The key to changing the rate of recidivism, or tendency to reoffend, lies within the prison education system.
The United States has the distinction of incarcerating far more people per capita than any other country in the world. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than two-million people are currently incarcerated in the United States, and over half of those prisoners are in on drug charges, with the majority serving time for nonviolent crimes. An additional ten percent of the prison population are imprisoned for immigration violations. This means that over seventy percent of prisoners in the US are nonviolent offenders. And of those incarcerated, more than 650,000 prisoners are released every year in the U.S. Low employment levels for that group cost between $57 billion and $65 billion annually in lost economic activity, according to a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Experts say low reading and technological literacy, as well as reluctance among employers to hire former convicts, means many drop out of the labor force altogether.
Whether you are letting Hollywood shape your image of prison by watching the myriad of crime dramas on network and cable TV, or you have a more personal connection through a friend or family member who is incarcerated, most people would agree that prison is not somewhere they would choose to end up. And once someone has been imprisoned, you would imagine that there is a strong desire to not return once released. However, the recidivism rate, or relapse of criminal behavior, is close to sixty percent. Why in the world are so many people who have served their time risking return to prison?
While there are many factors that impact a person’s path to incarceration, access to education and training have a direct impact on the recidivism rate. For inmates who have completed some high school courses, recidivism rates dip a bit to around 55 percent. If you add vocational training, recidivism rates drop to approximately 30 percent. And here’s where the numbers get really interesting- an associate’s degree drops the rate to 13.7 percent and a bachelor’s degree reduces the recidivism rate to 5.6 percent. And if a prisoner gets a master’s degree, the recidivism rate drops to zero percent.
As a society, we can argue whether or not prisoners should be afforded the privilege of a higher education behind bars, but the numbers clearly show that education and training in prisons work. According to Gerard Robinson, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, “economically, it doesn’t make sense to keep people incarcerated as long as we have with no great results. . .The right thing to do is not only give them a second chance, but to also admit the fact that many of them didn’t receive a first chance at school.”
There are several novel initiatives trying to give inmates a second chance, while reducing financial and social costs to society, by bringing college education and professional training, and even entrepreneurship programs to populations behind bars. One that gets a lot of attention is the Bard Prison Initiative. The privately funded college baccalaureate program started in 1999, and now provides college education to more than 300 students in six locations within the New York state prison system. This program is fantastic, but Dr. Turner Nashe is currently reaching 10,000 prisoners with his education system.
Dr. Turner Nashe, President of IDS – is an entrepreneur, inventor, innovator and recognized leader in building technology that facilitates delivery of educational content to security sensitive industries such as correctional facilities, hospitals and school administrators. Dr. Nashe says that how we deliver education to inmates, is as important as the curriculum. He says, “we lose sight of the fact that inmates are being incarcerated in prison as young as 18. These folks are digital natives. All they’ve ever done is grow up on a small screen and have access to this.” Instead of reaching small groups of prisoners in a physical classroom, we have the opportunity to reach a much broader group of inmates through classrooms presented on tablets.”
The cost to educate inmates and help them to become productive members of society is much less than the $39 billion that is spent annually to maintain prisons. Recognizing that investing in education and ensuring a path that keeps inmates out of prison secures a future that in the long-term benefits many more people.