Studies have consistently shown that those imprisoned tend to have lower levels of formal, academic education. Some have suggested that as many as half of U.S. prisoners are functionally illiterate — implying an inability to read at a 6th grade reading level. While the effects of providing basic literacy classes to prison inmates has the potential to significantly improve prisoner’s post-release lives, and also has been proven to slash participants’ recidivism rates, it is college-level education in prison that has consistently proven to be the most cost-effective, verifiable method of reducing recidivism.
The research shows that the higher the level of education attained while in prison, the lower the recidivism rate and the higher post-release employment rates. Nationwide, as many as 60 percent of released inmates recidivate within 3 to 5 years of release from correctional custody. The numbers are worse — albeit not substantially worse — at the 10-year mark for the average American prisoner.
It has been shown on a consistent basis that prison inmates who further their education while in prison recidivate at a substantially lower rate than regular American prisoners. While basic literacy, GED, Adult Basic Education (ABE), Adult Continuing Education (ACE), vocational training, and other, lower-level forms of prison education have consistently proven to lower recidivism rates, nothing has proven to be as effective as college in prison (called “Postsecondary Correctional Education” in the prison education field and academic literature).
The Journal of Correctional Education has shown that prisoners who attain an Associate’s degree recidivate at rates in the 20th percentile, those who attain a Bachelor’s degree recidivate at rates in the 10th percentile, and those with graduate degrees effectively don’t recidivate at all (according to the Correctional Education Association’s various studies and the Journal of Correctional Education’s published meta-studies).
While educating prisoners might not feel like the most comfortable choice when viewed through the lens of punishment for crime and retribution for crime victims, it has proven again and again to be one of the smartest crime control methods we currently have at our disposal. Prison education works. It does not stop the initial instance of crime, but it does significantly reduce the instance of repeat crime. And it also fights against the generational cycle of crime from incarcerated parent to future, incarcerated child.
It’s time we stopped bickering about how prisoners should be treated. It’s time we stopped accepting a national corrections industry that devours $50 to $62 billion a year in taxpayer funds. It’s time to start supporting smart on crime control policies. Postsecondary correctional education programming is chief among the available policies.