By Catherine Prigg

The ongoing national debate about whether incarcerated individuals deserve the privilege of an education is fueled by strong emotions about how unfair it is to pay for a criminal to go to school when law abiding citizens work very hard, and incur lots of debt to put themselves and their children through school.

Even with these legitimate concerns in mind, research continues to prove that education has a value as it contributes to the reformation of character, is more cost-effective than incarceration, and reduces recidivism at a more significant rate than other forms of crime control.

The pipeline from school to prison is an epidemic. There is a strong connection between illiteracy and incarceration. As shown in a recent study, juveniles who have interactions with juvenile court systems have been found to be 85 percent functionally illiterate. So are 60 percent of all prison inmates. This is significant because a direct correlation has been shown between literacy levels and recidivism rates. This is unsurprising considering that a significant factor in if a released prisoner returns to crime is if they were able to secure sustainable employment.

While 70 percent of released inmates return to crime, both Journalists Resource and Invisible Children found that only 16 percent of inmates returned to prison if they benefited from prison education programs. Clearly such programs have a significant impact on recidivism rates.

It is a crime that we do not educate illiterate people. After World War II the United Nations drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 26 states, “Everyone has a right to education.” Despite the U.N. resolution, the American political system falters back and forth between the two sides of the debate, and interestingly it is not a partisan issue. An education can prevent up to 43 percent of inmates from returning to a life of crime. Regardless, as put by Keller in a terrific New York Times op-ed, there is “almost a complete disconnect between what we know and what we do. The influence of high-profile crimes, fear of crime, and issues of race, the acquisition of cheap political capital — all have had far more influence on criminal justice policy than what we know works, or what is fair or just.”

Perhaps it’s time for us to do what we know works, not just what feels good or is politically palpable?

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).