The Efficacy of Prison Education
The adult prison population in the United States is approximately 1.5 million persons held in state and federal penitentiaries (Kaeble & Cowhig, 2018). The United States has the “highest incarceration rate in the world” (Gramlich, 2018, para 7). When the American prison and jail populations are combined, there are over 2 million prisoners in the United States (Walmsley, 2018). This data represents an incarceration rate of 655 per 100,000 persons. As a comparison, Canada has an incarceration rate of 114 per 100,000, France is at 100 per 100,000, and China is approximately 118 per 100,000. Indeed, the world prison population rate when aggregated is 145 per 100,000 incarcerated persons (Walmsley, 2018).
The United States has a considerable inmate population. In fact, the United States has more prisoners than any other country in the world. The prison and jail population in the U.S. is approximately 22% greater than China, which has the second-highest number of incarcerated persons (World Prison Brief, n.d.).
This data in and of itself is alarming for a number of reasons. First, maintaining penitentiaries is very costly. For instance, the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) in California estimates that it cost the state $81,203 per inmate annually. California is an economic outlier in terms of the cost related to housing prison inmates. The national average may be closer to $35,000 per inmate (May & Subramanian, 2017). Nonetheless, this is a tremendous financial outlay which places an undesirable burden on taxpayers.
Second, prison inmates are disproportionately minority populations. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reports, “At year-end 2017, the imprisonment rate for sentenced black males (2,336 per 100,000 black male U.S. residents) was almost six times that of sentenced white males” (Bronson & Carson, 2019). Similarly, the incarceration rate for black females is nearly double that of white females. Likewise, Hispanic males and females are incarcerated at much higher proportions than white inmates (Bronson & Carson, 2019). To give this data context, 2.3 percent of the black male population and 1 percent of the Hispanic male population are incarcerated, compared to only .4 percent of the white male population.
Oregon State University professor Michelle Inderbritzin (2015) ominously wrote, “U.S. prisons have been described as a surrogate ghetto and as contributing to a new era of Jim Crow” (p. 46). Inderbritzin (2015) was referring to a compelling book, written by civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander, titled The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Alexander (2012) argued, “The nature of the criminal justice system has changed. It is no longer concerned primarily with the prevention and punishment of crime, but rather with the management and control of the dispossessed” (p. 188). Indeed, the demographic disproportion of the American prison system is indicative of deeply institutionalized societal issues that must be addressed. Simply put, a particular race of individuals is not innately pre-ordained to be more criminally prone than another race of people. In short, there are numerous ancillary factors present which contribute to extremely high proportion of minorities in prison.
Lastly, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that “at least 95% of all state prisoners will be released from prison at some point” (Hughes & Wilson, 2019). In addition, data indicates an extremely high number of former inmates are rearrested after parole from prison. The BJS reported, “An estimated 68% of released prisoners were arrested within 3 years, 79% within 6 years, and 83% within 9 years” (Alper, Durose & Markman, 2018). Nearly half of all prisoners released from prison are re-arrested within one year of their parole. Of those former inmates who are released from prison, a significant proportion commit violent and/or property crimes. Alper, Durose, and Markman (2018) report, “During the first year of the follow-up period, a larger percentage of prisoners released for a violent offense were arrested for a violent crime than those released for a property or drug offense” (p. 12).
The unfortunate reality is that recidivism equates to the victimization of crime. In contrast, however, reducing recidivism rates will alleviate a corresponding level of victimization. Decreasing recidivism will also relieve some of the financial burden which felons place on society. Moreover, implementing productive rehabilitative programs for currently incarcerated persons may begin to reverse the trend towards higher incarceration of minority populations.
Providing prison inmates with an education during incarceration is one documented method of reducing recidivism rates among parolees. Recent data has shown that attaining an education while incarcerated may decrease recidivism from 28 to 43 percent (Bozick et al., 2018; Davis et al., 2014). This data is quite compelling as it confirms the notion that educating prisoners is, in fact, good for society (Hill, 2015). As Gould, Harkins, and Stevens (2015) aptly surmised, “It is difficult to measure the social costs of not educating the incarcerated, just as it is impossible to quantify lost dreams” (p. 102). If education does, in fact, decrease recidivism, as the data suggests, crime and victimization will be reduced, and former inmates will be more likely to successfully reintegrate with society post-incarceration.
Nally et al. (2012) argued, “Incarcerated offenders have been frequently portrayed as economically poor, educationally illiterate, disproportionally unemployed (before and after release from prison), and frequently re-incarcerated” (p. 4). These conditions, if not addressed during incarceration, make it difficult for former inmates to reintegrate with society upon release from prison. Lack of education is a particularly strong predictor of recidivism. This is due, in large part, to the inability of former inmates to find adequate employment. Failure to find satisfactory employment after release from prison is correlated with recidivism and re-incarceration (Nally et al., 2012). Notwithstanding, participation in an education program during incarceration may result in a 13 percent greater chance of finding employment post-incarceration (Davis et al., 2014).
Many state prison systems, such as the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), operate primarily in the “corrections” capacity but do very little to warrant the “rehabilitation” moniker attached to the title (Benson, 2003). This works reasonably well in terms of keeping violent offenders away from the general population for some period of time. Though as noted in the previous sections, most inmates will be released at some point. Therefore, the rehabilitation of inmates is in the best interest of society. There is both a need and established model for rehabilitating prison inmates.
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Mai, C., & Subramanian, R. (2017). The price of prisons: Examining state spending trends, 2010-2015. Retrieved from
Nally, J. M., Lockwood, S., Ho, T., & Knutson, K. (2012). The post-release employment and recidivism among different types of offenders with a different level of education: A 5-year follow-up study in Indiana. Justice Policy Journal, 9(1), 1-29. Retrieved from
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Recommended Citation APA
Zitko, P. A. (2019). The efficacy of prison education.
Recommended Citation MLA
Zitko, Peter A. "The Efficacy of Prison Education." Accessed (date here).