Building Them Up: Job Skills and Prison Education

By Christopher Zoukis

A simple online search will reveal a plethora of prison education programs designed to equip prisoners with skills for life after prison.  From community-based organizations to universities, there has been a growing consensus that releasing people from prison back into society without any training or education is likely to result in repeat offenses and subsequent jail time.  Yet in tough economic times, there is the pressing need to justify every expense and every program.  With education cuts in progress from coast to coast, many experts believe that decreasing funding for prison education programs is simply not an educated option.

The Need for Prison Education

According to Wesleyan University’s Center for Prison Education, 60 percent of released inmates return to prison (wesleyan.edu/cpe/about/whycip.html).  The center asserts that “severely reduced employment opportunities” is at the root of this problem.  Their education platform and similar initiatives in prison education target this problem by providing coursework that educates prisoners and teaches them valuable new skills that can help them lead more productive and more rewarding lives outside of prison. 

A Department Image courtesy reentryaftercare.orgChair at the College of New Jersey posted an article on Michael Moore.com asserting that “Over ninety percent of inmates eventually return to society,” (michaelmoore.com/words/mike-friends-blog/how-cut-deficit-increase-prison-education-programs).  Many of these inmates have not completed high school and have no skill sets for making a living in society.  Few would argue that returning people as they are with no additional training or education will not yield a positive outcome—not for the majority who fall into that 60 percent of inmates who will return to prison.  In other words, there is a genuine need to bring that percent down and prison education is the key to making that happen.

Why Education Works

Forbes reported in a recent article that “inmates’ chances of finding full-time employment are greatly enhanced if they complete an education in prison” (forbes.com/sites/collegeprose/2013/03/25/college-behind-bars-how-educating-prisoners-pays-off/) and that “reincarceration rates for participants in prison education programs were 46 percent lower than for non-participants.” This is compelling evidence that supports the need for ongoing prison education.  Prisoners who complete coursework in prison also increase their sense of purpose and sense of self-worth—two components that can help them transform their lives once they return to life outside the prison walls. 

The New York Times highlighted what’s at stake—safer communities and diminished crime rates.  The newspaper reported on Department of Education assurances that “Inmates who receive schooling -- through vocational training or classes at the high school or college level -- are far less likely to return to prison within three years of their release” (nytimes.com/2001/11/16/us/inmate-education-is-found-to-lower-risk-of-new-arrest.html). Of course, few dispute that education works, but recent studies suggest that some types of programs that offer college coursework, for instance, may have an even better long-term effect on decreased recidivism. 

Types of Prison Education Programs

Most prison education programs with significant support offer high school coursework, vocational training, and college coursework.  Each of these, according to The New York Times, has shown positive benefits for decreased recidivism.  All prisoner education programming is designed with an eye toward job skills.  Since released inmates are at risk for returning to the lifestyles that led to their incarceration in the first place, they are also at high risk for relying on welfare programs once they are returned to society.  The education programs, each in their own way, also hope to help inmates break the cycle of poverty that increased their risk of participating in criminal activity. 

The level of education needed in prison systems runs the gamut from basic literacy to higher education.  According to The New York Times, “Educational opportunities for inmates vary widely by state, with half or fewer prisoners getting some form of education in most states -- and, increasingly, waiting lists of others who want classes.”  Waiting lists for prison education are a good sign indicating that many incarcerated people genuinely want to change their lives and recognize that education is a valid way to do that.

More Support Needed

Even as both liberal and conservative party members recognize the validity of prison education classes, there still needs to be more public funding to support even the most successful education initiatives.  Prisoners remain on waiting lists and the nation waits for decreased crime rates. As the Wesleyan University Center for Prison Education stated, “the United States houses 25% of the world’s prisoners.”  That is an astronomic figure that needs attention.  Support for educational programs in prisons continues to be a necessity.  After all, as The New York Times concluded, “while they're in there, just sitting around is not helping them to get the skills they need once they get out.'' But educational programs can help them attain these skills and help them to remain on the outside—for good.