Why Educate Prisoners?

There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.    –Luke 15:7

If you treat an individual as he is, he will stay as he is.  But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.      –Goethe

Why do we care whether prisoners become educated?  We care because the lack of quality education is one of the major causes of criminal activity.  When neighborhoods are falling apart, schools are under-funded, and there is little hope of making a living, many young people make horrendous mistakes with their lives and end up behind bars.  If we don’t educate them while they are incarcerated, the chances are very great that they will make similar mistakes and revert to criminal activity after release.  But if we can give them the educational and spiritual tools they need to make better life choices and find meaningful work, they will be able to build a law-abiding career for themselves and a better life for their families and communities.  Consider the following statistics gleaned from numerous research studies:

Quality education programs have consistently reduced recidivism by 16 to 62%.  “The Impact of Correctional Education On Recidivism 1988-1994, “Office Of Correctional Education, U.S. Dept. Of Education. Heidi L. Lawyer And Thomas D. Dertinger, “Back To School Or Back To Jail,” ABA Criminal Justice, Winter 1993, P. 21

The more education offenders receive, the lower their recidivism rates are.  Mary Ellen Batiuk, “The State Of Post-Secondary Education In Ohio,” Journal Of Correctional Education, Vol. 48, Issue 2, June 1997, Pp. 70-72.

However, although evidence that inmates who receive educational training are less likely to return to prison, more than half of all state prison systems have reduced educational and vocational training since 1989.  Joseph Califano, “Behind Bars: Substance Abuse and America’s Prison Population,” The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, January 1998.

An estimated 40% of state prisoners cannot read.  Alton R. Waldon, Jr., “Unhealthy Choice,” N.Y. State Senate Report, April 1996

The majority of state prisoners do not have a high school diploma.   Joseph Califano, “Behind Bars: Substance Abuse and America’s Prison Population,” The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse At Columbia University, January 1998.

Despite these handicaps, prisoners have demonstrated the capacity to move from less than a sixth grade reading ability to the achievement of college and post-graduate degrees when given the opportunity.  However, since 1995 when the federal government withdrew funding for college education in prisons, New York followed suit and withdrew all publicly-funded college programs from its prisons statewide.

In 1988, New York State spent twice as much on higher education as it did on prisons.  In 1997, however, the state spent $100 million more on prisons than on higher education.  Robert Gangi, Et Al., Correctional Association Of New York And The Justice Policy Institute, “New York State Of Mind?  Higher Education Vs. Prison Funding in The Empire State, 1988-1998” (1998)

The state prison’s share of the General Fund has grown from 9.5% in 1982 to 24.4% in 1997.   New York State Budget

It costs about $32,000 to maintain a prisoner in a New York State prison for a year.  By comparison, the cost of most outpatient drug treatment is about $2,700 to $4,500 per person per year.  The cost of residential drug treatment is $17,000 to $21,000 per person per year.   The Correctional Association of New York, July  20, 2001.  www.corrassoc.org/

The U.S. incarceration rate is higher than at any previous time and is 6 to 10 times the rate of Western European nations.  Incarcerations per 100,000 population are:

U.S. 600 Germany 85
Canada 115 Switzerland 80
Spain 105 Netherlands 65
England & Wales 100 Norway 55
France   95 Japan 37

Marc Mauer, “American Behind Bars: U.S. And International Use Of Incarceration, 1995” The Sentencing Project, June 1997

In 1980, 886 drug offenders were sent to state prison, 11% of the total commitments for the year.  By 1999 the number of drug offenders sent to state prison had reached 8,520, 44.5% of the total.  By contrast, the number of violent offenders sent to state prison in 1983 was 7,926, 63% of the total commitments.  In 1999 the number of violent offenders going to prison was 5,374, 28.1% of the total.  The Correctional Association of New York, July 20, 2001.  www.corrassoc.org/

Studies have shown that alternatives to incarceration programs are more effective in reducing recidivism.  However, many local officials complain that the timing and level of state funding often varies from year to year, lending instability to these programs, whereas prisons have steadily continued to command larger and larger budgets.      Scott Christianson, “A Balancing Justice in New York State A Citizens’ Fact Book in Criminal Justice,” The League of Women Voters of New York State 1999 p. 29