Right now, taxpayers spend up to $70 billion each year to house the nation's two to three million prisoners. That works out to about $31,000 per inmate. One would think that with such a stiff price tag, we'd be doing a better job of rehabilitation. The truth is that the prison system still does a particularly questionable job of educating inmates for life after incarceration, with only about 6 percent of corrections spending used on education programs. And that matters more than the average person realizes.
Currently, less than 15 percent of students in juvenile detention centers finish high school or complete a GED. Few prisons offer opportunities for adult inmates to pursue college degrees. That can make finding a job and reintegrating into society in a positive way much more difficult.
Stephen Steurer, executive director of the Correctional Education Association, said there are efforts at the state and national levels -- the U.S. Education Department has an Office of Correctional Education, for example -- to educate prisoners, but there isn't enough funding to back those initiatives up and there isn't much consistency from state to state. In fact, rehabilitation efforts by most states have hardly changed in 40 years.
One reason is that people in the United States react very differently to the idea of funding education in prisons than many people in Europe, particularly Scandinavia. And the current economy hasn't helped that.
"Who wants to send a crook to college when they're having a hard time getting their own kids through?" Steurer asked.
That said, Steurer believes President Barack Obama is open to the idea of more education in prisons, but the current budget makes any major changes unlikely, even when those changes are life altering.
According to an infographic from data analysis company Knewton, inmates earn 40 percent less per year than if they had not been incarcerated. That's often because they lack the education they need to succeed in the workforce. Also, they are prohibited from taking on some jobs that require background checks, so job opportunities are limited.
It's no surprise then that at least 40 percent of the country's incarcerated population ends up back behind bars within a decade.
For the few states that have turned to prison education programs to break that cycle, the results are clear. Ohio, for example, reduced recidivism rates by more than 60 percent among ex-inmates who completed a degree in prison. In New York, less than eight percent of the inmates who took college classes wound up back in prison within three years. The reincarceration rates for those who didn't take those classes was much higher, at 30 percent.
For those who feel it's unfair that you commit a crime and essentially get a free education, consider these facts. A study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that for every dollar spent on correctional education, the state saved $12. Another study from the University of California, Los Angeles found that a $1 million investment in incarceration prevented just 350 crimes, while the same investment in education prevents 600 crimes.
There are concerted efforts by individual organizations like the Samaritan House to provide job training skills to inmates and by schools like Boston University to offer college classes to people in prison. But those initiatives are few and far between.
Prisoners also used to be eligible for Pell Grants, which helped them pay for courses, but that option was eliminated in the mid-1990s and many universities that offered courses to prisoners withdrew their programs. That means that without funding, most cases prisoners must actually pay to get their education.
Boston University continues to offer inmates who successfully complete its prison education program a chance to earn a bachelor of liberal interdisciplinary studies. And those who complete it say it has made a real difference in their lives. Besides the economic benefits of a college degree, the program is a chance for prisoners to prove they can accomplish something.
"Like most migrants who come to this country in search of the American Dream," Boston University Prison Education Valedictorian Ezekial I. said in his 2011 commencement speech. "So when I got to MCI Norfolk, I knew that I would at least get a chance to restore that dream. Today, I am proud to say that that dream of theirs is no longer deferred."