The State of Prison Education in the States

By George Hook

Currently, 26 State prison systems have prison education programs, much of it very limited, and 24 States have none at all, essentially an even split.  The "haves" are Alabama, California, Connecticut, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.  That's 25.  Not included is Georgia, number 26 in that list, because it provides education for women only, and that education is confined to religious preparation only.  The "have-nots" are Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

What impact does the absence of prison educational programming have on recidivism rates?  No one can know for sure because each prisoner may be impacted differently based upon individual characteristics and circumstances.  Anecdotally, the results are probably better than inconsequential, and, presumably, never bad.  But anecdote is merely a sampling of some prisoners' individual assessments, and probably not mathematical or scientific enough to be credited by academia, or even legislatures, for that matter, as the appropriate basis for continuing support.  

State by State statistical results might give the academes and legislators some greater assurance.  Such an exercise was reported in 2011when The Pew Charitable Trust completed its study of State by State recidivism rates, in which it compared 1999 and 2004 data.  According to that study the aggregate recidivism rate of the "have" States was 41.22%, and the aggregate recidivism rate of the "have-nots" was 39.96%.  Based on this alone, the conclusion would be that prison education has a 1.26% negative impact on recidivism rates.  However, taking the difference between the 1999 rate and the 2004 rate as a measure of educational consequence, the aggregate change for the "have" States is a 22 point decline in recidivism, and the aggregate change for the "have not" States is 17 point increase in recidivism.  Attributing the entire decline in returns to prison to the presence of prison education and the entire increase in returns to the absence of prison education, admittedly an ambitious assumption, it would appear that statistically prison education makes a significant difference.  However, this does not allow for individual cases—location, individuality, circumstance--the very things that anecdote supplies. 

Academia will probably take their comfort from statistics tending to show that prison education is beneficial and worth the cost.  Legislators will probably take their confirmation from anecdotal stories their constituents tell them.  Based on both, the result should be continuation of prison education where it exists and commencement where it does not.