The case for education in prison

The case for education in prison
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As a nation, we are in desperate need of qualified workers and running out of places to look for them. Yet we also have millions of individuals sitting idle in prisons, 95 percent of whom will eventually be released. Sadly, our justice system has an abysmal record of preparing these individuals for life beyond concrete walls, especially when it comes to helping them enter the job market. In fact, one year after their release, over 60 percent of all formerly incarcerated individuals in the nation are still unemployed.

For those lucky few who do find employment, they are paid an average of 40 percent less than those with no criminal record. These individuals represent a potential pool of untapped resources for employers looking to hire new workers. But in order to ensure that the formerly incarcerated are suited for the modern workforce, we need to increase opportunities for them to receive an education while behind bars. So offering inmates postsecondary correctional education would provide a new world of opportunities for both these individuals and many business owners.

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Employers are looking for college educated individuals more than ever. One study found that 61 percent of hiring managers have increased their educational requirements because skills for their positions have evolved and now require higher levels of education. The type of work that is available to job seekers is changing as well. The Center on Education and the Workforce based at Georgetown University found that by next year, “employers will seek cognitive skills such as communication and analytics from job applicants rather than physical skills traditionally associated with manufacturing.” For those seeking jobs, this means that the likelihood of attaining work will increase with greater access to higher education.

Businesses thrive when they hire educated employees. When employers have the option to hire from a larger pool of well educated candidates, they can strengthen their productivity and competitiveness. Investing in the educational futures of potential employees can add to the supply. By investing in postsecondary correctional education in particular, employers can help meet their own business demands for highly skilled employees.

When businesses experience financial growth, employees also benefit through increased job stability and higher wages. For those formerly incarcerated reentering the workforce, the routine and responsibility of employment offer financial support and the ability to build a life removed from past habits that might otherwise lead to reoffending, which is key here. Although recidivism rates have improved somewhat, they are still alarmingly high with an estimated three-fifths of those released from prison are convicted of a new offense within five years of their release.

Higher wages for employees also translate to “stronger property values, better infrastructure, and more opportunities for investment.” Together, this means that access to postsecondary correctional education can not only be transformative for those directly affected, but can also bolster businesses and communities by producing a stronger and safer world.

By expanding the pool of hirable candidates to include more formerly incarcerated individuals with a postsecondary education, businesses across the nation can increase their market competitiveness and support returning citizens in society. It is therefore in the best interest of the business community to support postsecondary education in prison.

Arthur Rizer is the criminal justice and civil liberties director at the R Street Institute and an adjunct professor of law at George Mason University. He served as a former police officer and a federal prosecutor. Jesse Kelley is the government affairs manager and the criminal justice and civil liberties manager at the R Street Institute. He is a former legislative counsel on state advocacy campaigns and has practiced criminal defense law in Alabama.