Life after prison
by Gerard Robinson and Elisabeth English
Innovative prison education programs are a national necessity.
This year, more than 600,000 individuals will exit prison gates and return to communities across America. Almostone-third will be rearrested in their first year out, over half within three years, and over three-quarters within five years.
But our nation’s recidivism problem starts well before prisoners leave prison. Many of the 2.2 million behind bars today lack a high school degree, and while they are in state custody, most receive little or no preparation for life after prison. Often equipped with only a bus pass, whatever belongings they brought to prison and some pocket change, “returned citizens” leave prison ill-prepared to find work, housing and other necessities due to their lack of education, skills and work experience lost from time behind bars. Society has an extremely low bar for their success.
In a rare display of bipartisan consensus, policymakers have recently sought to reform the criminal justice system by focusing on those entering prison. By and large, these reforms have attempted to unravel “tough on crime” policies from the 1980s and 1990s by reducing sentences and repealing mandatory minimums.
While this thinking makes sense, it does little to reduce recidivism or increase opportunity for those already incarcerated. Many of today’s criminal justice conversations leave out the role prison education and re-entry programs can play. Ranging from college and GED courses to life skill classes, entrepreneurship courses and even seminars on Shakespeare, prison education and re-entry programs provide education, technical training and other resources to help the incarcerated become productive members of society upon their release. They can also reduce the costs of incarceration, which are estimated at nearly $80 billion nationally each year.
Most importantly, these programs have been proven to work. A 2013 Rand meta-analysis found that inmates who participated in correctional education programs were 43 percent less likely to recidivate than those who did not. And while research on reducing recidivism is sparse, researchers suggest that the most effective programs begin in prison. High-quality prison education and re-entry programs can increase opportunity, create safer communities and help ensure that those released from prison don’t go back.
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