Educating Prisoners Saves Money

Inmates participating in education programs are less likely to return to prison, and correctional education saves money in prison costs. It costs billions to keep the vast numbers of prisoners incarcerated. Correctional education programs offer a significant return on investment.

The Cost Americans Incur

As of 2014, America spends more than $70 billion to keep 2.3 million people in prison (NAACP, n.d.).

“Tough on crime” policies begun in the 1980s increased state spending on corrections by 427% between 1986 and 2012, from $9.9 billion to $52.4 billion (Pattison, 2013).
Pressures are mounting to cut spending on corrections, but the challenge is to reduce spending without increasing crime.  Prison education achieves this goal because it reduces recidivism, boosts the employment of released offenders, and is cost-effective.

Prison Education Gives an Impressive Return on Investment 

Studies prove that educating inmates saves money on prison costs. Check out the studies below:


A 2006 meta-analysis estimated savings from reduced recidivism due to prison education. The savings were:

  • $6,806 of marginal savings for every inmate taking vocational training, or $5.76 per dollar spent on vocational training.
  • $13,738 when including avoided losses to new victims.
  • $10,669 for general education.

Citation:  Aos, Miller, & Drake, 2006.


The Iowa Department of Corrections calculated their return on investment from 2001 to 2011, based on avoided costs of arrest, prosecution, and incarceration.  The savings were:

  • $6,095 saved (after education costs) for every inmate taking vocational training, or a return of $4.52 per dollar spent.
  • $5,604 for general education or $2.91 for every dollar spent.

Citatation: Prell, 2013.


RAND Corporation conducted the most extensive meta-analysis of the effects of prison education to date. They estimated every dollar spent on prison education saves between $4.55 and $5.26. These savings excluded avoided losses to new victims of crime (Davis, Bozick, Steele, Saunders, & Miles, 2013).

Using the following accepted assumptions, we can model potential savings through correctional education.

  • The cost of incarceration is around $30,000 per inmate per year.
  • The recidivism rate at three years post-release is 40%.
  • The average stay in prison on re-incarceration is 2.4 years.
  • The cost of prison education averages $1,570 per inmate.

Citation: Davis et al., 2013.

Potential Savings from Secondary Education

Let’s look at some facts:

  • About 40% of state and 27% of federal prisoners (600,000 people) have neither a high school diploma nor GED.
  • Only 26% of state and federal inmates report having taken secondary education while in prison (Harlow, 2003).
  • Approximately 192,000 inmates do not receive secondary education.

Without education, let’s assume 40% (76,800 prisoners) return to prison within three years.

According to RAND Corporation’s meta-analysis, secondary education reduces recidivism by 30%.  If 192,000 prisoners received secondary education, 23,040 fewer offenders would be re-incarcerated.

Now subtract the cost of educating 192,000 prisoners from the avoided incarceration costs for the 23,040 released offenders who do not return. The answer is $390 million of net savings for each year of avoided incarceration.

Using RAND’s average period of re-incarceration of 2.4 years, the savings rise to $1.36 billion.  That’s $4.50 saved per dollar spent on secondary education.  It does not include avoided costs for arrest, prosecution, or losses to future victims.

If all inmates without a high school diploma or GED received secondary education, we could save $1.36 billion in incarceration costs alone.

Failure to Provide Vocational Training is Costing a King’s Ransom

We can apply the same exercise to vocational training. Look at some facts again:

  • 60% of state inmates and 73% of federal inmates are eligible for vocational training or college-level courses (Bazos & Hausman, 2004).
  • Only 34% of prison inmates participate in higher education (Harlow, 2003).
  • About 436,000 prisoners are eligible for vocational or college programs but take neither.
  • About 90% of prisoners taking post-secondary education opt for vocational training.
  • Around 392,000 inmates do not take vocational training (Crayton & Neusteter, 2008).

Let’s use the same method as before. Providing 392,000 inmates with vocational training results in 56,450 fewer re-incarcerations (RAND estimates vocational training reduces recidivism by 36%).  This equals $1.08 billion of net savings per year of avoided incarceration.  Using RAND’s average re-incarceration period of 2.4 years, total savings are $3.45 billion in averted incarceration costs alone.

We’ll go through the same exercise for college education.

Let’s assume 10% of qualified inmates not taking post-secondary education opt for college courses. RAND estimates college courses reduce recidivism by 51%.

The calculations result in 8,895 avoided re-incarcerations, saving $198 million per year of avoided re-incarceration, or $572 million for an average re-incarceration period of 2.4 years (Harlow, 2003).

These estimates give an idea of the potential savings for avoided incarceration costs.  They do not include savings from avoided arrests, prosecutions, or losses to victims.  They also exclude benefits in tax revenue and consumer spending from the increased employment rates and higher wages.

