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Study Shows Prison Education is Cost Effective, Improves Employment

by Kelly Petty, published
credit: Wesleyan University Center for Prison Education


Research proves that educating prison inmates is a cost effective approach to eliminating recidivism and increasing employment opportunities for former offenders. The U.S. Justice Department released findings that show prison education programs save taxpayer dollars and turn former inmates into productive citizens.

The study, which was carried out by the RAND Corporation under the auspices of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, found that on average, inmates who participated in prison education programs had a 43 percent lower chance of returning to prison than those who did not.

"These findings reinforce the need to become smarter on crime by expanding proven strategies for keeping our communities safe, and ensuring that those who have paid their debts to society have the chance to become productive citizens," said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Hampered by statistics indicating that the roughly 700,000 incarcerated individuals who leave federal and state prisons each year violate the terms of their release or commit a new crime within 3 years, the study looked at the significance of educating these inmates before they return to their communities.

Since most inmates who participate in these programs have less than a high school education, GED programs are the most popular. Those who get a GED have 30 percent lower odds of returning to prison.

There are other programs inmates have to choose from, including adult basic education, vocational studies, and post-secondary education.

Of the three, vocational studies appear to have the best results in getting inmates trained for jobs that are readily available upon release.

Between these different programs, researchers found that offenders had a 28 percent higher chance of gaining post-release employment when they obtain vocational skills versus academic education. The results suggest that these particular programs give inmates market-ready skills, as well as industry certification and connections with potential employers.

Comparatively, the ABE, high school/GED, and post-secondary programs yield 8 percent higher odds of job placement upon release.

In terms of costs, the study looked at the direct costs of providing education to intimates. For every 100 prisoners, researchers calculated that costs would range from about $140,000 to $174,000 total. That’s about $1,400 to $1,744 per inmate.

These small costs translate into savings when it came to reincarnation costs. Federal and state prisons save a little less than a million dollars when correctional education programs are utilized to limit repeat offenders and parole violators.

For inmates who don’t participate in prison education, recidivism can costs between $2.94 million and $3.25 million. On the other hand, inmates who do engage in correctional education programs cost prisons, on average, $2.07 million and $2.28 million.

Despite promising results, the real problem occurs with continuous funding of these programs. Researchers note that the economic recession hurt many of these programs as states searched for ways they could reduce their budgets.

The study pointed to three states — California, Oklahoma and Texas — who cut the budget for these programs which produced significant effects. California, for example, reduced its correctional budget by 30 percent for fiscal year 2009. That resulted in the elimination of about 712 teaching positions, as well as a 50 percent reduction in vocational programs and a drop in the number of slots for academic and vocational programs by 3,300 and 4,500 slots, respectively.

Oklahoma saw an appropriations reduction of 15 percent for its CareerTech correctional education program between 2009-2012, resulting in the closing of 15 skills centers and a training capacity loss in the welding, carpentry, masonry, plumbing, and electrical programs.

Texas reduced its state prison budget by 27 percent in 2011, pulling roughly $17.8 million per year for 2 years. The loss in funding called for eliminating 271 full-time equivalents, salary reductions for all staff, and cuts in other operating expenses including supplies and travel.

To combat this, computer-assisted instruction has shown promise as researchers discovered that reading and math learning levels have improved among inmates. In addition, the self-paced nature of computers coupled with tutor supervision proved to be less costly to administer.

Armed with these new findings, the Justice Department and Education Department look to continue transforming prison education to benefit inmates, while lessening the costs on taxpayers.

"Correctional education programs provide incarcerated individuals with the skills and knowledge essential to their futures," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. "Investing in these education programs helps released prisoners get back on their feet—and stay on their feet—when they return to communities across the country."

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