There are 500 percent more prisoners in the U.S. today than there were 30 years ago, and a high rate of recidivism among those released back into their communities. Inmates released from state prisons have a five-year recidivism rate of 76.6%, and federal prisoners have a 44.7% re-arrest rate, according to a U.S. Sentencing Commission Report.
Many enter the criminal justice system facing harsh prison sentences for a variety of nonviolent offenses that could be dealt with using alternative sentencing methods and by addressing the root causes of crime. These convicts end up caught in a vicious circle in a system that doesn’t rehabilitate very well. It doesn’t do enough to address mental health and addiction issues, and years spent behind bars can result in a “prisonized” mentality that does not help those released navigate society on the outside.
The good news is that some states, jails, and prisons recognize the need to reduce recidivism rates, and have implemented a wide variety of programs that help address crime’s underlying issues, as well as better prepare prisoners for re-entry upon release. This is a necessity when one out of every 100 adults in the U.S. is in prison, and 95 percent of them will be released and expected to lead productive lives.
Prison education and rehabilitation programs can provide practical skills, career and vocational skills, and critical thinking skills. They can help with mental and behavioral issues, and provide access to higher education courses; some achieve diplomas and degrees while incarcerated. These programs are vital to improving lives, especially since many prisoners come from poverty, do not have high school diplomas, and lack outside support networks.
Inmates at the Cheshire Correctional Facility and at the York Correctional Institution for Women can enroll in fully accredited Wesleyan University classes, taught by university professors in a wing of the prison. Courses range from sociology to biology, math to political theory—about 60 individual offerings in total. Among the course choices available is art history, which encourages critical thinking and historical context, allowing students to expand their worldviews. It opens up discussion on important topics like philosophy, life, death and power. The course’s exam asks them to think creatively in developing a museum exhibition with a curatorial statement. Prisoners come away better able to communicate and to articulate their own realities.
Those who participate in educational programs and have been released have lower rates of recidivism—by as much as 43 percent. They do better re-joining their communities and finding employment, and are more likely to become productive members of society. More than 600,000 prisoners are released each year, so it is imperative they are supplied with the tools to be successful.
The courses at Wesleyan are just one of many examples of successful programs across the country that contribute to reducing recidivism and make some strides to help end the cycle of mass incarceration. The Prison Education Project provides educational opportunities in 11 correctional facilities in California; the Bard Prison Initiative has just seen its 14th year of graduation ceremonies; Illinois is set to open a life skills facility, and prisons are beginning to explore innovative tools such as virtual reality education and personalized learning programs. There are numerous successful re-entry programs focusing on life skills, employment, mental wellness and interpersonal relationship skills.
These programs are not only effective at reducing recidivism, increasing employment rates, and addressing the underlying causes of criminal behavior, they’re also cost-effective. A $1 investment in education saves $4-$5 in further incarceration costs. Released prisoners who are able to find gainful employment also help contribute positively to communities, as citizens and taxpayers. Further development of and investment in prison education and rehabilitation programs is crucial to the betterment of individuals and to society as a whole.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to The Huffington Post, New York Daily News, and Prison Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and Prisonerresource.com.