The United States has the largest prison population in the world, with more than 2.2 million inmates in federal, state and local facilities. Although the number of life sentences has quadrupled since 1984, every year approximately 700,000 citizens leave federal and state prisons in the United States to begin a new life. Moreover, the number of releases from U.S. prisons in 2012 exceeded that of admissions for the fourth consecutive year, contributing to a slight decline in the total U.S. prison population.
The professional and personal lives of these individuals after they leave prison show great variety, across different states and income levels. Many ex-offenders struggle to reintegrate into their communities and face significant challenges in re-entering the job market. In this context, recidivism often ensues: The Pew Center on the States suggests that perhaps half of all inmates released will return within three years.
But the story of their life challenges typically begins even before conviction and prison time. A 2014 U.S. National Research Council report, authored by some of the nation’s leading criminal justice scholars, notes:
Many people enter prison with educational deficits and could benefit from education while incarcerated. Literacy rates among prisoners generally are low, and substantially lower than in the general population…. Over the past 40 years, the percentage of prisoners having completed high school at the time of their incarceration fluctuated between about one-quarter and more than one-third for state prison inmates, with higher rates for those housed in federal facilities.
The report also discusses the recent policy dynamics associated with prison education:
On a positive note, basic correctional education programs have been enhanced in response to “mandatory education laws” at both the state and federal levels, requiring prisoners who score below a certain threshold on a standardized test to participate while in prison. Since the Federal Bureau of Prisons implemented the first mandatory literacy program in the early 1980s, 44 percent of states have instituted such requirements…. On the other hand, as part of the “get tough” movement discussed earlier, in 1994 Congress restricted inmates from receiving Pell grants, which had been enacted and funded by Congress in the 1970s as a way for disadvantaged groups to obtain postsecondary education. Moreover, reductions in federal funding under the Workforce Investment Act cut funding for correctional education to a maximum of 10 percent (from a minimum of 10 percent).
A 2014 study published by RAND Corporation, “How Effective is Correctional Education, and Where Do We Go from Here?” critically analyzes results across 267 empirical studies, performing what is called research “metaanalysis.” The researchers — Lois M. Davis, Jennifer L. Steele, Robert Bozick, Malcolm V. Williams, Susan Turner, Jeremy N. V. Miles, Jessica Saunders and Paul S. Steinberg — present a rigorous and systematic review of correctional education programs in the United States, as well as the results of a national survey to state correctional education directors, summarizing the main achievements and challenges faced by the field. The overall analysis suggests that correctional education has a positive and statistically significant effect on three domains that are key for reinsertion into civil society: recidivism (going back to prison because of additional crimes), post-release employment, and reading and math scores. The RAND research is designed to provide the best available evidence to help inform federal policy, following the Second Chance Act of 2007.
The study’s findings include:
- Inmates who participated in correctional education programs had “43% lower odds of recidivating than inmates who did not.” This represents a reduction of 13 percentage points on the risk of recidivism.
- The odds of obtaining employment after being released among inmates who participated in correctional education were 13 percent higher than the odds for those who did not. However, the scholarship in this area is not as strong, making the conclusion subject to further research.
- Correctional education is a cost effective initiative; every dollar spent on prison education could save up to five dollars on three-year reincarceration costs. In this sense, the direct costs of reincarceration are far greater than the direct costs of providing correctional education.
- The study also found that for a correctional education program to be cost-effective — or to break even — it would need to “reduce the three-year reincarceration rate by between 1.9 percentage points and 2.6 percentage points.”
- The overall “meta-analytic findings indicate that participation in correctional education programs is associated with a 13 percentage-point reduction in the risk of reincarceration three years following release. Thus, correctional education programs appear to far exceed the break-even point in reducing the risk of reincarceration.”
- Overall, the mean dollars spent per student for correctional education was $3,479 in FY2009, compared with $3,370 in FY2012. This represented a 5% decrease on average in the dollars spent per student.
The report also presents the results of the RAND Correctional Education Survey, which show that, due to the economic recession of 2008, there was an overall 6 percent decrease on average in states’ correctional education budgets between fiscal years 2009 and 2012. The largest impact on budgets was felt by medium-sized and large states (on average, a 20 percent and 10 percent decrease, respectively). Nevertheless, despite the contraction after the recession, most states (44) still offered adult basic education.
One of the most interesting contributions of the RAND study is to shift the discussion from whether these correctional educational programs should exist, to what type and quality of programs would be more effective. In this discussion, the authors identify several promising initiatives: Read 180 (for reading improvement); and Florida’s Avon Park Youth Academy (for diploma completion and post-release employment).