America’s War on Recidivism: How Correctional Education can Save a Country

By Nico Pingaro

Published on August 17, 2017


The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, housing around 25% of the world’s prisoners, while only making up about 5% of the world’s population. Housing a large amount of prisoners results in the inevitable reality of recidivism. In 2014 a study tracking 404,638 prisoners from 30 states that were released in 2005 revealed a horrifying rate of recidivism. The same study also revealed a correlation between recidivism and age. Many experts, who have studied the rate of recidivism over the years, find the programs and policies in place to be at the root of the problem. The old ideology of building more prisons to fight crime has become a thing of the past; now, there is a focus on new technologies and strategies to put a dent in the recidivism rate.

Studies have shown that the cost-benefit of correctional education systems in prison are prevalent enough that they should not be ignored. The reoccurring flaw with implementing educational programs in prisons is the lack of participation in the programs themselves.

However, the number of inmates who participate in these programs have been steadily increasing. Another 2014 study focusing on the Youth Offender Program (YOP) in North Carolina, specifically analyzed offenders who are 25 years old and younger because of that age groups’ high rate of recidivism.

The rational behind implementation of educational programs is that teaching cognitive thinking skills to inmates will help them make better societal choices once they are released, in turn lowering the rate of recidivism. This note argues that the implementation of higher educational programs for inmates, via new technology and strategies, should be at the forefront of the fight against recidivism. The out dated method of building more prisons and “being tougher on crime” has proven to be a waste of the tax-payers money and an out right failure.

I will analyze the results of educational programs in prisons that have already implemented these programs and the deterrence they had on prisoners being re-incarcerated.

Understanding of this problem will only be developed by examining the long history that has lead us to where the issue stands today. Combining everyday technology with historical rehabilitative ideologies is the answer to defeating high rates of recidivism. The proceeding sections of this note will support my conclusion that technology and education should be put to greater use in order to put a dent in our Nation’s lofty recidivism statistics.

II. History

A. The Early History of the American Prison System

The idea of punishment by incarceration is deeply rooted in the history of the United States. Albeit an “ancient” practice by our young country, individuals were only incarcerated for certain acts in the beginning ages of this practice. The eighteenth century marked the transition from corporal punishment to imprisonment. This period in the United States produced two institutions, which still have deep roots in today’s modern prison system. Jails originated in order to detain criminals, and “workhouses” were used to rehabilitate criminals.

The West Pennsylvania Quakers, who receive attribution for the founding of the American Penal System, put criminals to “hard labor” finding it the best vehicle for rehabilitation. A century after the Quakers contributed this ideology, it was decided that hard labor and imprisonment should stand at a “cellular separation” thus producing the modern prison system in its entirety. As colonial America was slowly detaching itself from the political ideologies of England, it was also developing it’s own philosophy in regards to social reform. Arguably the most important change in the American penal system came in 1791 with the idea that imprisonment should serve the purpose of rehabilitating the convicted individual, not strictly punishing him.

The old ways of barbaric punishment could not survive in a time of enlightenment; and thus, a more humane way to punish criminally convicted individuals was established. The earliest method that was used in an effort to reform prisoners was “hard labor.” Labor by inmates became the chief aim of incarceration, however, at this time few prisons practiced this ideology.

The influences from France and the movement for more enlightened social reform undoubtedly laid the framework for the penal system we have today. However, it is important to note that the goal of rehabilitation is still the desired result of incarceration and yet after generations of trying to achieve the same goal, recidivism still remains at an all time high.

B. The History of Prison Education: A Tool to Rehabilitate

Father William Rogers, a Philadelphia clergyman, was at the forefront of the Correctional Educational Movement when he began to educate inmates. Father Rogers’ first implementation came in 1826, in the form of Bible studies that were held for New York’s Auburn Prison inmates.

The movement started by Father Rogers sparked major educational advancements throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in American prisons. Only seven years after Father Rogers began his Bible study, the Boston Prison Discipline Society created the “Sabbath School Movement” which entailed 700 tutors in ten prisons teaching 1,500 “prisonscholars.”

