In August, the RAND Corporation released a meta-analysis confirming what criminal justice researchers have been reporting for years: Educating people while they're behind bars makes them a lot less likely to return to prison once they get out. Specifically, RAND found that inmates who participated in correctional education programs were 43 percent less likely to become repeat offenders than inmates who didn't.
When it comes to making cities safer, decreasing the odds of former prisoners re-offending by almost half has the potential for a huge impact. But education is also a difficult service to provide behind bars. One of the downsides of having the largest incarcerated population in the world—both per capita and in real numbers—is that the participation rate of prisoners in educational programs has actually declined, according to RAND's study. At the federal prison level, a 2012 GAO report found that the number of people waiting to get into basic prison literacy programs was almost equal to the number of people in those programs. Access to anything beyond the most basic education programs is even more scarce: Between 1995, the year Congress revoked Pell Grant access for prisoners, and 2005, the number of post-secondary prison programs for inmates fell by more than 90 percent.
With so little investment in experimentation, the ideal correctional education program is something of a mystery. That's why the Vera Institute of Justice last year launched its Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education Project. Over the next five years, Pathways is providing funding for prisoners to enroll in either two- and four-year degree programs two years before their release date, and for the four-year programs, continues to fund their education for two years after release. The idea, says Pathways Director Fred Patrick, is that prisoners can re-enter society prepared to work in growth fields like information technology, or continue toward a four-year degree by transferring their credits to participating four-year institutions.
"We grow up in a society that puts a high premium on education from birth," Patrick says. "That's because it's transformative. It turns individuals around in terms of being a good citizen, a good neighbor, and less likely to commit a crime."
Scaling the Pathways project, which currently works with 21 prisons and 17 colleges in New Jersey, North Carolina, and Michigan, would be ambitious. It requires not only willing participation by post-secondary institutions, but also input from local businesses to determine what jobs need filling, as well as funding for tuition, prison tutors, Skype access, and campus-based reentry counselors. At a time when Republicans in Washington have expressed interest in cutting Pell Grant funding by $170 billion, it's hard to imagine Congress providing the money necessary to take Vera's program nationwide.
Which is why Patrick is quick to point out that spending more on prison education means spending less money elsewhere. Not only are criminal justice costs reduced, but "you’re keeping people off public assistance by letting someone come home and make a living wage. You’re keeping people off Medicaid. You’re inspiring these people to care about things that other people care about."
Patrick can even imagine the Pathways project as a way to "restore vibrancy" to high-crime neighborhoods. "In almost every state you can track the neighborhoods that the vast majority of people in prison come from," he says. Allowing offenders to return to those neighborhoods with jobs and an education is "an investment in a safer community."
Top image: An inmate reads a book in a gymnasium where they are housed due to overcrowding at the California Institution for Men state prison in Chino, California. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson