Cutting The Numbers

Educating to reduce recidivism

In Montana there are three primary obstacles that prevent offenders from achieving higher education. The first being the lack of development of effective policies to promote post secondary correctional education [PSCE], lack of legislative support, along with a serious lack of funding. There are still other significant obstacles including lack of adequate facilities and other structural and institutional obstacles that will prevent the implementation of an effective PSCE system. New and innovative policies are needed to overcome these obstacles.

At Montana State Prison, getting a college education seems like a fairy tale for most offenders. They know it would be a life-altering opportunity. Unfortunately, the majority of offenders are not academically prepared for college-level courses, less than 60% of State offenders nation-wide hold a GED or high school diploma. Currently MSP has GED prep classes, though there is a very long waiting list and offenders are passing the GED at a slow rate. The only vocational education provided at MSP is classes in automotive, diesel and welding, which are provided by Montana Correctional Enterprises. There are only approximately fifty slots per semester. These slots are often filled by students from the last semester, leaving little room for new enrollment.

The Open Society Institute, in 2002, found that 66% of Americans want the criminal justice system to emphasize the rehabilitation of offenders through education or job training programs rather than simply using prisons as a place to warehouse offenders who will eventually be released back into their communities. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed believe that current efforts to rehabilitate offenders have been unsuccessful. [Peter D. Hart Research Associates 2002] This belief is supported by high recidivism rates.

Rehabilitation efforts are hindered by an insistence of incarceration and little interest placed on rehabilitative programming. resentment from correctional staff over offenders being offered the opportunity to attend college causes other obstacles. Making post-secondary education available to corrections staff would reduce many of these resentments. If a PSCE system was in place for offenders, the instructors, textbooks, classrooms and equipment would already be available, and services could be provided low-cost to staff for professional development opportunities. new Mexico and Arkansas offer just such opportunities to their correctional staff.

The value of PSCE far outweighs any duplicity that may be implied. For correctional facilities, PSCE can improve security. Better communications between staff and offenders, positive peer role models and a dramatic reduction of disciplinary infractions are just a few positive changes that can be fostered by PSCE programming.[Taylor 1992] The greatest positive changes occur most often in the most incorrigible and violent prisoners. [Taylor 1994]

A study done at Bedford Hills, a maximum security prison in New York, mentioned that offenders enrolled in a college program became better able to judge the consequences of their actions and to take responsibility for them. As a result, offenders were more likely to see themselves as active participants in determining their own future and thus make choices that would improve their situation. [Fine et all 2001]

The most significant benefit of PSCE is improving employability upon release. Most offenders were unemployed or employed at very low-wage jobs prior to incarceration. After release, offenders also face the stigma of being an ‘ex-con’. This can lead most offenders to believe that they will not be able to find gainful employment. College education and/or vocational education can change this.

The largest contributer to the population of offenders is recidivism. Recidivism, whether new conviction or parole/probation violation, is a serious problem in Montana. Thirty-five years of PSCE recidivism studies consistently report statistically significant reductions in recidivism. Data suggests that better educated offenders are less likely to relapse into criminal behavior after release from prison. [Erisman & Contardo 2005] Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that correctional education, including post-secondary education, would help lower prison population. [Aos, Miller and Drake 2006] In 2007, Washington legislature provided an additional $5 million for PSCE to the DOC that year. The Virginia Dept of Correctional Education commissioned a study of their current programs in 2005. The study showed dramatic reduction in recidivism of those who participated in PSCE.

Recidivism is an enormous cost to the taxpayers of Montana. Between 2003 and 2008 the adult male institutional population increased by more than 25%. At a cost of $91.97 a day per inmate, this was an increase of $23.7 million to the taxpayers of Montana. Studies clearly demonstrate that offenders who participate in PSCE have lower recidivism rates. One analysis that examined 15 different studies conducted during the 1990s found that 14 of the 15 studies showed reduced recidivism for offenders who participated in PSCE, with an average reduction of 46% lower than non-participants. [Chappelle 2004]

New Mexico has been able to provide PSCE through Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell via high-speed network connection for 400 offenders at the cost of only $500 per inmate per year. This amount covers tuition, fees and books. The offenders are not able to access the internet to send email or view external web sites. Offenders do not have direct contact with instructors. Instead there are DOC facilitators who monitor the classes, answer questions and pass messages between students and faculty.

John J. DiIulia, a professor at Princeton University, states “..In prison systems cost-effective management is possible only because programs keep prisoners busy, with less supervision than you’d need otherwise… Especially with respect to certain types of prison educational programs, you save money by hiring fewer officers in the short run and reducing recidivism in the long run.” PSCE has been proven to be the most cost-effective rehabilitation programming opportunity in corrections.

Gail Hughes, the former deputy director of Missouri DOC, stated that the real goal of corrections is not to spend money but to produce a good product at a reasonable cost to society. The ‘product’ is a rehabilitated offender, that becomes a law-abiding, productive member of the community. This is not an easy task to accomplish with the current ‘throw away the key’ outlook. A PSCE system in Montana will turn an economic liability into an asset. Reducing recidivism through PSCE will save DOC, thus the State, millions of dollars and in the not-so-long run produce more income for the State through payroll taxes.

~Sam Belyaner, MSP

Leave a Reply