Education in Adult Basic Skills Can Contribute to Reducing Incarceration and Alleviating Poverty
The Open Door Collective (ODC) is dedicated to reshaping U.S. society to have dramatically less poverty and economic inequality and more civic engagement and participation in all society has to offer. ODC is composed of a diverse group of stakeholders representing key domains such as adult basic education, health, criminal justice, immigrant rights, employment, and social services, who believe that adult basic skills and lifelong learning programs open doors of opportunity to healthier, more prosperous, and satisfying lives. We advocate for the inclusion of adult basic education, including English language, basic literacy, numeracy, high school equivalency, college readiness, and technology skills, as an integral part of a larger agenda of reducing poverty and income inequality, broadening civic participation, and moving us closer to the kind of society in which we all want to live. The paper that follows is part of a series that is published by ODC.
Introduction The incarceration rate in the United States is higher than in any country in the world. Over 1.5 million people are in jails and prisons, a fivefold jump since 1980. Incarceration is a key driver of poverty for many children and families in the USA. A parent’s incarceration impacts the economic well-being of the entire family—one in four children over the last thirty years has had an incarcerated parent. Post release, an adult with a criminal record faces barriers to employment, housing, public assistance, and other supports to further their education, or build good credit. The system condemns millions of people and their families to cycles of poverty.
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Education acknowledged that state and federal adult education, career and technical education (CTE), and postsecondary education programs have not kept pace with the growing prison population. Additionally, formerly incarcerated individuals cite education, job training, and employment as vital needs not generally met during incarceration or after release. Yet, providing incarcerated individuals with the education, job skills, and resources required to avoid reoffending can save public resources in the long run by reducing recidivism and by contributing to the alleviation of second-generation poverty. Although not the only contributor, education is a key piece in the system providing resources to support incarcerated individuals toward re-entry success. The Open Door Collective asserts that adult basic skills matter for the criminal justice and re-entry systems.
Adult Basic Education Programs (ABE) Adult Basic Education, or ABE, in the USA comprises state and federally funded adult schools and basic education programs. The ABE system focuses on basic skills for adults who have not completed high school, or have limited English language skills, and are at least sixteen years old. Each year, about 1.5 million adults participate in publicly funded programs under Title II, Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). States also provide state and local public matching funds.
Why Adult Basic Education Matters in the Criminal Justice System Like other adult learners, incarcerated individuals bring numerous strengths and background experiences to adult education programs in correctional facilities. Still, incarcerated individuals tend to be less well educated and have fewer job skills than the general population, and have lower literacy, with an average of a fifth-grade reading level. A 2003 study noted that at least 62% of participants in a three-state correctional education study had not completed high school and were tested, on average, as having reading, math, and language skills at a pre-high school level. Adults with learning disabilities are overrepresented in prisons, with estimates ranging from 10% to 26% compared with the general population (6%).
Approximately 87% of all state and federal correctional facilities have an education program, and more than 75% have adult basic and adult secondary education (ASE) programs, yet these programs have not kept pace with expanding prison populations. Only approximately 2% of state and federal prisoners participate in ABE and an estimated 20% participate in ASE. While incarcerated adults need such programs, participation rates have declined. Citing a 2008 study, a 2012 RAND report notes that “only 27% of state prison inmates reported having participated in vocational training; 19% reported having participated in secondary education programs [such as GED® preparation]; 2% in adult basic education; and 7% in adult postsecondary education programs.” Programs vary across states and across systems (including private prisons), so reasons for nonparticipation are unclear but range from lack of funding to lack of awareness of the programs. Prisoners, who often cannot afford to pay for postsecondary education, must rely on public or other funding for education programs; as a result, lack of access to Pell grants has hindered postsecondary education efforts. In July 2016, President Barack Obama inaugurated a pilot program called Second Chance Pell to serve up to 12,000 students who are eligible for release, especially in the next five years.
Is Education Effective in Reducing Recidivism? Facing high unemployment rates, a return to impoverished communities, and limited supports to re-entry, over two-thirds of incarcerated individuals are rearrested after release from prisons, and half go back to prison within three years of release. There is little theory to connect education and recidivism; we know that education reduces recidivism, but frequently do not how or why. One thing, however, is clear across all studies of the past thirty years: participants in ABE and high school equivalency (HSE) programs were almost one and a half times as likely to experience reduced recidivism compared with nonparticipants in meta-analyses (41% of program participants, versus 50% of a comparison group recidivating).
While earlier methodological concerns hampered studies of recidivism in the 1990’s, a growing body of recent evidence is more robust. This research supports MacKenzie’s 2006 conclusion that correctional education “programs are effective in reducing recidivism,” as does Lois M. Davis’s 2012 RAND Corporation report. Davis found that those participating in any kind of education program—from life skills to HSE—experienced a 13% reduction in recidivism; for postsecondary education, the reduction in risk of recidivism was 16%, a “substantial reduction.” Adult state and federal prisoners with HSE credentials or high school diplomas scored higher on measures of literacy and numeracy in 2003 than did those without. Seven in ten prisoners who had an HSE credential reported obtaining it while in prison.
Adult Education Supports the Integration and Reentry Process “The whole enterprise of correctional education—the teachers, the volunteers, the classrooms, the books, the computers—helps humanize correctional facilities and plays a key role in relieving inmate stress and frustration by focusing incarcerated individuals on positive and constructive activities and relationships.…More than that, educational programs help elevate the mission and professionalism of corrections from one of warehousing individuals to one of preparing individuals for their futures.” – Stefan Lobuglio, Chief of Pre-Release and Reentry Services, Montgomery County (Maryland) Department of Correction and Rehabilitation
Education can improve skills in decision-making and social behavior, thus playing “a critical role in maintaining security and order within correctional facilities.” Receiving an HSE or post-secondary credential signals positive messages to an employer about the returning prisoner’s ability and achievements.
