The Importance of Effective Correctional Education

Prisoners need better and more effective correctional education programs.
September 11, 2015
By Christopher Zoukis
Improving the Quality and Delivery of Prison Education
Prisoners need better and more effective correctional education programs. With 640,000 offenders released every year, rehabilitation plays a huge role in their behavior and prison education is the best rehabilitation tool. Yet, availability and quality varies. More classroom time, qualified teachers, funding, research and incentives are needed.
Prison Education: A Simple Concept with Vast Benefits
President Lyndon Johnson once said, “At the desk where I sit I have learned one great truth. The answer for all national problems—the answer for all the problems of the world—comes in a single word. That word is ‘education’ ” (Ramsey, 2006).
America’s prison system is overcrowded, expensive, and broken, but prison education can fix many of its problems. Upgrading education would bring fiscal, social, and correctional benefits. Released offenders could be properly rehabilitated, with the knowledge and skills to find jobs, pay taxes, and enrich the economy. Around 40% of released offenders return to prison within three years, and up to 80% within 10 years. This model is not sustainable (Davis, Bozick, Steele, Saunders, & Miles, 2013).
Boosting High School Attendance
Around 40% of prisoners have no high school diploma or GED (Harlow, 2003). Earning a GED in prison is associated with 30% less recidivism (Davis et al., 2013), up to 50% of an increase in employment rates (Holloway & Moke, 1986), and approximately $1,000 more in yearly wages (Tyler & Kling, 2007). Yet 25% of state prisons, 29% of private prisons, and 45% of local jails don’t offer high school education (Harlow, 2003). Secondary education should be available in all prisons, even if only as self-directed computer learning.
Classroom time needs to be increased since many inmates receive barely an hour a day of instruction. There is also a lack of Spanish-speaking teachers. Hispanic men make up 22% of the prison population (Spycher, Shkodriani, & Lee, 2012), and 53% have neither a GED nor a high school diploma (Harlow, 2003).
We can learn a lot from innovative schemes around the country. They include:

  • Texas’s Windham School District: established for prisoners and saving the state millions each year (Erisman & Contardo, 2005).
  • Florida’s Online Campus Program: an online school district for prisoners (Straumshine, 2013).
  • San Francisco’s Five Keys Charter School at San Francisco Jail: won the 2014 Hart Vision Award for best charter school in California (Kennedy, 2013).
  • Georgia’s Catoosa County Jail: collaborates with a local technical college and a community literacy group (Colbaugh, 2014).

