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Educating Prisoners: New Meta-Analysis Reinforces That It Reduces Recidivism

by Keith Sanders

With the highest incarceration rate in the world – over six out of every 1,000 people – America has long known there is one thing that consistently reduces recidivism: education.

A recent meta-analysis conducted by Middle Tennessee State University Professors Steven Sprick Schuster and Ben Stickle reviewed 78 papers published between 1980 and 2022 that examined prison education programs – adult basic education (ABE), as well as secondary, vocational, and college programs – to estimate their impact on recidivism rates, post-release employment rates and wages. They found that, collectively, the 148 programs studied in those papers resulted in a significant decrease in recidivism for prisoners who participated, along with a dramatic increase in their employment and wages after release.

Moreover, the academics discovered that all forms of education yielded large, positive economic returns: Every dollar spent on vocational education returned $3.10 in additional hourly wages for participants after release, while a college degree bumped their annual pay $1,600.

Schuster and Stickler estimated the chance a person will return to prison by using 2021 Bureau of Justice Statistics data to derive a baseline. From this ratio the researchers quantified the relationship between education and recidivism rates, post-release employment and wages.

Participation in an educational program decreases the odds of recidivism by 17-19% on average. ABE and secondary education reduce recidivism by 11-12%, vocational by 16.1% and college by a whopping 42.5%.

Education also increases the overall post-release employment rate by 9.75%. ABE bumps it less than 3%, vocational raises it by 10.5% and college by 20.7%.

Moreover, since the average length of a prison term is 2.7 years and the average cost per year to house a prisoner was $40,000 in 2022 dollars, “the cost savings for every person who is deterred from recidivism due to education is $107,075,” the report notes.

Finally, the researchers determined that the Return on Investment (ROI) in prison education is positive at each educational level. For ABE, the ROI was 104.12%, a secondary education produced an ROI of 122.25%, and vocational 210.12%. The percentage was a bit lower for those with a college education – 61.09% – reflecting the high costs associated with such a degree.

With such overwhelming benefits from educating prisoners, it is an obvious way to address the problem of mass incarceration in America. Yet despite the evidence, America’s carceral system blatantly ignores those benefits to both society and individuals in favor of letting corporations continue profiteering off prisoners and their families. See: Are Schools in Prison Worth It? The Effects of and Economic Returns to Prison Education, Steven Sprick Schuster and Ben Stickle (November 2022).

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