Early last year, State Rep. John Willamowski (RLima) introduced a bill that would prohibit the state from funding the post-secondary education of Ohio inmates.
This bill, which garnered only three co-sponsors, has very little chance of becoming law, but such legislative failures are often worth noting because they reveal the values and ideologies of our elected representatives.
Until the mid-1990s, the majority of politicians embraced the concept of prison as a place for rehabilitation and reform. In 1965 Congress passed legislation that explicitly permitted prisoners to apply for Pell grants, need-based financial aid for college students. States followed suit by allowing inmates to apply for similar state-sponsored funding. By 1982, due to this widespread support, more than 350 programs of higher education were available to prisoners in 45 states.
In 1994, however, this reformist ideology faded, replaced with the doctrine of prison as punishment. Despite overwhelming statistical evidence that education in general and post-secondary education in particular dramatically reduce recidivism — the return of a released prisoner to criminal activity — Congress stripped prisoners of the right to apply for Pell grants.
States again followed suit. In 1997 the Ohio legislature banned prisoners from applying for Ohio Instruction Grants and Student Choice Grants.
As a result of this one-two, federal-state punch, nearly all prison-based higher education programs folded.
While earning a college degree in an Ohio prison is no longer possible, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) offers classes in math, cognitive skills, computer technology and general education, among others. The department also offers vocational programs in more than 40 fields, including accounting, business information systems and hotel services.
According to an analysis prepared by the Legislative Service Commission, a nonpartisan agency that provides research services to the General Assembly, Willamowski's bill would prevent inmates with high school diplomas or GEDs from receiving vocational training under the bill. For such individuals, this training might be considered post-secondary.
Yet dozens of studies — some by academic institutions, others by state and federal correctional agencies — indicate that prisoners need more education, not less.
A Virginia study of 3,000 randomly selected inmates found that participation in prison education programs cut recidivism from 49 percent to 20 percent. At the Central Utah Correctional Facility, education programs cut recidivism by 18 percent. A recent Florida study revealed that on average, recidivism drops 2.9 percent for each year of academic competence, as measured by testing.
Other states, including New York, Massachusetts and Maryland, similarly report that inmates who participate in education programs have significantly lower recidivism rates than those who do not.
Focusing on post-secondary education, a 1991 study performed by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice found that while the state's overall recidivism rate was 60 percent, the rate was 13.7 percent for inmates holding associate degrees, 5.6 percent for holders of bachelor's degrees and 0 for those with master's degrees.
Texas' findings reinforce studies showing a nationwide 10 percent recidivism rate for those who have completed at least two years of college and a 60 percent recidivism rate overall.
Ohio has also performed a study of the correlation between education and recidivism. The ODRC based its study on all 18,068 inmates released from the state system in 1992. Of those inmates, 30.4 percent, nearly 5,500, returned to Ohio's prison system within two years of their release. The recidivism rate of those inmates who earned or worked toward a college degree while in prison was 26.6 percent, a reduction of 12.5 percent.
The state's post-secondary education program impacted women to a greater degree than men. While the overall recidivism rate for women in the study was 30.3 percent, the rate for women who worked toward a degree at the time of their release was only 16.9 percent. The rate for those who earned a college degree was even lower, 8.3 percent.
Post-secondary education also had a significant effect on certain classifications of prisoners. The overall recidivism rate for first-degree felons was 35.6 percent, but the rate for those who earned a college degree was only 25.3 percent, a reduction of nearly 30 percent. The overall recidivism rate for drug offenders, who comprise nearly one-third of Ohio's current prison population, was 26.6 percent, while the rate for drug offenders who earned and worked toward college degrees was only 16.5 percent, a 38 percent reduction.
Other studies have shown that only 40 percent of those inmates who receive no higher education while in prison find employment upon release, leaving 60 percent unemployed. Of those inmates who receive a post-secondary education, however, 60 to 75 percent find employment shortly after release.
Research conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number-crunching arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, shows that two important factors affecting the likelihood that an individual will become a criminal are a lack of education and lack of employment opportunities.
All of this research dovetails to show one reason that education reduces recidivism: Education helps ex-convicts find employment, which provides an alternative to criminal activity, thus keeping them from returning to prison.
The benefits of prison education are a bargain for the taxpayer. While costs vary from state to state, providing a post-secondary education to a prisoner for one year generally costs about one-tenth as much as annual incarceration expenses.
In 1996, CURE-NY, a prison reform organization, created a theoretical analysis of savings resulting from post-secondary prison education. The group assumed this education reduced recidivism by 20 percent, a conservative assumption given the studies cited above. When applied to court, education and imprisonment costs in New York at the time of the study, this reduction resulted in hypothetical savings of $2.7 million for each 1,000 inmates receiving college education.
These savings represent only reductions in direct court and imprisonment costs. When other costs of crime, such as theft and destruction of property and lost earnings for murdered or incapacitated victims, savings associated with reduced recidivism increase significantly.
But the value of inmate reform cannot be measured solely in dollars. Ninety-seven percent of the current prison population will someday be released to walk the streets with us. Do we want those people to be uneducated, unskilled, unemployable and likely to return to crime?
Former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger answered that question.
"We must accept the reality that to confine offenders behind walls without trying to change them is an expensive folly with short-term benefits — winning battles while losing the war," Burger said.
State and federal laws have pumped the U.S. prison and jail population from 504,000 in 1980 to its current level of 1.9 million. The system is filled with offenders who cycle in and out of prison learning more about crime with each sentence served, but little about succeeding as law-abiding citizens.
Education is certainly not the sole answer to fixing this obviously broken system, but it might be one weapon that helps us win the war.