Skip to main content

Are Prison Education Programs Worth It?

Cost-benefit analyses should consider more than dollars and cents.
(Photo: Ander Dylan/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Ander Dylan/Shutterstock)

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a new initiative last month to bring college courses to 10 prisons throughout the state. The program will offer associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, which inmates can complete in about two to three years. New York’s program will cost the state an estimated $5,000 per year per student, a comparatively small price to pay for the returns. "New York State currently spends $60,000 per year on every prisoner in our system, and those who leave have a 40 percent chance of ending up back behind bars,” Cuomo said. “Existing programs show that providing a college education in our prisons is much cheaper for the state and delivers far better results.”

Expressed this way, the equation is simple: Education behind bars means a greater likelihood of post-release employment; post-release employment means stability and independence and a lower chance of re-arrest. Study after study has shown that prison education “works,” which means that it prevents recidivism, and thereby saves taxpayers money.

A New York Timeseditorial in support of Cuomo’s plan cited a RAND study from last year that calculated that every dollar invested in prison education now brought savings of $4 to $5 due to educated inmates released and kept out of prison in the future. Other calculations break it down into even more actuarial ratios. The Florida Department of Corrections performed an audit in fiscal year 1993-94, calculating a “combined Costs-Consequences Analysis” ratio of $1.66 return for every taxpayer dollar invested, and a return of $3.53 for every dollar invested in inmates who completed degrees.

Again and again, we see that prison education has a positive and demonstrable impact on recidivism. But is that all that matters? Lynette C. Lee and Mary K. Stohr, writing in the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, argue that a prison program shouldn’t be evaluated merely by its impact on recidivism. The tax-paying public, and the politicians in charge of distributing ever-meager funds, are understandably focused on “what works,” Lee and Stohr write. But aren’t there other, equally worthy, considerations? They wonder:

What if instead of using recidivism as the preferred program validating outcome, we evaluated correctional programs based on alternate outcomes such as reductions in violence or disruption in the prison environment, increases in the health or well-being of the inmate or offender, or the provision of opportunities for emotional growth as prosocial human beings?

Lee and Stohr argue that by focusing only on “evidence-based” programs and methods, researchers may inadvertently close themselves off to alternative, untried and untested possibilities. Or, they might ignore programs that bring a benefit to society that cannot be adequately measured. For instance, the authors mention anger management or other types of psychological counseling, which may or may not necessarily have an impact on the inmate’s recidivism, but that would likely have an impact on his or her family and community after being released.

Criminal justice researchers Richard Tewksbury and Kenneth M. Stengel synthesize some other, more abstract, benefits of prison education programs, in the Journal of Correctional Education:

[P]articipation in educational programs yields a positive influence on the psychological well being of inmates, reduces rule infractions, and enrolled inmates serve as role models to other inmates. These positive influences also facilitate a culture of respect that allow prisoners to develop personal motivations for enrichment.... Educational programs may help ... by implementing positive influences that strengthen one’s identity.

It’s hard to quantify the strength of someone’s identity in terms of dollars and cents, and the return on a taxpayer’s investment. With limited public funds, policymakers and their treasurers tend to go for the sure thing. But perhaps we should allow ourselves to put the spreadsheets aside and ask questions a tad headier than cost-benefit analyses.

Such as: What is a prison for, really? What is the ideal way for prison time to be spent, and when we send someone away, what is the point? Is a prison sentence meant to protect the public from a dangerous criminal, or to punish that criminal, or both? Is it meant to deter future crimes that would have been committed by others, or to rehabilitate that criminal so that he or she can be a more positive player in society upon release, or both?

Theaforementioned New York Timeseditorial adds, “People who go to prison are already among the least educated members of society”; 40 percent of inmates do not have a high school diploma. (By contrast, 20 percent of the general population of the U.S. lacks a diploma.) A study by the Bard Prison Initiative cites the U.S. Department of Education statistics that 60 percent of prison inmates are functionally illiterate, and 19 percent are fully illiterate. (In the general population, the corresponding illiteracy rates are 23 and four.) Some argue that jails can potentially serve as modern-day “community public health outposts,” especially for those with mental health issues, in the absence of adequate, available care out in the community. What if jails could also try to fill some of the gaps in our public education system?

Some more questions: If we take recidivism out of the equation altogether; what if an inmate is on death row, or sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole? Does education have a part to play in those prisoners’ lives, or not? Is education a means to an end, or an end in itself?

These questions do not have easy answers. The empirically quantified, budgetarily justified results of prison education are much more clearly drawn than the bounds of our moral obligations to provide it.