How Can We Slow Down Prison’s Revolving Door?

More than half of adults released from prison return to prison within three years. Is it possible that a key solution to one of the biggest problems of mass incarceration in the United States—the revolving prison door—is to offer prisoners more education and work experience inside prison? Consider: 

Educational opportunities while in prison can help former inmates stay out of the criminal justice system. Read a Q&A with Roger exploring the challenges and benefits of providing education to those in prison.
  1. Raising prisoners’ education levels is related to lower rates of subsequent criminal activity and return to prison. Notably, postsecondary education in prison has been shown to be associated with a 50% reduction in recidivism.
  2. Raising one’s level of educational attainment while in prison is related to an increased likelihood of securing employment after release. Yet, by 2020, 65 percent of new jobs in the U.S. are expected to require post-secondary education.
  3. Having a job soon after release from prison is associated with a lower rate of return to offending, particularly when supports are in place so that employment is maintained over time.
  4. Employers, while reluctant to hire convicted felons, are more likely to hire formerly incarcerated men and women when they have recent work experience, which includes work done while in prison.

Is it a simple matter for prisons to do more to raise the level of inmates’ educational attainment and offer meaningful work experiences to build track records that inmates can offer to future employers?

A 2016 study from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) involving a nationally representative sample of more than 1,300 prisoners from nearly 100 prisons shows that 94 percent of prisoners have at most only a high school education—and 30 percent of those that previously attended high school did not earn a diploma. Only 6 percent of prison inmates have completed some college.

While in prison:

  • 58 percent of inmates did not complete any education beyond what they had when they entered prison.
  • 30 percent of prisoners reported a lack of interest in educational programming while incarcerated.
  • Less than half of prisoners participated in and completed job training—effectively depriving them of valuable work experience that could make them more attractive to potential employers.
  • Only 61 percent of inmates report working while in prison. Those who do find work while incarcerated are among those with higher literacy scores, suggesting that lower functioning prisoners may be particularly disadvantaged when they fail to increase their educational attainment and fail to build work histories or earn credentials that can open doors with employers.

How Can We Slow Down Prison’s Revolving Door? - Behind the NumbersOffering quality in-prison education and work experience may be a first step, but policymakers, educators, and correctional administrators must also find ways to increase prisoners’ motivation to seek out and complete classes and training.

How important is education? Increasing educational attainment is not only associated with a reduction in the likelihood of recidivism, but also has been indicated as a critical element on the path to reshaping a person’s personal identity.

For example, according to a 2005 state policy analysis that surveyed correctional education administrators in all 50 states plus the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Learning to Reduce Recidivism by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, “For many men and women…participating in educational programs while incarcerated provides the first taste of academic success they may ever have experienced. Successfully completing a class, or better still completing a degree, can help prisoners recognize that hard work leads to positive results.” Yet results from PIAAC indicate such opportunities are not universally available.

I interviewed a formerly incarcerated 35-year-old I’ll call Alan. I enrolled him in a training program I directed back in 2012. This program was focused on preparing Alan and 14 other formerly incarcerated men and women to work as reentry coordinators, serving men and women coming out of prison. He completed that program in 2013 and is now working as a reentry specialist in the very system where he was previously incarcerated.

When I asked him how important education is, Alan told me with great passion, “[Education] transforms you from an ex-offender to a person that can think outside of your environment. [It] transforms from ignorance to knowledge.” He laments that without education, the kinds of job opportunities that are more readily available challenge the efforts to turn your life around, “because you now work around others that are involved in crime, domestic violence, substance abuse. [But] when you are around people with education, they are of moral substance.” … “[You] cannot stop crimes without education.”

Postsecondary educational opportunities have been shown to be the most transformative and so efforts to expand the available options are key. Also, while career and technical education programs are valuable, it is vital to ensure that the programs offered in prison open doors to relevant opportunities in the communities where the participants will return after their release. This includes making sure training programs are not for trades (such as barbering) in which some state laws restrict those ever convicted of a felony from being hired or licensed.

A final note on research: The scientific rigor of the evidence base on prison outcomes has improved over the past 20 years, with much of the research cited here coming from meta-analyses of experimental and high quality quasi-experimental research. But the field needs more research using rigorous methods to continue to build on the existing literature.

*Source: Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies 2014. AIR provided analysis, reporting, and technical assistance for the study.

Roger Jarjoura is a principal researcher at AIR. He spent 19 years as a faculty member in the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs, where he designed and evaluated interventions that featured restorative justice and mentoring for juvenile and adult offenders in reentry from incarceration. He has worked extensively to provide training and technical assistance to groups in other states in the development and management of effective reentry programs. He frequently taught college courses in prisons using the Inside-Out Prison Exchange model.