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Investing in Inmate Education Can Reduce Repeat Crime

Back Commentary Feb 3, 2020 By Winnie Comstock-Carlson

Unfortunately, one in four Californians is unable to perform basic reading skills, according to the California Policy Center. This is even higher among the prison population. California houses about 115,000 inmates in 35 state-owned facilities, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, and more than 60 percent of prison inmates in the U.S. are functionally illiterate, according to begintoread.com.

A big reason for the high percentage of illiteracy among inmates is that a large number of people in our prisons come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, where as children they lacked access to high-quality education. For example, in 2017, nearly 30 percent of California’s male prisoners were African American but they made up less than 6 percent of the state’s male residents, according to the PPIC. And we know that historically and today the median wealth of black neighborhoods has been significantly less than that of white neighborhoods.

In making rehabilitation a priority, state prison systems across the country have invested in education programs to give inmates more basic skills when they leave prison than when they arrived. The Federal Bureau of Prisons requires all inmates to enroll in basic literacy classes if they do not have a GED certificate or high school diploma. California offers basic literacy classes that teach reading, writing and math to every inmate who lacks a high school education. At San Quentin State Prison and three prisons near Sacramento (Folsom State Prison, California State Prison Sacramento and California State Prison Solano), about 4,500 inmates are enrolled in academic classes. 

Many prison systems are giving inmates the chance to go beyond a high school education, offering college classes for inmates who are eligible to enroll. Considering the amount of debt most students incur to go to college, some people might ask if college tuition is a tab too high for taxpayers. But, just as business weighs the costs and benefits of investing, so should our communities.

According to the Rand Corporation, investing in prison education pays dividends by increasing the odds that former inmates will land a job upon release and in turn reduce the likelihood they will reoffend. According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, approximately 68 percent of prison inmates nationwide are re-arrested or returned to prison within three years of their release. That’s a cycle of recidivism that imposes huge costs on society, including bigger government budgets for prisons, productivity lost to crime and the personal costs to victims.

Dozens of research projects have shown that prison education programs significantly reduce that cycle of recidivism. Reports from the Institute for Higher Education Policy,  which has researched college access for underserved students since 1993, show the recidivism rate among inmates enrolled in college classes was 46 percent lower than inmates who did not enroll. The return-to-prison rate among inmates who had enrolled in college programs was an additional 20 percent lower. In other words, the more education an inmate received in prison, the less likely they were to commit a crime after they were released.

A UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research study concluded that every dollar spent on prison education, including college classes, was twice as effective in reducing crime as any other dollar spent on the prison system.   

The Prison University Project at San Quentin, which has produced 172 graduates since its founding in 2003, is just one example of a successful program. It offers about 20 courses a semester in humanities, social science, math and basic science to help inmates earn an Associate of Arts degree. It’s not easy to go to college in prison: Classes get interrupted by lockdowns, and it’s hard to study in noisy crowded cellblocks.

Even so, up to 300 inmates enroll each semester, willing to invest in the possibility of a better future when they are released. The valedictorian of the 2011 graduating class noted in his commencement speech that the classes changed the culture of the prison, reducing violence and tension between inmate groups.

An inmate with the courage to enroll in college while in prison is a major step toward improvement. If a college program can change the culture inside prison walls, think of how much it can improve life for those of us on this side of the walls. It’s an investment, not a cost. And it will pay dividends to all of us. It’s the community’s responsibility to take care of all its members, and everyone benefits when that happens.

Winnie Comstock-Carlson
President and Publisher


Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the Prison University Project at San Quentin offers about 20 courses a semester, in which inmates are taught face-to-face in a classroom setting. These courses are not offered online as we previously reported. We regret the error.