“Everybody comes back from prison with an education,” said the Urban Institute’s Jesse Jannetta at a recent briefing. The issue is what s/he’s learned. It could be that society doesn’t care or how to stay safe by linking up with a gang. New ways to get drugs perhaps.
On the other hand, it could be employment-related skills, including basic literacy. Educating inmates pays off, according to a RAND corporation meta-analysis of findings from previously-published studies.
Correctional education, as the researchers call it, isn’t a silver bullet. But it’s worth the investment — not only, as they conclude, because it reduces the extraordinary costs we collectively pay for putting so many people in prison, but because it can mean a genuine second chance for those who are released.
Basic Facts and Figures
About 2.2 million people are in our country’s prisons and jails. More than 70,000 return to their communities each year. And more than 40% of those released from state prisons, which house the vast majority, are back behind bars within three years.
There are various reasons so many ex-felons go back through the revolving door. Inability to get a steady, legal job is a big one.
Much has rightly been made of employers’ refusal to even consider hiring people with a criminal record. But it’s also the case that a large number of returning citizens lack even the minimal qualifications employers commonly look for.
Education and Basic Skills
The figures RAND had to work with are quite old — as are the figures cited above. The most comprehensive I’ve found reflect the results of a 2003 survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics.
Well over a third of the adults assessed lacked a high school diploma or the equivalent. Some weren’t even close. Nine percent had dropped out before starting high school.
Larger percents lacked full competency in the basic literacy skills one needs to cope with everyday tasks, e.g., reading instructions, understanding and filling out a job application, balancing a checkbook.
Below basic scores on these ranged from 16% for “prose literacy,” i.e. understanding a piece of written text, to 39% for quantitative literacy. On the other hand, considerably larger percents scored in the intermediate range for the two non-quantitative types of literacy NCES tested. So we see both opportunities and challenges here.
What’s missing, however, are skills needed to perform everyday tasks on a computer — and as of this year, to take the GED exams. Former prisoners return “digitally illiterate,” the director of the District of Columbia’s Office on Returning Citizens said at the briefing.
Also missing are skills required for certain types of jobs, e.g., auto repairs, construction, food preparation. We do, however know, that about 56% of state prisons and all but 6% of federal prisons offered some type(s) of vocational training when NCES did its study. And RAND’s analysis folds them in.
Correctional Education Pay-Offs
The numerous studies RAND reviewed indicate that former inmates who’d participated in a correctional education program were 13% more likely to get a job than those who hadn’t.
The odds seem considerably higher for those who’d had vocational training than for those who’d had only academic education — 28%, as compared to 8%. But there weren’t enough vocational training-only studies to make this difference statistically reliable.
There were, however, enough studies to make reliable conclusions about the effects of correctional education programs on recidivism.
The good news is that inmates who’d participated in such programs had a 13% lower risk of winding up back behind bars than those who hadn’t. The not-so-good news is that their risk was 30%.
One can chalk this up in part to employers’ reluctance to hire people with criminal records, qualifications notwithstanding. Participants at the briefing mentioned other factors as well, e.g., relapses into substance abuse, trauma, the need to generate an immediate cash flow in order to meet family obligations.
Homelessness is probably also a factor. One in five released prisoners becomes homeless immediately or shortly after returning to the community, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. They face additional obstacles to employment, e.g., no fixed address, no way perhaps to take a daily shower, limited, if any access to a computer.
RAND nevertheless finds that correctional education programs yield cost-savings. Comparing the highest estimated per participant cost to the lowest cost of his/her incarceration, it concludes that the reduced recidivism rate saves $5 for every $1 spent.
This, as the report notes, is overly conservative because it doesn’t include the financial and other costs to the victims of crime or any costs to the criminal justice system, except the jails and prisons.
Nor, as the report doesn’t note, does it include the human costs to returning citizens who go back through the revolving door — and to their families, including children, who are likely to have already suffered harms due to the prior prison term.
Similar arguments can be made for community-based programs that provide education and training for returning citizens who missed out while they were imprisoned — either because they couldn’t get into a program or because they didn’t care to at the time.
Another topic for another day.