By Richard Foster

Ninety-five percent of American prisoners will be released back into society, based on information from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. One of the most important goals of the criminal justice system is to reduce the likelihood they will recidivate upon release. Research shows that completion of a GED during incarceration reduces the percent of recidivism by approximately five percent. The Bureau also reports that, “As of June 30, 2009, state and federal correctional authorities had jurisdiction over 1,617,478 prisoners.” Five percent would therefore be equivalent to around 80,000 fewer returnees.  Image courtesy –

According to the U. S. Department of Justice: FY 2011 Budget Request, “As a result of successful law enforcement policies, the number of criminal suspects appearing in federal court continues to grow, as does the number of individuals ordered detained and ultimately incarcerated.” It goes on to explain that the number of FY 2010 prisoners was 215,000 which is expected to rise approximately 3.2% in FY 2011, up 7,000 to 222,000 inmates.

The notion that an increase in the inmate population represents success could be viewed differently. These 7,000 suspects, detainees, and convicts are representative of two categories of offenders. Some are new to the federal system, yet many are returning after previous incarceration. Whether for parole violations or due to new charges being filed, recidivism rates account for an unnecessarily large proportion of those within our prison system. The Pew Center on the States’ report, State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons, April 13, 2011, reports that based on the data received by 41 states on prisoners released in 2004, after three years, the normal time period for these studies, there was a recidivism rate of 43.3%. This represents almost  half the inmates released. It is no wonder that the U.S. has the largest percentage of its population incarcerated, as many of those who recidivate end up back in prison. Again, according to the Pew study, “…, incarceration levels had risen to a point where one in 100 American adults was behind bars. A second Pew study the following year added another disturbing dimension to the picture, revealing that one in 31 adults in the United States was either incarcerated or on probation or parole.”

The cost of our criminal justice system is astronomical. The U.S. Department of Justice requested 9 billion dollars for FY 2011 to cover the costs of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the Office of the Federal Detention Trustee (OFDT), the U.S. Parole Commission (USPC), and the U.S. Marshalls Service (USMS). The 9 billion dollars was only 30% of the total department budget request. “Total state spending on corrections is now about $52 billion, the bulk of which is spent on prisons.” according to the same Pew report.

In a time of economic crisis; a time when the U.S. debt ceiling must be raised in order to avoid default on payments due, every avenue to save taxpayer dollars by reducing costs should be looked at closely. Instead of building more prisons to house the growing number of inmates, why not take that same money and put it toward programs that are proven to reduce recidivism. One of those proven methods is inmate education. The March 2004 article titled, Correctional Education as a Crime Control Program, written by Audrey Bazos and Jessica Hausman says, “One million dollars spent on correctional education prevents about 600 crimes, while that same money invested in incarceration prevents 350 crimes. Correctional education is almost twice as cost-effective as a crime policy.”

The data on how much recidivism rates are affected varies from study to study and while none of the numbers represent a ‘cure’ for re-offending, they do indicate a direction to be followed and a methodology to be exploited. In the same report by Bazos and Hausman, they said, “Six months worth of participation in an education course among federal prisoners was responsible for a 17.5% reduction in re-arrests, even after accounting for a number of other factors known to predict recidivism.”

John Nuttall, in The Effect of Earning a GED on Recidivism Rates, says, “Among inmates first released from DOCS’ custody in 1996 due to parole release, conditional releases, or maximum expiration of sentence, those who earned a GED while incarcerated returned to custody after a three-year exposure period at a significantly lower rate (32%) than offenders who did not earn a GED while incarcerated (37%). The relationship between GED attainment and return-to-custody is stronger among offenders who were under age 21 at release (40% return rate for GED recipient; 54% return rate among those with no GED) than among inmates who were age 21 or older at release (30% return rate for GED recipients; 35% return rate among those with no GED).” No matter what numbers are used, it is clear that getting an education while in prison reduces an inmate’s likelihood of recidivism.

Both state and federal governments recognize the benefits to education and many require inmates to participate in educational programming if they do not already possess a high school diploma or GED certificate. BOP policy statement 544.70 explains that their literacy program is to help inmates develop the knowledge needed to successfully complete their GED. It goes on to say that, “A high school diploma is the basic academic requirement for most entry-level jobs. People who function below this level often find it very difficult to get a job and carry out daily activities.” They say their objective is to “help inmates develop the skills needed to compete for available jobs and cope with post-release community, family, and other responsibilities.” Inmates who do not have a diploma or GED are required to “attend an adult literacy program for a minimum of 240 instructional hours or until a GED is achieved.”