Return on Investment of Adult Education Programs State correctional agencies spend an average $12 million per year for correctional education programs, or an estimated 1% to 3% of their total budget, even though funding has not increased in relation to growth of the prison population. Brazzell et al. note in their 2009 study, “Education programs are often the first to go during budget cuts, either because they are viewed by correctional administrators as nonessential or because legally required services such as medical care and sanitary living conditions must be given priority.”
Davis notes that for every dollar spent on education in prisons, four to five dollars can be saved in reincarceration costs. She states, “Just to break even, you'd only have to reduce the risk of reincarceration by one to two percentage points. But, the fact that there is a 13-point reduction in risk means you really are achieving substantial cost savings.”
In Maryland alone, reduction in recidivism as a result of education programs “saved the state over $24 million per year, twice the state’s investment in its correctional education program.” And this reduction does not consider other savings in costs for police, justice and social services. Moreover, those who are no longer committing crimes become taxpayers and can support their families. There are also calculations that $1,182 per prisoner invested in vocational training can save $6,806 in future criminal justice costs, and $962 per prisoner invested in academic education (basic, secondary, and postsecondary) can save $5,306 in criminal justice costs.
Barriers Employment is stipulated as a condition of parole for many incarcerated adults; unemployment can send individuals back to prison. A prison record, though, is often a barrier to employment, trapping people in a Catch 22. A number of solutions are being explored, from expungement to “blocking the box,” i.e., removing questions from employment applications that ask about prior convictions for nonviolent crimes.
A prison’s approach to maintaining security and order can also constrain education efforts. “A correctional facility is not, first and foremost, a school or a classroom. The vast majority of correctional administrators prioritize a safe and secure facility above all else.” Even though educational programming can “promote institutional security rather than threaten it,” correctional administrators or officers may limit access. “By improving in-prison behavior and promoting adjustment to prison, education programs can play a critical role in maintaining security and order within correctional facilities” .
Future Areas of research: In addition to providing adult education, we must change structural, political, and economic constraints that limit opportunity for the formerly incarcerated, and explore reforms such as revised sentencing guidelines, reduced sentences for nonviolent crimes or diversion programs, and assistance for mental health, addiction, and substance abuse, all less costly in dollars and in damage to society than incarceration. More research is needed to discern what kinds of correctional education provide the best returns, post-release. More studies are needed that evaluate post-release programs in the community—evaluations considering results for formerly incarcerated in the context of the general population.
Conclusion: Education in Adult Basic Skills Can Alleviate Poverty for Incarcerated and Previously Incarcerated Individuals Although education in adult basic skills alone cannot alleviate poverty, it does contribute toward increasing economic opportunities for the previously incarcerated. On release, many adults return to impoverished communities. With increased education, access to jobs, and earnings, committing a crime becomes less attractive. Advocates for criminal justice reform need to raise adult basic skills as a priority issue: in agendas for public policy advocacy, in advancement of research, and in community efforts to reduce poverty.
Authors of this article were Petrice Sams-Abiodun, PhD, New Orleans, LA; Margaret Becker Patterson, PhD, Vienna, VA; and Janet Isserlis, MA, Providence, RI.
 D. Brazzell, A. Crayton, D. A. Mukamal, A. L. Solomon, and N. Lindahl, “From the classroom to the community: Exploring the role of education during incarceration and reentry,” Washington, DC: The Urban Institute, 2009, p. 2, available at johnjay.jjay.cuny.edu/files/Roundtable_Monograph.pdf; G. G. Gaes, “The Impact of Prison Education Programs on Post Release Outcomes,” Reentry Roundtable on Education, March 31 and April 1, 2008, p. 3; D. B. Wilson, C. A. Gallagher, and D. L. MacKenzie, “A meta-analysis of corrections-based education, vocation, and work programs for adult offenders,” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 37, no. 4 (2000): p. 347; D. L. MacKenzie, What Works in Corrections: Reducing the Criminal Activities of Offenders and Delinquents (Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 69.
 Lois M. Davis, Robert Bozick, Jennifer L. Steele, Jessica Saunders, and Jeremy N. V. Miles, Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education: A Meta-Analysis of Programs That Provide Education to Incarcerated Adults, a RAND study for the Bureau of Justice Assistance, 2013, available at www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR200/RR266/RAND_RR266.sum.pdf; citing A. Crayton and S. R. Neusteter, “The Current State of Correctional Education,” paper prepared for the Reentry Roundtable on Education, New York: John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Prisoner Reentry Institute, 2008.
 Davis et al., Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education, p. 4.
 E. Greenberg, E. Dunleavy, and M. Kutner, Literacy Behind Bars: Results from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy Prison Survey, Institute for Education Services (IES) National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, NCES 2007-473, May 2007, p. 28.
 Crayton and Neusteter, “The Current State of Correctional Education,” p. 7.
 Brazzell et al., “From the classroom to the community,” p. 3.
 Steurer, Smith, and Tracy, Education Reduces Crime, p. 2.
 S. Aos, M. Miller, and E. Drake, “Evidence-Based Adult Corrections Programs: What Works and What Does Not,” Washington State Institute for Public Policy, #06-01-1201, January 2006; Brazzell et al., “From the classroom to the community,” p. 19.
 Gaes, “The Impact of Prison Education Programs on Post Release Outcomes,” p. 11.
 Brazzell et al., “From the classroom to the community,” p. 18.
 A. Bazos and J. Hausman, Correctional Education as a Crime Control Program, Los Angeles, Calif.: UCLA School of Public Policy and Research, Department of Policy Studies, March 2004, p. 4; Brazzell et al., “From the classroom to the community,” p. 17. Service One