Although rapidly evolving since the 17th and 18th centuries, the American Penal System’s focus on rehabilitative methods greatly diminshed in the 1990’s. The repealing of inmate classes and workshops has led to infamous prison riots, such as the Attica State Prison Riot in 1971. After the downsizing of prisoner education, rates of recidivism steadily began to rise, leading us to where we are today. The “tough on crime” ideology, that was born during the nineties, “ended the presence of the most affordable and effective program in the history of the American criminal justice system.”

Although funding has been limited significantly, education rehabilitative programs still exist, and New Hampshire State Prison For Men is at the forefront of combining technology with rehabilitative education. New Hampshire State Prison For Men administers a voluntary test called Test of Adult Basic Education (“TABE”). The Technology Education Program, implemented in the New Hampshire State Prison for Men, provides the inmate-student with an introduction to technology systems along with “survey tools, materials, processes, and career paths used by the system.” The program has a series of courses specific to four clusters of the field; (1) Communication Technology; (2) Materials Processes Technology (Construction and Manufacturing); (3) Energy, Power, and Transportation Technology, and; (4) Technology Practicum. TABE then “makes recommendations for placement in academic and vocational/technical programs.”

The foundation of New Hampshire State Prison’s Program is to provide inmates with marketable skills so they can obtain employment upon their matriculation into society. The Program has been so successful at providing inmates these skills that the International Technology Education Association (ITEA) awarded the prison with a “Program Excellence Award” in 1994. In 2000, the program was expanded and was implemented in the Concord and Laconia prisons in New Hampshire. Observers of this program have noticed attitude changes amongst participating inmates, these changes in attitude seem to be correlative with academic achievement. The program, which makes inmates work in teams on group projects, helps these inmates with social skills that are necessary for post-release success in society.

The reoccurring theme associated with prison education is a low rate of recidivism and New Hampshire State Prison’s technology program seems to bolster the validity of this result. The recidivism rate can be as low as “10.8% for positively terminated inmates (those who have successfully completed training) and as high as 70% or more for those that do not.”

Other prisons in the United States who have “correctional schools” also use technology as classroom aids, although not as prevalent as the aids found in the New Hampshire State Prison Technology Education Program. These classroom aids consist of: “(1) CD’s/DVD’s; (2) closed circuit television; (3) intranet; (4) file servers; (5) computers (stand alone or networked); (6) Local Area Networks (LAN); (7) Wide Area Networks (WAN); (8) two-way audio/video conferencing; (9) internet protocol TV; (10) satellite; (11) instructional TV fixed service(microwave) and; (12) learning content systems such as NovaNet, WebCT, or Blackboard These technological aids exist in some combination in even the most remote and barren prison schools.

Unfortunately, the effects of the 1994 Crime Bill are still felt today and is limiting the overall effect prisoner education could have on our nations high rate of recidivism. The introduction of the 1994 Crime Bill lead to legislators deliberately reducing education opportunities in spite of strong statistical evidence that inmates who received these degrees rarely returned to a life of crime post-release. Although the Legislative branch of our government deserves much of the blame for the restraints placed on rehabilitative education, the Judicial branch has also played a significant role.

C. The Legal Precedents of Prisoner Education: A Right to Education?

The few cases documented in this section exemplify the Judicial Branch’s impact on limiting educational opportunities to inmates. The conditions that are to be provided to an inmate once he/she is incarcerated incorporate rehabilitative programs (as well as humane living conditions, etc.), as a result most cases brought before a court by a prisoner cite a violation of the Eighth Amendment as the basis of the claim. In other cases, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment has been employed to seek educational programs for incarcerated juveniles and women. For example, an incarcerated juvenile plaintiff brought suit against the Pennsylvania Department of Education because of a state statue that permitted the denial of “school-aged persons incarcerated in county correctional institutions, but not those incarcerated in state correctional institutions.” The court concluded that the state of Pennsylvania had a legitimate government interest in implementing a statute that denied an education to incarcerated youths. However, courts have ruled differently when dealing with gender and Title IX.

Lastly, inmates seeking judicial enforcement of educational programs have received minimal help from the courts. Courts have repeatedly held that there is not a fundamental right to education, and thus when a prisoner is denied an educational opportunity, no violation of civil rights occurs.56 Although neither branch deserves all the blame for slowing the progress rehabilitative education had made with the recidivism rate, they both share the brunt of the responsibility. However, the American public should not go blameless in this war against recidivism. After all, we are the ones who influence these branches of government to make decisions such as the ones discussed above.

