Providing College To Prison Inmates Series (Part 7)

Providing College To Prison Inmates Series (Part 7)

This is the seventh and final blog post in the ‘Providing College To Prison Inmates Series.’ This series is based upon seven “Recommendations for Policy and Practice” presented by Contardo on pages 154 through 156 of her text Providing College To Prison Inmates.

“Articulate the benefits of college for prison inmates so that outsiders can understand.” –Contardo (pg. 156)

While the above quote refers to securing support for correctional education, I feel that this is not the correct way to solicit outside support for these programs. This is because the American people don’t want to know how much more they can spend to help a prisoner – someone who broke the law – or how spending this money will help the prisoner. If anything, the American people want to know how correctional education benefits them. They want to know why they should mentally buy into the idea of educating prisoners. As such, this blog post is based on the benefits of prison education to the American people. Though, the benefit to the American people coincides with the benefit to the incarcerated student, too. It’s a win-win situation.

The difficulty in articulating the benefit of prison education to the American public lies in the sheer number of relatively invisible benefits – at least initially – to the American public and their pre-existing negative opinion of prisoners. The irony is that the benefits of correctional education have the power to change the American public’s mind about such programs. Yet, without their initial support – something gained through program completions and their various beneficial byproducts – the programs won’t be implemented in the first place.

With all of this being said, a plan of action is needed, a plan which concisely presents the arguments and facts as quickly and simply as possible. What follows is such a plan:


The United States incarcerates 25% of the world’s population, yet contains only 5% of the world’s population [1]. This is 2.3 million people or 1 in every 100 American adults [2]. This equates to a cost of $52 billion a year, a 305% increase in correction’s costs over the past two decades [3].

Incarceration Verse College

It costs $32,000 to $40,000 a year to incarcerate an offender compared to $2,000 to $3,782 per year to provide a college-level education to the same person; a ten-fold cost increase [4][5]. As a more modest study put it, “One million dollars spent on correctional education prevents about 600 crimes, while that same money invested in incarceration prevents 350 crimes. Correctional education is almost twice as cost-effective as a crime control policy” [6].


According to two studies, one by the prestigious Pew Center on the States and the other by the respected Bureau of Justice Statistics, on average 43.3% to 51.8% of prisoners recidivate within 3 years of release [7][8]. This means that 43.3% to 51.8% of released prisoners will commit another crime and be either re-arrested or returned to prison within three years of release. The sad truth of this is that the numbers only become worse at the five-year mark and beyond. Some estimate the five-year recidivism rate to be at 75% to 85% of released prisoners.

Recidivism rates of participants in correctional education programming show a stark contrast when compared to the released non-educated offender. According to a well-known and oft-cited study, prisoners who earn an Associate’s degree recidivate at a rate of 13.7%, those with a Bachelor’s degree 5.6%, and those with a Master’s degree 0% [9]!

Summary of Facts

As shown, incarceration costs much more than education. Also demonstrated is the fact that education reduces recidivism at a greater rate than incarceration. Hence, education is a more cost-effective method of reducing recidivism than incarceration. It is simply in the public’s interest to educate prisoners as an effective crime control policy.

Benefits to the American People

Most of the discussion so far has focused on costs and statistics. This is important because it shows that the argument for prison education is grounded in science and fact. Hence, it is a true and logical argument.

The reason this is important is that the $52 billion spent on corrections each year is money drained from the American people. This is money that could be put to use in education, other forms of social infrastructure, or any number of worthy programs which are either underfunded or devoid of funding because of the corrections system. The funding of incarceration is a real and direct drain upon other needed programs.

As shown, it is in the American public’s best interest to fund correctional education programs. This way, recidivism rates will drop, correction’s costs will decline, and the American people will retain funding for much-needed programs. It’s a win-win proposition for all involved.

Correctional education is also a benefit to the American people through several of its byproducts.

Many behind bars are mothers and fathers. As these parents obtain an education, they set a good example – possibly for the first time in their lives – for their children who then set a good example for their friends and so on. The same is true for the offenders when they return to their community. By obtaining an education, they set a precedent for their community. They become a very visible testament to the power of education. They very well might be the best ambassadors of education that certain communities have. Hence, they are assisting in breaking the cycle of crime.

Another facet to consider is the effect of the educated released prisoners upon their local, state, and national economies. Since they obtained an education while behind bars, they will have a much easier time obtaining viable and sustainable employment. Hence, they will contribute to the economic success of their communities and by paying taxes will assist their locality, state, and even nation as a whole. While a single person doesn’t make a huge difference, several hundred thousand or million doing the same certainly would. Now, that’s monumental!

Lest we focus on the financial impact of correctional education too much, let’s touch on crime. I doubt that anyone could place a social or emotional cost upon robbery, murder, drug abuse, rape, or any other number of crimes that manifest themselves in an intrusive manner. The reason for this is that the personal toll can be so much more than any economic loss. After all, how do you place a dollar value upon a sense of security or personal worth? As such, the value of ex-prisoners not re-offending is immeasurable. Also, in this light, the cost of educating them becomes so much more insignificant.

Last, it’s just the right thing to do. America has gone through the exact same process, allowing women, immigrants, Native Americans, blacks, and even those of a low socioeconomic status the opportunity to obtain a higher education. In retrospect, we can see that these groups should have never been banned from the halls of higher education in the first place. The same is true with prisoners. I have faith that one day Americans will be able to look back and wonder – as I currently do – why prisoners ever were restricted from obtaining a higher education. When they consider the profound benefits, they will think of their restriction lunacy.


There are many correct answers as to how correctional education benefits the American people. They span the range from fiscal benefits to crime-reduction benefits to moralistic benefits. The correct answer might very well be different for any number of people. The point is that correctional education benefits the American people regardless of which benefits the individual person focuses on. The endpoint is that correctional education is not a problem, but a solution. As such, what kind of person would oppose it?

1-The Effect of Prison Education Programs on Recidivism, The Journal of Correctional Education (Dec. 2010) pp. 316-334

2-Pew Center on the States, State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons, The Pew Charitable Trusts (April 2011) p. 1

3-National Association of State Budget Officers, 2009 State Expenditure Report, National Association of State Budget Officers (December 2010)

4-K. Mentor, JD, Ph.D., College Courses in Prisons, draft of submission to the Encyclopedia of Corrections, M. Bosworth, Ed.

5-W. Erisman and J. B. Contardo, Learning to Reduce Recidivism: A 50-State Analysis of Postsecondary Correctional Education Policy, The Institute for Higher Education Policy (2005)

6-Audrey Bozos and Jessica Hausman, Correctional Education as a Crime Control Program, UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research, Department of Policy Studies (March 2004) p. 2

7-Pew Center on the States (April 2011) p. 2, op. cit.

8-Patrick A. Langan and David J. Levin, Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (2002)

9-The Effect of Prison Education Programs on Recidivism, op. cit.