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Prison Wise, Dollar Foolish – Prison Education is Not Just Humane, it is a Smart Money Move Too

Sister Tesa, Opus Laureate and founder of the groundbreaking program, Hour Children, is a feisty advocate for prisoner rights. Tesa believes that humane treatment and education opportunities are vital for prisoners.


And it isn’t just because humane treatment is the bedrock of a just society. Prison conditions affect all of us. Countless studies have shown us that prisons have a profound effect on inmates. But what wasn’t as well studied were the effects that harsh penal systems have on the society at large. It has now become clear that what happens in prison doesn’t stay in prison. Upon release, behaviors and lessons learned stay with those inmates, resulting in a population of ex-convicts who will reflect those lessons. The conditions they experience will lead those who leave prison to be more likely to be; violent and recidivist, or well-adjusted and capable of leading fulfilled satisfying lives.

Sometimes in public policy decisions, we don’t know what the outcomes will be. When it comes to prison education and rehabilitation, this is not the case. Make no mistake, we know what works, we know what the effects of our current policies are. And yet we continues on a misguided war on drugs, and the harshest mandatory sentencing laws in the western world.

We can end prison recidivism with better prison programs and humane dignified treatment, or we can keep ratcheting up the punishment and build more prisons to house an ever larger percentage of the population.

The statistics are not in question.

RAND Study Shows Prison Education Saves States Money

The RAND Corporation issued a study that showed that states saved $4 to $5 for every $1 spent on prison education. How are these returns possible?

The prison recidivism rate tells the story. Most states have a prison recidivism rate of 40% or more. This means that within 3 years, 40% of those released from prison will be right back behind those bars.

Keeping inmates in prison is expensive. Costs vary by state and the security required for particular categories of convicts, but they range from $40,000 per inmate per year in Washington, to $60,000 per inmate per year, in New York State. High recidivism means far more prisoners in jail at any given time. And that results in huge tax bills for the public, to take care of all of those prisoners. It’s a horrifically large price tag to house people in such wretched circumstances.

So how much of a difference can prison education make?

After all, these same prisoners had educational options when they were on the outside which they failed to take advantage of. Studies from the U.S. Justice Department, and many state corrections departments have found that job training and worker education programs typically reduce recidivism by 43%. That is a big number that could save most jurisdictions serious money.

Even more significantly, the Bard College Prison Education Program, developed in 2001, has shown that participants in their program have a recidivism rate of just 4%. Prisoners who earn a degree in their program have a recidivism rate of only 2.5%. In other words, a well-designed education program can reduce recidivism by more 90% or more.

Educational Access Has Been Reduced and Restricted in the Past 20 Years

In 1991, there were 1078 degrees awarded to New York Prison Inmates in 1991. In 2011, only 141 were awarded. This is largely the result of a huge change in the availability of prison programs for those who are incarcerated. There were more than 70 available programs in the 1990s, now there are a mere 4. Most inmates do not have access to education beyond the most rudimentary and pedantic.

There are costs and benefits to all of our decisions as a society. One cost of relying upon harsh punishment and incarceration for crimes and infractions is that we have become a less humane country with ever-increasing levels of social dysfunction. But, lack of prisoner rehabilitation and education costs every one of us a bundle.

For years, as a nation, we have relied upon ever more punitive and harsh criminal justice sentences and prison conditions. The logic was based on the deterrent value of these methods, if the sentences are simply harsh enough, people will stop committing crimes.

This hasn’t worked. As a matter of fact, the United States is not the only country which has dabbled in this folly. There is incontrovertible correlation showing that harsh punitive punishment almost always leads to higher incarceration rates and more crime, while rehabilitation, education, support, and a focus on human dignity reduce crime, prison populations, and social dysfunction.

For those who claim to be sincere about cutting government budgets, it’s high time to start funding high quality prisoner education and re-entry programs.

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