III. Premise

The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (A/K/A “The Crime Bill”) gave birth to a conservative “tough on crime” incarceration ideology in the United States. When President Clinton signed the 1994 Crime Bill, federal Pell Grants and other federal money caused prisoner education to disappear.

The implementation of the Crime Bill, which Democratic President Bill Clinton chose to enact was a response to the criticism the Democratic Party was facing for being too lenient on criminal offenders. Few other issues like criminal justice reform did more to impact the Democratic Party, and drive blue-collar Democrats to vote for Republican candidates.

The 1988 presidential race displayed Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis and his hesitancy to defend his views on the death penalty or the Massachusetts prison furlough program. The relevance of the Massachusetts furlough program was the release of infamous criminal Willie Horton, who was a convicted murderer and raped a woman, while on furlough from prison.

The societal climate in the late 1980’s focused on controlling a rampant crime rate, mandatory minimum sentencing, and “three-strike laws”. The election of Republican candidate George H.W. Bush in the 1988 election forced the Democratic Party to reevaluate their stance on criminal justice reform in the United States. The emphasis on harsher penalties for criminal offenders was not solely derivative of the battle for the presidency; influence from law enforcement agencies played a roll as well. The 1970’s exhibited low prison populations and a penal philosophy that was rehabilitation centric.

Additionally, legislatures shunned mandatory sentencing provisions. In 1974 the FBI reported a spike in the United States’ crime rate and the blame was placed on lenient judges, the prison reform movement, and the rehabilitation ideology. By 1976 every state in the country, except California, had reported an increase in their State and Federal prison population. A quarter of a million prisoners were held in state and federal prisons in 1976.

At the turn of the 1970’s mandatory sentencing laws had been shunned by nearly every state; but, by the end of the decade, every state in the U.S. had passed at least one such law. By 1987, the federal government implemented mandatory sentencing guidelines that sought to extend the use of imprisonment. These mandatory sentences undoubtedly lead to overpopulation in the prison system, so much so abandoned military bases and other federal property were converted in correctional facilities. An opinion poll taken during 1983 revealed that “… the fear of crime had risen to the top of the public’s list of domestic concerns,” and the liberal philosophy about crime and justice lacked any legitimate support. During the 1988 Presidential Election, Republicans campaigning efforts focused on anti-crime and pro-victim rights; resulting in the election of President George H.W. Bush.

The overcrowding in prisons, due to mandatory sentencing guidelines, resulted in the construction of more prisons and affirmed that rehabilitative incarceration was an ideology of old.

Social scientists will argue that the United States has always had a “tough on crime” policy that pre-dates the “tough on crime movement,” however, the prison system the U.S. has today is a result of conservative politicians who were major catalysts during the “tough on crime movement.” The idea that crime was “allowed to happen” was a conservative view on crime and incarceration, existing long before the passing of the Crime Bill. The conservative argument rebuts the idea that criminal acts are the result of societal influences and rather derivative of irresponsible choices by individuals. Conservatives believed “that social pressures such as racism, inadequate employment, lack of housing, low wages, and poor education do not cause crime. The liberal approach regarding crime and incarceration is one that examines social conditions upon criminal offenders, and thus an apparent discrepancy on how to solve the problem appreciated. For example, social conditions such as racial inequality and limited opportunities for the youth were at the heart of the problem. History stipulates that liberals and conservatives have disagreed on how to approach crime and incarceration for decades, however, we see an unprecedented unification of ideology with the inception of the Crime Bill. It can be argued that the Democrats enacted this Bill in order to prevent registered Democrat voters from voting for Republican presidential candidates.

