when that conviction is their only reason for refusal.  Aside from their criminal history, their lack of basic reading and writing skills is another black mark against them.  On top of that, they generally have no employable skills, so the combination makes them the least desirable among any potential candidate pool.  In many cases, this leaves former inmates with little alternative but to go back to the life they were leading before going to prison, since it is certainly more profitable, in the short term, to engage in criminal enterprises than to try to make an honest living when society won't let you.

According to the National Institute of Justice, prison-based education is the single most effective tool for lowering recidivism.  Prison education is far more effective at reducing the likelihood of future crimes than boot camps, shock incarceration, or vocational training.  In 1997, the Correctional Education Association conducted a three-state study of over 3,600 inmates post-release over a three-year period.  Using education participation as the major variable, the study shows that simply attending school behind bars reduces the likelihood of reincarceration by 29%.  Translated into savings, every dollar spent on education (behind bars) returned more than two dollars to the citizens in reduced prison costs.

Several other states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons have conducted their own studies of recidivism and the effects of education to reduce the likelihood of former inmates becoming reincarcerated, and all the studies show a distinct correlation between inmate education and reduced recidivism.  While some people may view inmate education as a "benefit" that inmates shouldn't be afforded since they are behind bars for committing a crime, it still proves to be the most effective deterrent toward future criminal behavior.  That should be viewed as a benefit to society more than a benefit to the inmate.


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