Compulsory education in prisons, much like its counterpart in public education, has drawbacks. Americans in general, and the prison population probably more so, rebel at being forced to do anything, even if it is for their own good. By requiring inmates to attend classes a negative and often disruptive dynamic is created. Those who want to learn are distracted by those who are not motivated or who are defiant toward the system forcing them to attend. Ironically, many of these same inmates who complain about being forced to attend, if refused the right to get an education, would be the first to file law suits. With inmates who want to learn placed on waiting lists in some institutions, the federal BOP and state DOCs should look at turning their GED programs from compulsory to voluntary.

But what exactly is a GED and what opportunities does it provide to inmates while incarcerated and upon release? The acronym GED stands for the General Education Development Tests, and has been around since 1942. It was first used to help Veterans returning from World War II and was later adopted by the U.S. states and countries around the world. It has become a popular alternative to the traditional high school diploma. To receive their GED from the state in which the correctional facility is located, inmates must pass five examinations, one each in Math, Reading, Written Language, Science, and Social Studies. A perfect score for each of these tests is 800 points. A minimum score for passing each subject is 410 though individual states may raise this standard. The total of all five subjects must be at least 2250 points, for a minimum cumulative average of 450.

According to the American Council on Education’s web site, “The GED Tests are also standardized and normed using a national stratified random sample of graduating high school seniors. In order to pass the tests, the GED candidate must demonstrate a level of skill that meets or surpasses that demonstrated by approximately 60 percent of graduating high school seniors.” On one hand this bodes well for GED recipients as it puts them at a level equal or above more than half those who have completed a traditional high school program. It does not, though, bode well for America’s high schools.

If one looks closely at the content of the GED it doesn’t take long to realize that the level expected of participants is generally that of most middle school curricula. The math program consists of basic calculations using all four operations with whole numbers, fractions, and decimals. From there it progresses to the standards of measurement and data analysis, followed by algebra and geometry. The most complex algebraic problems require find x and y intercepts on a coordinate grid and the geometry focuses mainly on two and three dimensional shapes, solving for area and volume. Much of this content is taught in public schools on the fifth and sixth grade level. As for the writing portion of the test, part one consists of writing a five paragraph essay in response to a prompt. This same skill has been a foundation of the Vermont Writing Portfolio Program for sixth graders for over a decade. If inmates who pass the test with a minimum average of 450 points are doing better than 60 percent of America’s high school graduates, it only confirms that something is seriously wrong with our public educational system.

Does this in and of itself dilute the value of a GED? Yes and no. Yes, because an inmate who leaves prison with a GED in hand may only be capable of doing eighth grade work. He or she may not have the skills necessary to perform the required tasks. This has increasingly become the case with high school diplomas which a generation ago meant a student was ready for college level work. Today, some employees are finding their high school graduate employees unable to add up a bill and make change when the cash register breaks.

On the positive side, reports that, “About 90 percent of U.S. employers accept the GED credential as equal to a traditional high school diploma, …” It also says that according to the College Board a GED can be the key to adults being able to engage in post-secondary education programs. “In fact, 95 percent of U.S. colleges and universities accept GED graduates who meet their other qualifications for admission.” An inmate may not make it into Dartmouth or Yale with a 450 GED average, but it will certainly open the door of many institutions.

The BOP recognizes the limitations of the GED and in the previously cited program statement says, “The completion of the literary program is often only the first step towards adequate preparation for successful post-release reintegration into society. Additional educational programs such as advanced occupational training or college are increasingly needed in today’s technical world.”

This is a very important statement and while the BOP recognizes the need for training beyond the GED, and does try to offer these types of programs, they frequently are the first to be cut when budgets are tight. As shown, though, these are the programs that need expansion as they produce the most bang for the taxpayer buck.

It is not easy for released inmates to secure employment. A criminal record closes many doors, but not all. Correctional education programs need to focus their efforts and resources on those types of employment opportunities most available to ex-offenders. One of the best career options convicted felons have is to start and run a small business. Several types exist where the start-up costs are minimal and inmates should be encouraged to use their incarcerated time working toward such a goal.

