A good education is a foundation for a better future. 

-Elizabeth Warren, United States Senator

In 1994, Pell Grants to incarcerated students were cut off. This hasn’t stopped incarcerated students from taking courses on their own. Many prisoners study through correspondence, some even received graduate-level diplomas. Other incarcerated people have written books, newspaper articles, and even plays. So yes, learning a skill in prison definitely pays off, even if you’re still in there.

It has been shown that prison education programs not only reduce participant recidivism but can also be a catalyst in improving literacy. For these reasons, there is renewed interest in changing the rules so that prisoners will be able to access federal grant money to pay for their education. Should this happen, I would expect there to be more correspondence course offerings and additional in-prison college classes. For now, though, correspondence offerings are somewhat limited as many colleges have moved towards online programs for distance education. 

Still, there are plenty of opportunities for the motivated individual and I’ve attempted to compile a list of those on this website. The question though, is prison education worth it?

An Investment or Revolving Door

An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.

 -Benjamin Franklin

So many prison education programs seem to be in shambles. An idea that was once a beacon of hope now shines dimly. And it’s not that prison officials don’t want to help, it’s just not in the budget. When lawmakers say that the funds are not available for prison education, they are taking a very short-sighted view. In fact, the cost of educating a prisoner so he can successfully re-enter society is less than the cost of housing the recidivist. 

Certainly, then, it benefits society more to rehabilitate the offender than it does to rearrest him. More simply, the community would be better off with one more taxpayer than one more person eating on the government’s dime. If anything, our society should look at this expense not as money down the drain, but as an investment in the future. Better citizens will create a better city. 

One of the roles of prison is to rehabilitate the criminal. To make them productive members of society. And until the mid-1970s, rehabilitation was a key part of U.S. prison policy. Prisoners were encouraged to develop occupational skills and to resolve psychological issues, such as substance abuse or aggression, that might interfere with their reintegration with society. 

Since then, however, rehabilitation has given way to a “get tough on crime” approach that sees punishment as prison’s main function. This new approach created explosive growth in the prison population, with little effect on crime rates.

I am suggesting that our correctional system should be on corrections instead of punishment. This means first and foremost ensuring that each inmate has the opportunity to learn a new way of life. There are tons of studies that show education is by far the most effective way to reduce crime. It also happens to be the least costly. A 2004 study by the University of California found that spending $1 million on prison education prevents about 600 crimes, and the same amount spent on incarceration prevents only 350 crimes. Most people want a safe community. Reducing recidivism achieves that. If we could reduce it by just ten percent, we would save more than $30 million dollars a year, just from building and operating few facilities. 

This figure doesn’t even take into account the additional tax money that would be generated by transforming bad guys into good guys. Seriously, though? Isn’t that our goal. Shouldn’t those who are able to pay taxes instead of draining the taxpayers? When you teach a person a trade, they are able to support themselves and provide for their families. When separation is the main goal, instead of integration and education, we pull families apart.

More Education Stops The Revolving Door

He who opens a school door, closes a prison.

-Victor Hugo, French Poet

Over the last two decades, a number of studies have been conducted which demonstrate that higher education in prison programs reduces recidivism. In the long run, this translates into a reduction in crime, savings to taxpayers, and safer communities. 

Research on prison education programs has presented disheartening statistics on the current recidivism rate. In 2011, The Institute for Higher Education Policy reported that nearly 7 in 10 previously incarcerated will commit a new crime. Half of those people will end up back in prison within the three years following their release.

According to this same report, 95 out of every 100 incarcerated people eventually rejoin society. This is why developing programs and tools to reduce recidivism is critical. The National Institute of Justice says that higher education in prison is more effective at reducing recidivism than boot camps, “shock” incarceration, or vocational training.

But just how effective is it? A 2005, report states that recidivism rates for incarcerated people who had participated in prison education programs were 46 percent lower than the norm. The same report examined fifteen different studies conducted during the 1990s. Fourteen of these showed lower long-term recidivism rates.

Most of the people in U.S. prisons arrive without a high school diploma. There is a strong correlation between an inmate’s level of education and his recidivism rate. The American Correctional Association examined recidivism rates in Indiana and found that those who completed their GED had 20 percent lower recidivism rate. For those who completed college degrees, the recidivism rate is 44 percent lower.

Education Investment Cuts Long Term Costs

Jails and prisons are the complement of schools; so many less as you have of the latter, so many more must you have of the former.

-Horace Mann, American Educational Reformer

The high cost of correctional spending is made worse by a high national recidivism rate of about 67.5 percent. Re-incarceration, of course, contributes to an ever-increasing prison population. By reducing recidivism, prison education has the potential to reduce the entire prison population, and as a result overall prison costs.  

Investing one million dollars “in incarceration will prevent about 350 crimes, while that same investment in education will prevent more than 600 crimes,” according to a University of California at Los Angeles study. This makes correctional education about twice as cost-effective as incarceration.

Post-secondary education provides several public benefits, including increased tax revenues and decreased use of governmental support. Fewer people with a Bachelor’s degree report receiving public assistance than with a bachelor’s degree. In the long run, paying for education would be cheaper than paying for the cycle of reincarceration.