The current state of prison education mirrors the resurgent corporal punishment ideology; “ People who commit crimes should be caught, convicted, and punished.” The passing of the 1994 Crime Bill stood for the idea that the government was on the side of the law abiding public and not the side of the inmates. However, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo sees the issue quite differently, and believes the reinstatement of prison education is in the best interest of the law-abiding public. Governor Cuomo states that it costs roughly $60,000.00 of taxpayer money for one prison cell per year. Therefore, if an inmate is in that prison cell for ten years that is a $600,000.00 bill paid for by taxpayer money. Education can fix this problem, by reducing the rate at which that $600,000.00 inmate returns to prison. At the current moment there is almost a fifty percent chance a convict will return after his release, and by comparison the cost of getting an inmate a college education would be $5,000.00 a year per person. Governor Cuomo argues that this is “chump change,” especially if it affects the recidivism rate.

The opponent’s argument against prisoner education has been the same since the inception of the Crime Bill, and the current economic crisis facing this country only proves how illusory that argument is. The only counter argument is a cost-benefit analysis. This issue presents a unique analysis of economic cost versus human cost; in order for society to benefit a balance between the two must be found.

IV. Analysis

A. If It’s Broke, Fix It!

The recidivism rate in the United States has reached such a debilitating high that it has affected all aspects of our society. From the largest city to the smallest town, the rate in which a convict returns to prison cripples the United States’ growth as a country. Numerous studies have been conducted on the recidivism rate in the United States. A 2014 study took a sample size of over 400,000 prisoners from thirty states that were released from prison, and found 67.8% of exconvicts were re-arrested within three years of their release while 76.6% within five years after release. These startling results, taken from over half the states in the Country, demonstrate that our current system of incarceration is broken. Clearly, the ideology of “severe punishment to deter crime” has failed and to continue along this path would only put this country into a deeper economic hole.

The issue of providing prisoners with access to not only educational opportunities, but college and post-graduate opportunities has been debated for decades; however, statistics show no support for the current system. The plan to build more prisons to deter crime has proven to be an archaic and wasteful idea that has only dug this country into a deeper economic hole.

A decade ago the corrections department in the United States spent $30 billion annually. Currently that number has almost doubled to $52 billion annually. The outrageous expenditure of money is being used to build more prisons and hire more prison personal. The building of more prisons signifies the prison population is expanding. If the current system of the fear of punishment to reduce crime was effective, then why the need for more prisons? The proof that the system currently in place is a failure is evident; if the plan of building more prisons and making punishments more severe were successful the annual expenditure by the corrections department would have decreased over the last decade, not nearly doubled. The answer is clear that the system is broken and the use of tax-payer money is being wasted on building more institutions that perpetuate career criminals.

Opponents to offering prisoners access to higher education state that even if federal money is once again given to fund educational courses in prison, it does not mean the inmates will participate. A 2000 study of the North Carolina Prison System showed that twenty-seven percent of prisons offer higher education programs but only ten percent of inmates participate.

This study supports the opponent’s argument that even if money was spent to give inmates the opportunity to educate themselves, they are not likely going to take advantage of the opportunity. Although this study supports the opponent’s argument, empirical data has proven increased participation in prisoner education programs. A 2014 study done in a North Carolina prison found the number of inmates enrolled in educational programs grow from 207 inmates in 1997 to 369 in 2008. Although, this study dealt with a small sample size it demonstrates that there is promise for growth in enrollment in prison educational programs.

The proponents of implementing education argue that with receiving an education a person, convict or otherwise, develops rational cognitive thinking skills.

The idea behind giving inmates access to higher education is based on improving cognitive thinking skills, given these skills an ex-convict will be able to make better societal choices. The reason why the current system is failing is because inmates who are released do not see the social harm element in their actions. Most crimes are committed out of desperation, for example either to feed or cloth oneself or family. Releasing an inmate back into society in a better position than he was before is the ultimate goal of rehabilitation. An education, specifically a higher education or an education in technology, allows that inmate a greater opportunity to get and keep a job.

Having an income generally would allow a person to afford the essentials in life (cloths, food, shelter, etc.), thus removing the feeling of being desperate from that person’s life. Additionally, being in an academic setting increases cognitive thinking skills, which allows a person to weigh the consequences of their actions. This is why the current system fails; convicts without an education fail to see the surrounding consequences of their actions, they only see immediate “benefit” of their actions. Thus, a “tough on crime,” more severe punishment ideology does not return a positive result because the re-offending convict lacks the cognitive skills to see past his immediate actions, he is only focused on the immediate “benefit” of his action.