Helping Those with Learning Disabilities
According to The Bureau of Justice Statistics, two-thirds of inmates without a high school diploma or GED have learning difficulties (Harlow, 2003). The Ohio Legislative Office of Educational Oversight estimated that 50-80% of Ohio’s inmates had learning problems. Few teachers have skills in this area (Cogswell, 1994). Teaching staff and inmate tutors do most of the teaching and should have the proper training.
Training for Jobs: Vocational Training for Inmates
Employment is critical in keeping prisoners from re-offending. Up to 89% of those returning to prison are unemployed (Kimmitt, 2011). Vocational training accounts for 90% of post-secondary education in prisons (Harlow, 2003). A third of state and federal inmates take vocational training (Harlow, 2003).
Participation in vocational training is associated with 36% less recidivism, over 50% for graduates (Hull, Forrester, Brown, Jobe, & McCullen, 2000), and a 28% increase in employment rates (Davis et al., 2013). Yet, 6% of federal prisons, 44% of state, 56% of private prisons, and 93% of local jails have no vocational training programs (Harlow, 2003).
Capacity should increase to maximize the number of inmates interested in vocational training. Even local jails should look at possibilities. One sheriff considered investing in a pizza oven, both to cook meals and to train inmates in its use (Adams, 2013).
Other American prisons have innovative approaches. For example, the J.F. Ingram State Technical College is co-located with several prisons in Alabama. The Milwaukee Area Technical College provides distance learning to inmates in eight states (Tolbert, 2009).
Prisons should gear vocational training towards recognized qualifications and in-demand trades. Indiana targets its vocational programs towards occupations that are in high demand and that have inadequate supply of people (Lloyd, 2007). Click on the infographic to discover which trades the U.S. Department of Labor predicts will be in demand by 2022.
Prison industries don’t often provide useful training, and should focus on skills useful outside of prison.  In the United Kingdom, a shoe repair chain called Timpson employs inmates out on a day-release/work-release, and offers jobs to many after prison. Similar programs are run in collaboration with other companies, and a decade of experience proves it reduces recidivism rates to about 5% (Simons, 2013).
College for Convicts
Just 10% of inmates who take post-secondary education opt for academic college courses (Harlow, 2003). However, that is still potentially 150,000 men and women, perhaps more since the cost and lack of availability deters many from enrolling. Participation in college courses is associated with 51% less recidivism (Davis et al., 2013). Around 81% of federal prisons, 27% of state and private prisons, and 3% of local jails offer college-level education (Harlow, 2003). Many only offer correspondence courses that cost over $35,000 for a bachelor’s degree, too expensive for most prisoners.
Funding mostly relies on the charity of major universities, philanthropic individuals or foundations. An intervention that saves millions of dollars, reduces crime and makes communities safer shouldn’t rely on philanthropic funding.
Removing eligibility of inmates for Pell Grants in 1994 nearly devastated college-level prison education, and saved just 0.6% of the Pell Grant budget (Taylor, 2008).  Restoring eligibility would revitalize higher education and send a message on the importance of rehabilitation.
Those who pursue academic education often face isolation and lack of support. Many study alone. Initiatives that foster a community for collaboration and support would help. There are around 75,000 college graduates in prison, many of whom would be happy to coach inmate undergraduates.
How to Teach
Certified staff teachers, uncertified staff, visiting faculty from colleges and universities, and inmate tutors provide in-prison teaching. Some prisons use self-directed computer learning, video links, and closed-circuit internet connections. The massively open online courses (MOOCs) from Udacity and the Khan Academy are options as they begin to offer tests and certification. Research is needed to determine the best way of providing in-prison education.
Providing Incentives to Inmates and Managers
Given the benefits of prison education, it is in everyone’s interest to maximize participation. Providing incentives to inmates seems wise, and Indiana offers the opportunity for early release. Reductions range from six months for passing the GED to two years for graduating with a bachelor’s degree. Indiana saves around $68 million a year from averted prison costs (Steurer, Linton, Nally, & Lockwood, 2010).
Providing incentives for wardens and other senior staff would ensure supply matches demand. Incentivizing based on recidivism rates would balance the interests of inmates, staff, and society. Educated inmates would make prisons safer and more positive, reducing the prison population.
Funding Prison Education Programs
Funding is crucial to providing correctional education. Click on the infographic to discover the challenges of funding. Each dollar invested in prison education saves around five dollars (Davis et al., 2013). That figure increases when including savings due to averted losses to new victims, increased tax revenues, and contributions to GDP through increased productivity and consumer spending. Click on the infographic (above) to discover how much money states have saved investing in prison education.
Education programs need funding to get them kick-started. After that, they finance themselves through the savings and generate a surplus. States not wishing to provide funding could allow private and institutional investors to do so for a share of the savings.
Making Pell Grants available to inmates again would be transformative. If only correspondence courses are available, they should be subsidized so inmates can afford them. More prisons should adopt California’s practice of waiving tuition fees for inmates taking community college courses (Tolbert, 2009).
Characteristics of Effective Educational Programs
Some groups have studied effective prison education programs to understand what makes them work (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2013; Gerber, 1993; Lawrence, Mears, Dublin, & Travis, 2002). Factors include:

  •  Matching programs to offenders’ needs.
  • Timing participation to be close to an offender’s release date.
  •  Being extensive and long. The more education, the better the outcomes.
  • Being integrated into other prison programs like drug and alcohol rehabilitation, cognitive behavioral therapy, and sex offender treatment.
  • Being integrated with external services, treatment, and continuing education to enable follow-up after release.
  • Relying on effective program design, implementation, and monitoring.
  • Being kept separate from the rest of the prison.

Other groups have made additional recommendations for creating effective education programs (Erisman & Contardo, 2005; Lawrence et al., 2002).  Their recommendations include:

  • Aligning programs to local education systems to maximize co-operation.
  •  Building partnerships with organizations such as state and federal labor departments, departments of education, prisoner and vic
    tim advocacy groups, and business and education-related associations.
  •  Involving companies to establish training workshops within prisons, then providing jobs for released offenders.
  •  Conducting best practice surveys.
  •  Reviewing and updating curricula to ensure they are current and relevant to skills needed.
  •  Surveying and monitoring inmate demand, participation and program availability.

The Need for Reliable Research
In order to reap the potential of prison education, policymakers must make decisions based on reliable data. As Stephen Steurer, Executive Director of the Correctional Education Association said, “Public policy on crime and punishment should be determined by the most effective crime prevention and reduction techniques available, through proven research” (Coley & Barton, 2006).
However, the quality of research needs to improve. Just 15% of correctional education studies are rated high quality and a significant number are of “no scientific merit” (Davis et al., 2013).
Studies must answer questions important to policymakers, and researchers need to agree on standard definitions and endpoints to allow policymakers to compare study results. As changes are made, skilled researchers should assess the effects of the changes and circulate the results to share and adopt best practices.
Raising Public Awareness
It is important to engage with the media. The public and politicians seeking election tend to think only of the retributive aspects of prison. But 95% of prisoners will be released. In 2012, 637,400 of prisoners were released (Kennedy, 2013). When offenders return to their communities, what counts is their successful rehabilitation. Only when the public understands the importance of rehabilitation and the role that education plays will politicians become advocates.
Education and Rehabilitation Determine Who Will Succeed and Who Will Fail
Prison education is too important to be treated with apathy, neglect, or disinterest. How well released offenders behave depends largely on how much they participated in and benefited from programs in prison, and if the environment was rehabilitative or training for more criminal activity. The quality of prison education programs is critical to fixing our criminal justice system.
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