Proposal to educate prisoners will benefit society, save money
It’s not one of the more famous scenes from the 1994 classic film “The Shawshank Redemption,” but it’s one that’s stuck with me.
Brooks Hatlen, a criminal in prison for over 50 years, is awarded parole and walks out of the prison gates. But finding it impossible to adjust to the outside world after a half-century in jail, he hangs himself after just a short time after being released.
The lesson: It’s hard in the outside world after being an inmate for so long. In the movie, Hatlen’s suicide is a tragic end to a tragic life spent mostly behind bars. But for many inmates, it’s not suicide that is in their futures but a return to crime — and then prison.
Imagine: You’ve just been let out of prison and need to reintegrate back into society. You need a job — but as we all know, it’s hard to find one these days. And it’s harder still if you have a prison record and no recent experience.
You may lack certain valuable employment skills, making the task of starting a new life that much more challenging. You probably have fewer legitimate job connections than the average person seeking work. You might also be maladjusted to the outside world, or even to the prospect of living a normal life away from crime.
Faced with these daunting prospects, many former inmates do choose to return to crime — after which they get caught and return to jail. And we pay to start the incarceration process all over again.
This is by no means excusing criminal activity. This is illustrating the poor choices we offer released inmates — telling them to reintegrate into society but not giving them the tools to help them do so. In fact, about half of all released inmates in the United States will generally end up behind bars within three years. For New York, the period between 2004 and 2007 saw recidivism of 39.9 percent.
Something’s wrong here. If you’re only slightly more likely to be “corrected” than “uncorrected” after serving time in jail, we have a serious problem with our corrections process.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has suggested a plan that would alleviate some of these problems, save money and improve public safety all in one fell swoop. Prisoners would have the chance — if they meet certain qualifications — to pursue an associate or bachelor’s degree at an extremely low initial cost to taxpayers.
How much money are we talking about? It currently costs $60,000 a year to incarcerate each prisoner in New York state. Cuomo’s proposal means a $5,000 per-participant investment each year — one that is shown to dramatically drop the recidivism rate, and on top of it save us money in the long run.
A recent RAND study of three decades’ worth of prison education and recidivism statistics concluded that if, as an inmate, you go through some sort of prison education program, you are, astoundingly, 43 percent less likely to end up back in jail.
In short: If you give prisoners an education, you’re going to get demonstrably fewer numbers of them going back to crime once they’re out.
Is it worth it?
Opponents of such proposals, though, don’t like the idea of spending money on prisoners when families are struggling and education is as expensive as it is. Should we really be investing in those who broke our social contract?
First of all, it’s not as if Cuomo’s plan means you’d go to prison and come out with a Harvard Ph.D. It means you go to prison, serve your time and come out with some hope of reintegrating into the real world.
And if this whole thing saves us money, then the answer should be a resounding yes.
RAND came to the conclusion that, in order to be cost-effective, there would generally need to be about a 1.9 to 2.6 percent drop in the three-year reincarceration rate for an education program to break even.
In fact, decades of data have shown that, on average, prison education programs show a 13 percent drop in general recidivism. That’s huge.
So the fiscal burden on taxpayers is actually nonexistent. This plan saves us money.
Thus, the fiscally conservative option is to invest the money now so we don’t have to spend more later. Do the opponents of prison education think it’s better to forgo that extra $5,000 a year now, and then end up spending $60,000 a year or more down the road when many of those same people end up back behind bars?
The choice is this simple. We should give prison inmates the chance to get an education, and to turn their lives around. It will help them, and it will help us.
Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.