Reducing Recidivism with Education

Co-authored by Dr. Melissa Swisher, Lecturer, Purdue University

There are around 2.3 million people incarcerated across the United States. For comparison, there are 329.1 million people living in the United States. Thus, almost 1% of the population is in prison. A system operating on this massive scale should be effective, but the prison system isn’t. According to Johnson (2019, June 18), neither prison nor probation is successful in preventing former inmates from reoffending. In fact, the national recidivism rate is 67.5%. Almost 1.2 million inmates are in prison for minor parole/probation infractions like failing a drug test or missing a curfew. This might sound like a problem for the prisoners and not society as a whole, but the cost of sending reoffenders back to prison is $2.8 billion per year. That’s like mandating that a person do a juice cleanse after it didn’t work the first time; it isn’t likely to work the second time, either.

“The Supreme Court” by WEBN-TV is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

From a behavioral perspective and in an overly simplified way, prison and its associated fines are based on negative punishment. Negative punishment or time-out procedures (Donaldson & Vollmer, 2011; Mace, Page, Ivancic, & O’Brien, 1986; White, Nielsen, & Johnson, 1972) decrease inappropriate behavior (e.g. crime) by removing something the person has (e.g., independence, freedom, or money). Prison as negative punishment violates three principles of effective behavior change procedures: Incarceration doesn’t occur immediately after committing a crime; it doesn’t occur every time a crime is committed; and it doesn’t teach an alternative response. To put it another way, no one would speed if they received a large fine while they were driving too fast, every time they drove too fast, and had another way to get somewhere quickly. First, removing personal freedoms immediately might work in the short-term to reduce the number of infractions an inmate commits via incapacitation, but people tend to go to prison months after they break the law (e.g., Paul Manafort). Delayed punishers are much less effective in reducing inappropriate behavior than are immediate punishers (Trenholme & Baron, 1975). Second, incarceration would deter crime if inmates were reliably sent to prison after every criminal act (Barton, Brulle, & Repp, 1987; Clark, Rowbury, Baer, & Baer, 1973; DeArmond, 1966; Donaldson & Vollmer, 2011; Powell & Morris, 1969) instead of after a few crimes had been committed. Third, jail would deter crime if inmates learned an alternative response instead of violating laws (Herman & Azrin, 1964; Mace et al., 2010; Piazza, Moes, & Fisher, 1996). We’ll focus on this third option to generate lasting behavioral changes.

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To discourage prisoners from committing more crimes and returning to prison, inmates could receive an education and potentially secure a job once released (the alternative response). According to the National Center for Education Statistics Blog (2017, Jan 11) 30% of 1,300 prisoners sampled in a 2014 study didn’t have a high school education. A significant percentage of those prisoners also hadn’t learned basic literacy or mathematics skills that might be required for many jobs. According to the Prison Studies Project, inmates are less likely to return to prison after receiving a degree. In fact, the higher the degree, the less likely they are to become reoffenders. Educating current inmates works better at reducing violence within prisons and reduces recidivism rates more than boot camps, shock therapy, and vocational training. Children who see their parents receiving an education while in prison also take their own education more seriously. Several universities participate in prisoner education programs, and Washington University in St. Louis graduated their first cohort of 10 prisoners with associate degrees in liberal arts. Through the Prison Education Project, the prison staff and prisoners take classes from Washington University faculty. This program and the almost 200 others like it are promising solutions to the high recidivism rates because none of the graduates from the Bonne Terre corrections facility have returned to prison (Bernhard, 2019, May 22). If prisoners were allowed to apply for Second Chance Pell program grants, then around 451,000 more people would be able to earn degrees while incarcerated (Smith, 2019, Jan 16).

Courtroom by Jospe in the Public Domain

In addition to general education programs helping prisoners, there are prison animal programs in which inmates rehabilitate difficult dogs for adoption, train service dogs, or train foster cats (Corley, 2019, Jul 18; Jacobo, 2019, Feb 2; Patriot Paws; Villagomez, 2019, Mar 27; Zachariah, 2015, Dec 29). Applied behavior analysts who learn shaping techniques work in zoos (Forthman & Ogden, 1992; Mahoney, 2016, Apr 24; Maple & Segura, 2015), open their own animal training practices (e.g., The Brelands’ IQ-Zoo, Karen Pryor’s Clicker Training Academy, Laura’s Dog School), and sometimes train animals for government agencies (Poling et al., 2010; Vanderbilt, 2013, Oct). Once inmates learn these animal training techniques and the science behind them, they’ll have flexible career opportunities upon their release.

Behavior analysts can help inmates in other ways as well (see also Cathey & Ward, 2018, June 14; Ellis, 1989; Fraley, 1994). Contingency management programs (Burdon, St. de Lore, & Prendergast, 2011; Dallery & Raiff, 2011; Kirby, Kerwin, Carpnendo, Rosenwasser, & Gardner, 2008; Silverman et al., 2007) and acceptance and commitment therapy (cf. Ford, 2019, Feb 27; Wilson & Byrd, 2004) can help inmates with substance abuse problems (see also The Rational Addict). Former prisoners on probation who can remain abstinent with the help of their contingency management or positive behavioral reinforcement intervention program will be able to pass their drug tests and stay out of prison longer.

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Many teachers enter education because they believe that education can transform lives. Teachers who are also behavior analysts are doubly idealistic about the power of science to help people. If education can remove those barriers to successful careers for current and former inmates and reduce recidivism, it seems unethical to deny prisoners that opportunity. Even though the prison system won’t suddenly change into an effective deterrent for crime, smaller changes like enrolling prisoners in GED or college degree programs can have a big impact on the lives of prisoners and their families.