Prison inmates who receive education and vocational training are far more likely to find jobs and stay out of prison after they are released, a new report concludes. The study by the RAND Corp., the largest ever of its kind, ought to encourage states, including Ohio, to expand and retool their prison education programs.
Ohio spends less than 2 percent of its $1.5 billion corrections budget on prison education. In Ohio, average prison stays run two years, and more than 95 percent of those in prison will eventually go home. Making sure fewer offenders return to prison is one of the most effective, and least controversial, ways to contain the enormous costs of corrections.
RAND researchers, in a study announced last week by Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, found that inmates who participated in education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison. Those who took vocational training were 28 percent more likely to get a job. The study concluded that spending $1 on prison education reduces incarceration costs by $4 to $5, even in the short term.
Under Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC) Director Gary Mohr, Ohio has prudently focused more on education, training, and re-entry. The state’s prisoner recidivism rates are at record lows — less than 30 percent — compared to 40 percent nationwide.
Ohio prisons now determine an inmate’s needs during the first year of incarceration, and follow up with appropriate programs. All offenders leave prison with an official identification document.
But Ohio’s 28 prisons can do more. The department still lacks basic data necessary to measure progress and needs.
The state does not know how many of the roughly 22,000 inmates it releases each year leave prison without a high school diploma or a General Educational Development (GED) equivalent. Nor does it track unemployment rates for newly released prisoners, even those under community supervision.
The Ohio Central School System, which covers the state prison system, enrolls only half of the state’s 50,000 inmates each year; it has granted more than 20,000 high school diplomas and GEDs over the past decade. Those numbers should increase, given the educational needs of inmates and the role of education and training in curbing recidivism.
Ohio requires all inmates without a high school diploma or GED to take at least six months of education and training programs, said Denise Justice, superintendent of the Ohio Central School System. Unlike Michigan, however, Ohio does not require that inmates leaving prison have a GED. Requiring inmates — with reasonable exceptions — to have at least a GED upon release would ensure that more of them leave prison prepared.
The RAND study could not determine which educational programs work best. However, the state correction department, working with private industry groups and community colleges, should ensure that their technical and vocational training and certificates are relevant to today’s labor market and economy.
The state should also expand college opportunities for inmates. Finally, the department should do more to help the growing number of inmates who want to start their own businesses.
Ohio has become a national leader in eliminating employment barriers — so-called collateral sanctions — for ex-offenders. Even so, job opportunities for the nearly 2 million Ohioans with criminal records are severely restricted, making self-employment more attractive.
Last month, 250 former inmates attended a Restored Citizens Summit at Columbus State Community College, sponsored by the Ohio Development Services Agency and other groups that offer services to former prisoners. Ex-inmates learned how to prepare for an interview and start a business. Some received professional clothing.
Local re-entry coalitions in Toledo and elsewhere should sponsor similar events, enlisting the help of local chambers of commerce, Urban League chapters, and other organizations that target small and minority-owned businesses.
DRC recently sponsored three pilot 10-week entrepreneurship programs. Using outside agencies, the in-prison programs taught inmates how to write a business plan and get financing. The state should expand those low-cost efforts to every prison, using successful ex-offenders as mentors.
Every person who returns to prison in Ohio costs taxpayers, on average, $25,000 a year. Those who stay out pay taxes, contribute to society, and sometimes even employ others.
Ohio is doing a lot right with prison education and re-entry. The new study shows why it’s vital to do even more.