Going to prison is meant to be a jarring experience. Like being put in time-out when we were children, prison serves not only as a punishment, but as a chance for wrongdoers to temporarily disengage from society, to think through the actions that led them there and what will come after they are released. Unlike a time-out, though, federal inmates spend an average of 37.5 months, just over three years, in federal prison, according the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Lengthy sentences like these can make returning to society significantly more complicated than just going home. A lot can change in three years, or however long an inmate may be imprisoned. Society evolves quickly, and the individual an inmate is upon incarceration is not necessarily the individual he or she will be several years in the future. Prison essentially isolates inmates from outside society. This can be useful both as a punishment and public safety tactic, but if we want prisoners to emerge from their sentences to become productive members of society, we need to make education in prisons more focused on reentry and reintegration.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, most prisons across the United States offer some sort of correctional education program. Despite this, the U.S. has a national recidivism rate of more than 50 percent within one year of inmates’ release, a number which rises to more than 75 percent within five years of release, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics studies of more than 400,000 prisoners in 30 states.
These numbers are appalling. Our prison system is clearly broken if three-fourths of incarcerated individuals are re-arrested within five years of their release. Prisons should not be filled with a rotating cast of the same individuals. Education may not be the whole answer, but it certainly is a place to start.
Prison needs to be about more than just punishment. Incorporating a greater variety of educational opportunities into prison systems could have a positive impact on inmates while they are in the prison system as well as help lower recidivism rates nationwide.
Prison system education efforts should be focused on correctional and reentry education, which would prepare inmates for life outside of prison. A 2012 reentry education model released by the U.S. Department of Education stated that, for reentry education programs to make a real difference in national recidivism rates, the programs would need to be “well integrated into the corrections system by making it a critical component of intake and prerelease processes and closely linking it to support and employment services.” The report also proposes working with inmates to set career and education goals for life after their release.
Setting up reentry education programs would help prepare inmates to be contributing, working members of society post-release, effectively giving them tools with which to re-adjust to life outside the highly regulated prison system and resist returning to the crimes for which they were incarcerated initially. These programs, were they integrated into the national prison system and not only implemented in a select few prisons, have the potential to help reduce recidivism rates by teaching inmates valuable skills that can be applied to lawful, successful life post-release.
More than that, though, establishing reentry education programs in our prisons would be an invaluable first step toward reshaping the U.S. prison system into one that reforms, not just punishes. As we were all told time and time again as children, being put in a time-out is about learning a lesson, not just being penalized, and prison should be about education, not just consequences.