For example, an inmate upon release, having studied and prepared while in prison could start a DJ business within a matter of weeks. For under $15,000 an individual could get such a business up and running out of their home. Classes on how to start and operate a business including skills in bookkeeping and tax laws, along with classes on sound equipment use and repair, advertising, public speaking and social skills could all lead to a new and better life. This type of business gives those who wish to work hard a chance to make a good living, not like a minimum wage job flipping burgers. Especially for those who made large sums of money from their illegal activities, poverty is an impetus to return to their former illegal ways. That can be changed for many.

It is clear that while the GED is not a panacea for inmates, it and continued training truly can be a stepping stone to a better life upon release and an increased likelihood of not returning to prison. It would therefore behoove both federal and state governments to pump as many resources into their educational programs as possible. Two areas of concern exist in the funding of educational programming within prisons. Large amounts of money that could be better utilized are diverted to other programs such as recreation. Which is more important, an inmate with a six pack or a GED?

Even more wasteful of monies that could be used to provide better educational services is the overwhelming bureaucracy of the criminal justice system. Over the years, to insure prisoner’s rights and to define the role of the correctional system, volumes of policy statements have been generated, requiring an army of bureaucrats to administer. Presently before Congress is H.R. 5143, a bill to create a National Criminal Justice Commission whose job it would be to investigate and make recommendations for a restructuring of America’s criminal justice system. Hopefully, if this bill passes, they will include as part of their report the need to save billions of dollars each year by eliminating layer upon layer of bureaucracy. Even better would be the diversion of some of this saved money to bolster the educational programs, especially in the area of occupational training, thereby reducing recidivism, thereby saving even more tax dollars.

Society is certainly better served by inmates being educated and in the long run it saves money. In 1994, under pressure from constituents who felt prisoners did not deserve federal support for post-secondary education Pell Grants were discontinued for those incarcerated. According to the Books Through Bars organization web site, these Pell Grants to prisoners had constituted, “less than 1% of the total funds allocated for Pell Grant recipients.” A classic example of penny wise, pound foolish, helping inmates achieve post-secondary success will ultimately reduce government spending in the area of criminal justice, savings which could be passed on to provide more generous Pell Grants for everyone.

While educational opportunities do still exist for inmates who achieve their GED while incarcerated, it is up to them to pay for it. Very few prisoners have the resources necessary to enroll in college level programs. These are troubled economic times in this country and around the world. The American people, justifiably, do not want to see prisoners receiving more benefits than they do, but there are alternatives. Inmates who are truly motivated to learn can work for their education. Monies saved by smaller bureaucracies and lower recidivism can and should be channeled back into programs that allow inmates to pay for post-secondary education through full or part-time work.

There are plenty of jobs that need to be done around this country. Many of them dirty jobs that others choose not to do, especially if public assistance pays as well or better. Inmates, on the other hand, can take on these tasks, at a fraction of the cost of hiring civilians, and the money they earn can go toward their tuition. For example, in many areas, such as California, American forests need to be better managed and maintained to reduce the risk of fires in populated areas. Fire breaks need to be created and undergrowth removed on a regular basis. The American Forestry Service does not have the monies necessary in its budget to handle such daunting tasks, but hundreds of inmates, working for less than minimum wage, paid for through savings in the BOP budget, could do the job and in the long run save taxpayers billions in property damage.

Inmates working full time helping their country, but also taking post-secondary courses that will help them upon release, thereby reducing recidivism and returning taxpayers to the work force is a win, win situation. It would take creativity within the BOP and state systems, but it can be done. A GED could in fact be a first step toward a better future for American inmates resulting in a better future for America. Using a cost of over $30,000 per year, to incarcerate a federal prisoner, a 5% national reduction in recidivism could net a savings of over 2.4 billion dollars annually.

When almost 50% of released inmates return to prison within three years, something is seriously wrong and the desired effect is not being achieved. Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger is quoted as saying, “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.” Education should be the weapon of choice in our fight against recidivism.


Author:  Richard Foster has a Bachelor of Science degree in Elementary education from Castleton State College and a Master’s degree in Education from Antioch New England. He taught Outdoor Education for several years and spent twenty-five years in public education. In addition he has tutored federal inmates working toward their GED for the past two years.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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