By Rebecca Gray
The United States has become, to borrow an apt title from a 2013 Bill Moyers special, Incarceration Nation. (http://billmoyers.com/episode/full-show-incarceration-nation/) While Moyers’ program focused on the disproportionate number of racial and ethnic minorities behind bars (minorities comprise more than 60 percent of the prison population), the problem transcends racial issues. The prison population in the U.S. grew from 300,000 in the 1970s to over two million today, and the U.S. has a higher rate of incarceration than any other nation. We spend billions of dollars every year to keep people behind bars.
The U.S. prison system has been widely and justly criticized for its failure to rehabilitate and the high rate of recidivism. Nationwide, 40 percent of released prisoners are back in the system within three years of their release. (http://www.pewtrusts.org/uploadedFiles/wwwpewtrustsorg/Reports/sentencing_and_corrections/State_Recidivism_Revolving_Door_America_Prisons%20.pdf) (For more links to information on national recidivism rates, see this page on the National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS) site: https://www.ncjrs.gov/app/QA/Detail.aspx?Id=46&context=9.)
Though there are conflicting opinions about the best ways to prevent recidivism, there’s good evidence that education and training programs within the prisons play a significant role in helping participants stay out of trouble once they are released. Like everything else, however, education requires funding, which isn’t always forthcoming. And that’s just one of the big challenges facing correctional education today.
Lack of funding
This is the big challenge, affecting most of the other factors mentioned below. In 2008, President George W. Bush signed into law the Second Chance Act, which funded rehabilitative services for prisoners, such as reentry programs, prison education, and drug treatment, as well as research on the effectiveness of those services. Although more than $250 million had been awarded under the act as of the first quarter of 2013, it is just a drop in the bucket compared to the combined state and federal prison budget of $75 billion annually. (http://harvardmagazine.com/2013/03/the-prison-problem)
In November of 2013, in celebration of the five-year anniversary of the Second Chance Act, Senators, Congressmen and advocates for re-funding the act announced the introduction of the Second Chance Reauthorization Act of 2013. The new bill, which enjoyed bipartisan support, is intended to expand the number of grant programs available, and to promote increased accountability and better outcomes from grantees. (http://www.asca.net/projects/13/pages/139) (For text of the bill and links to additional information, see https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/113/s1690/text.)
According to a study published in early 2014 by the nonprofit research organization RAND Corporation, however, state-level spending on prison education programs declined sharply during the economic downturn, with the sharpest drop occurring in states that incarcerate the most prisoners. The study indicated that large states cut spending by an average of 10 percent between the 2009 and 2012 fiscal years, while medium-sized states cut spending by 20 percent.
Lois Davis, the study’s lead author and a senior policy researcher at RAND, said, “There has been a dramatic contraction of the prison education system, particularly those programs focused on academic instruction versus vocational training.” Ms. Davis also noted, “There are now fewer teachers, fewer course offerings and fewer students enrolled in academic education programs.” And even though the drop appears to have resulted from budget cuts prompted by the economic downturn, Davis said that evidence suggests that the curtailment of prison education could actually increase prison system costs in the longer term.
The RAND study is important because it included a comprehensive review of the available research about correctional education programs for adults, as well as a meta-analysis to synthesize findings from multiple studies about the effectiveness of correctional education programs. The meta-analysis found that on average, inmates who participated in correctional education programs had a 13 percentage point reduction in their probability of returning to prison. In addition, the research found that prison education programs are cost effective, with a $1.00 investment reducing incarceration cost by $5.00 during the first three years post-release.
The funding cuts brought on by the recession have made a tough education problem even tougher. One thing seems certain: in order for corrections officials to make better decisions about how to spend the limited funding they’re allotted, they need new information to understand which instructional models produce the best results. (For more information see www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140218153813.htm. The cited report, as well as access to other articles related to this topic, can be found online at: http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR564.html)
Lack of access to an optimum learning and study environment
Prison is just about the worst environment for academic learning, particularly for those who have trouble concentrating or have reading comprehension problems. The surroundings are noisy, filled with distractions, and almost completely lacking in privacy. Access to a quiet place to study is often difficult or impossible for inmates, placing one more obstacle in the paths of even the most determined students.
Lack of access to electronic resources
The RAND report cited above noted that state correctional education directors had expressed concern because a new, more rigorous general education development (GED) exam that began in 2014 will make it harder for inmates to earn their high school equivalent diplomas. The new exam relies on computer-based testing, which presents a big problem for states' correctional education programs that often have limited computer resources. Out of the 31 states that planned to implement the 2014 GED exam, 14 expected the new approach to drive down participation, and 16 states expected fewer inmates to complete the exam.
The GED obstacle is only one example of challenges created by lack of access to adequate computer resources. And lack of funding isn’t always the obstacle; for safety and security reasons, most facilities restrict inmates’ online access. Due to a combination of factors, the digital divide is even deeper and wider behind bars.
Lack of training for correctional staff
Staff participation in correctional education programs is a must in order for these programs to be widely effective. Training of staff is essential. See http://www.urban.org/publications/411954.html for an executive summary, and a link to a PDF, of a report about some of the challenges facing prison education programs.
There’s no doubt that correctional education remains an important piece of the prison rehabilitation puzzle. To solve the challenges facing correctional education will require an approach that is at once compassionate and pragmatic.