Investment in Correctional Education Reaps Huge Savings

2004 Studies

One study discovered that $1 million spent on correctional education prevents 350 crimes. That’s almost twice as effective as investing in expanding prisons (Bazos & Hausman, 2004).

The Pew Center on the States calculated that if the 41 states who participated in their survey could cut recidivism by 10%, they could save more than $635 million each year in averted prison costs (Pew Charitable Trusts, 2011).


The Criminal Justice Policy Council estimated that establishing the Windham School District would save Texas $6.6 million for every one percentage point reduction in recidivism (Tracy & Johnson, 1994).  In fact, prison education saved Texas $95 million each year (Knott, 2012).

Texas correctional authorities recognize prison education is the most cost-effective crime prevention method.


The Pew Center on the States estimated cutting 10% in recidivism would save California $233 million annually (Pew Charitable Trusts, 2011).


A 4% reduction in recidivism for two years saved $65 million in costs to the criminal justice system and to victims (Conlon, Nagel, Hillman, & Hanson, 2008).


Government analysts calculated that the state’s in-prison education programs saved taxpayers $24 million each year, more than double what Maryland was spending on education programs (Gaes, 2008).


Prisoners get credit toward early release for successful completion of educational programs.  From 2008-2009, Indiana credited 1.3 million days, saving $68 million in averted incarceration costs (Steurer, Linton, Nally, & Lockwood, 2010).  The figure does not include savings from reduced recidivism due to participation in educational and training programs.

Education in Prison is Fiscally, Socially, and Morally Responsible

When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed funding for college education in the state’s prisons, he caused a firestorm of protest.  People were outraged about providing offenders with free college courses while they struggle to pay for their own college tuition or their children’s tuition (Virtanen, 2014).

However, it costs New York $60,000 a year for incarceration. Paying for the college education of just 1% of New York’s 55,000 prisoners could save enough in averted incarceration costs to pay the full annual tuition of almost 1,000 law-abiding students at the State University of New York or almost 2,500 at community colleges (Virtanen, 2014).

Investing in prison education saves five times the amount initially invested, and much more in averting losses to future victims. There is also increased tax revenue, consumer spending from employed ex-offenders, and reduced social services costs.  At the same time, populations of prisons fall, perpetuating savings, all while rehabilitating offenders and making communities safer.


Aos, S., Miller, M., & Drake, E. (2006). Evidence-based public policy options to reduce future prison construction, criminal justice costs, and crime rates. Washington State Institute for Public Policy. Olympia, WA.

Bazos, A., & Hausman, J. (2004, March). Correctional education as a crime control program. UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research, Department of Policy Studies.

Conlon, S. H., Nagel, J., Hillman, M., & Hanson, R. (2008, February). Education: Don’t leave prison without it. Corrections Today, pp. 48-52.

Crayton, A., & Neusteter, S. R. (2008, April 1). The current state of correctional education. Paper presented at the Re-Entry Roundtable on Education, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Prisoner Reentry Institute. New York.

Davis, L. M., Bozick, R., Steele, J., Saunders, J., & Miles, J. N. (2013). Evaluating the effectiveness of correctional education – A meta-analysis of programs that provide education to incarcerated adults. RAND Corporation.

Gaes, G. G. (2008, February 18). The impact of prison education programs on post-release outcomes. Paper presented at Re-Entry Roundtable on Education, John Jay College of Criminal Justice. New York.

Harlow, C. W. (2003). Education and correctional populations.  Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, U.S. Department of Justice. NCJ 195670.

Knott, G. A. (2012). Cost and punishment: Reassessing incarceration costs and the value of college-in-prison programs. Northern Illinois University Law Review, 32, 267-293.

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (n.d.). Criminal justice fact sheet. Retrieved 9/19/2014 from

Pattison, S. (2013, September). State spending on corrections: Long-term trends and recent criminal justice policy reforms. National Association of State Budget Officers. Washington, DC.

Pew Charitable Trusts (2011). State of recidivism: The revolving door of America’s prisons. Pew Charitable Trusts, Pew Center on the States. NCJ 234180.

Prell, L. (2013, September/October). Iowa results first: The cost-benefit of corrections programs. Corrections Today, p. 68.

Steurer, S. J., Linton, J., Nally, J., & Lockwood, S. (2010, August). The top-nine reasons to increase correctional education programs. Corrections Today, pp. 40-43.

Tracy, C. & Johnson, C. (1994). Three-year outcome study of the relationship between participation in the Windham School System programs and reduced levels of recidivism.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Windham School District. Huntsville, Texas. TR 94-001.

Virtanen, M. (2014, February 18). New York state senators oppose Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to expand college funding for prison inmates. Daily Freeman News, Associated Press. Retrieved 9/19/2014.