The numbers are shocking. Almost half of all prisoners who received parole in the previous 15 years had been recincarcerated within three years of their release, according to a Pew Research study published in April 2011. It’s no wonder that overcrowding has crippled the U.S. prison system, as taxpayers foot an ever-growing bill to keep criminals behind bars. It may seem at times that there are revolving doors to our nation’s prisons, but there is one cost-effective solution that has proven results: education. Research has shown that inmates who took part in educational programs were at a much lower risk of recidivism within three years of their release. With that in mind, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced a plan to finance college classes in 10 state prisons, giving inmates the opportunity to earn either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree over a two- to three-year period. Currently, New York spends $60,000 per year on every prisoner. The education program would be a fraction of the cost — $5,000 per inmate, per year — and would hopefully keep participants from returning to jail. “Giving men and women in prison the opportunity to earn a college degree costs our state less and benefits our society more,” Governor Cuomo said in a press release. “Someone who leaves prison with a college degree has a real shot at a second lease on life because their education gives them the opportunity to get a job and avoid falling back into a cycle of crime.”
While New York is far from the only state to experiment with prison education, for the most part, these programs have been funded and run by private groups. A study by the University of Missouri’s Institute of Public Policy found that the state’s inmates’ chances of finding full-time employment after being released were greatly enhanced if they had completed a prison education program. Reincarceration rates for those with full-time jobs were “nearly cut in half” compared to those who were unemployed. In New York, Bard College has directed a smaller initiative, with enrollment of around 500 prisoners since 2001. Of those participants, more than 250 have earned degrees. While the state’s recidivism rate hovers at around 40 percent, only 4 percent of prisoners who took part in the Bard Prison Initiative returned to the prison system. Of those who graduated, the recidivism rate dropped to 2.5 percent. Overall, researchers at the RAND Corporation found that inmates who participated in prison education programs have a recidivism rate of 43 percent less than those who did not.
With statistics like these, why wouldn’t state or even federal governments invest in correctional education? Opponents of Governor Cuomo’s plan, like Republican Senator Greg Ball, say that the last thing the state should be doing is funding education for criminals, especially when law-abiding families are struggling to send their own children to college. But that outlook may be shortsighted. In 2010, more than 650,000 people were released from prisons nationwide. At the current rate, almost half of them will return. By providing these people with an education that can help them get jobs, taxpayers could save $2.7 billion per year. That’s no small sum of money. And providing correctional education has another positive result: giving a second chance to those who want to leave behind a life of crime.