The practice of providing inmates with a college education is not a novel idea. However, many will argue that high school level or GED courses are sufficient enough to give inmates the opportunity to succeed post-incarceration, however, this is idea is contrary to our current societal educational pattern. In 1965, the Texas Prison College System emphasized higher education for inmates. The system was unfortunately terminated because it was deemed that it was making prison life “too soft.” The idea that was being emphasized by the Texas Prison College System is exactly what the prison system needs today. The societal trend of law-abiding students today is to attend college. It is bread into the minds of young students that in order to be successful, you must go to college. In society today, a young person without a college diploma is extremely disadvantaged. Now taking our inmate student into account, opponents to a higher education state that offering a high school level education will surely provide the inmate with ample opportunity to succeed post-incarceration. This argument is flawed because a person with a criminal record and a lower level of education cannot reasonably compete for employment opportunities with a person who has a college education and no criminal record.

In the year 2015, the college diploma has been relegated to a high school diploma. The availability of loans and financial aid has made enrollment in college not just for the rich children of society. An ex-convict, with a G.E.D. and who has just been released from prison, now must compete for job opportunities with a majority of individuals who have a college diploma and a clean criminal record. The methods of incarceration currently in place only perpetuates career criminals, because first time offenders leave prison worse than when they entered.

The best way to implement this program and gauge its result would be to offer it to the age group with the highest rate of recidivism. Statistics have proven that inmates twenty-five years and younger have the highest rate of recidivism. If higher education programs were available to this age group only, as test subjects so to speak, it would be a compromise between those in favor and those opposed to this method of rehabilitation. The money expenditure would not be as great since the inmates who are eligible are a small group and it would be the best method to see if educational rehabilitation works the way studies have said it does.

Additionally, if successful the implementation has tackled the group of whom re-offends most frequently, thus putting a significant dent in the United States’ recidivism epidemic. The war against recidivism is currently being lost in this country, in order to fix the problem we must reflect as a country and see where we took a turn for the worse.

B. Past Decisions Derivative Of The Current Problem

In order to reconcile our current problem with the American Penal System, we must examine the decisions that got us to where we are today. The current problems with the American Penal System and the high rates of recidivism stem from the Crime Bill. By the early 1990’s, many higher education institutions were offering Associate and Bachelor Degree courses in prisons. Pell Grants and other federal monies were used to float the coast of these programs.

However, by 1994, all federal funding of these programs were cut and the educational opportunities given to inmates were extinguished. Prior to the Crime Bill, the rehabilitative ideology was gaining support and better yet was producing results. From 1971 until 1994, the American Prison System experienced a rush of federal funding that establishes educational programs; these programs consisted of all types of education from vocations to four-year Bachelor’s degree programs.

Rehabilitative education is the key to putting an end to a vicious recidivist cycle, and although people may be against it, the overall result is beneficial to the law-abiding public. The fact that is most debilitating to the opponent’s argument is the cost of incarcerating an individual substantially outweighs the cost of educating a prisoner; this gives the rehabilitative method certifiable validity. Despite statistical and economic validity, the rehabilitative incarceration method is still met with strong rebuke; many in society feel a free education to those who broke the law is an injustice to the law-abiding public.

Many argue why should a law-breaker receive a free education when there are law-abiding families who struggle to put their children through college. However, this argument is flawed because it is factually incorrect. When Pell Grants or federally funded grants were given to inmatestudents, no traditional students were ever denied Pell Grants because of prisoner participation. Additionally, when the Pell Grants barred prisoner participation, no additional grants were awarded to traditional students. Only one tenth of Pell Grant money funded prison education programs. Thus, the argument that would seem to be the biggest combatant to the rehabilitative incarceration method is meritless.

C. Technology & Inmate Education

The advancements in technology revolutionized every aspect of the American culture and perhaps, most importantly, changed the education system as a whole. Use of technology in the prison education system is not a new concept, albeit technology we would consider “primitive” today. Since funding for prisoner education was cut in 1994, rehabilitative education programs in prisons never received the benefit of the “new age” technology our generic classrooms enjoy currently.

