Education Reduces Recidivism Rates

Mon March 21, 2016


Last month, Brandon Stanton of the photojournalism website Humans of New York composed a series showing inmates whose lives were upturned by juvenile mistakes. The photographs and descriptions told touching stories about inmates struggling to move forward with life in and out of prison. One way to assist inmates in developing the ability to create positive momentum is through educational programs within prisons, which can decrease the recidivism rate among ex-inmates by reducing prisonization, nurturing prosocial norms, and increasing employability.  

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBP), prisonization is “alienation from the prison staff and management, and from the larger society” (Harer 1995). Education in prison reduces prisonization by allowing inmates to use their time productively and by creating an environment for socialization, which decreases misconduct in prison and prepares those in correctional institutions for the outside world (Harer 1995). Inmates feel like they belong to a community, and that means they are less likely to act out against norms.

In addition to reducing a prisoner’s feeling of isolation, education can nurture law-abiding behavior. Compared to inmates completing less than half of an educational course in six months of incarceration, those completing half or more had a 14.4 percent lower recidivism rate (Harer 1995). Courses provide much more than educational material; they offer structure, socialization, and a framework much like normal society. For example, courses offer punishments for disruptive behaviors, such as late work or talking in class, and reward the achievement of learning goals or exemplary behavior. Inmates interact in ways that can help them transition effectively to and be productive members in society.

Finally, education in prisons gives inmates skills that increase their employability post-release—and ex-inmates who have jobs have decreased recidivism rates. A research brief that compared work, education, recidivism, and several other factors in prisons showed that recidivism rates among inmates were lower for those who earned more money (Brazzell, Mukamal, Soloman, Lindahl 2009). Since education is correlated with higher pay, courses that increase inmates’ education can benefit society by decreasing recidivism .Additionally, education can give inmates more options and “encourage[e] [them] to identify and achieve education and career goals” (Tolbert 2012).

In his work as the creator of Humans of New York, Brandon Stanton portrays people of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and backgrounds, all with their own stories to tell. Inmates have their own stories, too, with lives to return to and create after prison. Improving and growing educational programs in prisons have benefits that allow these inmates to start new lives by decreasing their prisonization, improving their ability to follow prosocial norms, and increasing post-release employment. There is no downside to increased education for the incarcerated since prison is for reform, not just punishment (Steuer, Smith).

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Brazzell, Diana, Debbie Mukamal, Amy L. Solomon, and Nicole Lindahl. "From the Classroom to the Community." From the Classroom to the Community. September 23, 2009. Accessed March 18, 2016.

Chen, Michelle. "Prison Education Reduces Recidivism by Over 40 Percent. Why Aren't We Funding More of It?" The Nation. August 17, 2015. Accessed March 18, 2016.

Fitzgerald, Erica L., Krista M. Chronister, Linda Forrest, and Lindsey Brown. "OPTIONS for Preparing Inmates for Community Reentry: An Employment Preparation Intervention." APA. July 27, 2013.

Harer, Miles D. Prison Education Program Participation and Recidivism: A Test of the Normalization Hypothesis. Report. Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Prisons Office of Research and Evaluation, 1995.

Steurer, Stephen J., and Linda G. Smith. Education Reduces Crime: Three-State Recidivism Study. Executive Summary. ERIC document reproduction service no. 478 452. Correctional Education Association.

Tolbert, Michelle. A Reentry Education Model Supporting Education and Career Advancement for Low-Skill Individuals In Corrections. Report. U.S. Department of Education Office of Vocational and Adult Education, 2012.

"Education and Vocational Training in Prisons Reduces Recidivism, Improves Job Outlook." Rand Corporation. August 22, 2013. Accessed March 18, 2016.

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