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Access to education is correlated with improved employment opportunities after release from prison.

Enhanced job prospects, increased wages, and a reduced likelihood of returning to incarceration are significant benefits observed for individuals in prison who engage in educational programs. Published in the American Journal of Criminal Justice, our findings stem from an analysis of U.S. prison education research studies, covering programs from adult basic education to college. Examining 152 data points from 79 research papers spanning 1980 to 2023, our analysis revealed specific outcomes:

  • Decreased Recidivism: Participation in prison education lowers recidivism chances by 6.7 percentage points, dropping from 46% to 39.3%. This not only contributes to safer communities but also results in substantial state savings, considering the average cost of nearly three years of imprisonment is $107,000.
  • Improved Employment Prospects: Inmates involved in educational programs exhibited a 3.1 percentage point higher likelihood of post-release employment, rising from 44.8% to 47.9%. This is particularly vital for successful reintegration into society, where former inmates often face closed doors due to their past.
  • Increased Earnings: Educated prisoners, beyond being more likely to secure employment, also find higher-paying jobs, with yearly wages for employed ex-offenders rising by $564. Despite the modest increase, the cumulative benefit over the years is considerable.

While all forms of education yielded positive outcomes, college programs, despite their higher costs, had the most profound impact, resulting in higher earnings and employment rates for inmates. Most college programs, lasting two to four years, represent a more intensive yet transformative investment.

The economic strain of maintaining a vast prison population is already immense. Our study reveals that each dollar spent on major education forms – adult basic education, secondary, vocational, and college – more than pays for itself, with return on investment ranging from 61.15% for college to 205.13% for vocational coursework.

Considering only measurable factors of incarceration and employment, the study acknowledges the additional benefits of decreased crime, which include reduced costs to victims, courts, and police. The recent reinstatement of Pell Grants for incarcerated students, abolished in 1994 during the “tough-on-crime” era, underscores the growing recognition of prison education’s importance. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has reintroduced Second Chance Pell programs, showing promising results in terms of graduation rates and job offers.

Looking ahead, our research team, supported by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, continues to delve into this topic, exploring how states can promote prison education and examining the potential impact of expanded access to Pell Grants. Questions linger about the evolution of these programs with increased funding and the continued positive effects as they reach more incarcerated students.

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