Technology such as DVD’s, closed circuit televisions, and Wide Area Networks have been seen in prison classrooms before. Technologies taken for granted today like computers have even existed in the most remote prisons. However, when tax-payer money was being used to fund the purchase of something as basic as computers, the expense was astronimical because of its novelty at the time.

Today a computer can be purchased for as a cheap as $200.00 versus $7,000.00 in 1991. The most basic technologies cannot only assist in education but can be purchased for pennies on the dollar compared to over two decades ago. An inmate sentenced to a ten-year sentence will be an expense of roughly $600,000.00 to the state in which he is incarcerated and to the tax-payers of that state. This $600,000.00 prisoner has a 67.8% chance of returning within three years, and likely for a longer stay due to mandatoryminimum sentencing. The cost of this one prisoner, for his first stint in prison alone, could have purchased 3,000 HP laptop computers. Therefore not only is it cheaper to educate and rehabilitate inmates but it is now more cost effective to do so than in times passed

The world has become dominated by technology and not knowing how to use these devices is today’s definition of illiteracy. Programs such as the one’s found in New Hampshire State Prison, which focuses on teaching inmates how to use today’s technology, is one of the most effective programs combatting recidivism. The recidivism rate for those inmates who have completed this program has been as low as 10.8%; numbers such as these cannot be ignored.

The United States has implemented technology in classrooms for all age groups, it is necessary to do the same in prison-classrooms. This note has discussed the obstacles faced by ex-convicts once released, but potentially the most difficult hurdle is adjusting to a world that changes daily. Inmates who have been locked up for several years have no way of keeping up with the fast pace of this country nor can they keep up with the changes in technology that seemingly happen over night. The benefit of the technology we have in 2015 could assist in educating inmates at a much higher rate than was ever imaginable twenty-one years ago. Implementing the internet, computers, power point and things of that nature would enhance the classroom setting and give educators the opportunity to teach more inmates than ever before.

An education in communications technology; material processes technology; energy, power, and transportation technology; and technology practicum would provide a niche education to inmates who must compete with the highly educated, non-offending public.

In 2015 it is hard to take a step without bumping into some type of technology, and this exact sentiment is another avenue that is being explored to fight recidivism. Teaching inmates how to use and fix technology is a very logical avenue that would help an ex-convict assimilate back into society. When a person feels alienated, the natural tendency is to seek out something or someone familiar; in this case an ex-convict who cannot find a job, cannot re-adjust into society, and cannot keep up with the pace of society will surely fall back into the familiar circumstances that landed him in prison initially. Classes in web design, application training, operating systems courses, systems engineering, network security, and computer programming would provide an education in a field with high demand but low supply. With the pace in which technology changes, the skills learned from these types of classes would surely provide the inmate with a legitimate chance of securing gainful employment.

Although returning to the days before the Crime Bill is out of the question, we can still return to the amount of funding that was available then for prisoner education. The amount of money spent to incarcerate a single individual is much more expensive than to educate one, and with inmates returning to prison at such a high rate the only reasonable conclusion is to abandon a very broken, expensive methodology. The idea behind incarceration should be rehabilitation and not solely punishment; in fact those inmates who participate in education programs while in prison are 43% less likely to return to prison. Not only would this plan help inmates and better our society, but it would also have a net return to the taxpayers of $13 per $1 spent. The long-term goal of reducing future crime rates and giving inmates the tools necessary to re-enter society successfully should be inseparable.

V. Conclusion

The results of a rehabilitative incarceration system are undeniable, however, we cannot revert back to the system that was in place pre-passing of the Crime Bill. Rehabilitating inmates through education is the cheaper and more effective avenue in the fight against recidivism.

In 2015, the combination of technology and education can transcend prison education, just as it has transcended our everyday classroom education. If our views on incarceration as a nation do not change, then we as a society will pay the price not the inmates. The new rehabilitative education system for prisoners must resemble a classroom of the 21st century; the answer to how this is accomplished can be summed up in one word, technology.

The Author

Nico Pingaro is a third-year law student at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, Massachusetts. His anticipated date of graduation is May 2016. Nico plans on practicing in the areas of white-collar criminal defense, criminal defense, civil litigation, and civil rights violations. You can download the article with the footnotes by clicking here.

Article picture: kiowacountypress via Pixabay


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