Reducing Inmate Illiteracy, and Our Taxes

The link between low educational achievement and incarceration is clear. About 75% of inmates in state prisons did not obtain a high school diploma (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2003). Students who drop out of high school are by some studies up to eight times more likely than high school graduates to end up in jail or prison (Bridgeland, Dilulio & Morison, 2006).

Moreover, recidivism is high, averaging over 60% when measured three years after inmates are released. As a result, our prison system is swollen with repeat offenders who comprise approximately 45% of state prison inmates (Pew Charitable Trusts, 2011). However, research overwhelmingly confirms that the more education inmates receive, the lower their recidivism rates. Studies show that obtaining a GED in prison reduces recidivism by 5 to 20 percentage points versus comparison groups (Nuttall, Hollmen, Staley, 2003) (Porporino, Robinson, 1992) (Siegel, 1997). Effects are more pronounced among younger offenders (Nuttall, Hollmen, Staley, 2003). If the inmate engages in post secondary education (industry certification or some college courses), recidivism drops by another 20 percentage points (Chappell, 2004).

Study after study make clear that education can yield large reductions in recidivism, and consequently, in the taxpayer expense of corrections. According to the state’s Legislative Accounting Office, it costs $47,000 per year to incarcerate an inmate in California. Cash strapped states need to focus on this.

Of course, not all inmates want to participate in education and industry certification, but our experience working with inmates is that if the program is managed correctly with the appropriate environment, most will. The expense need not be high either. At New Century Education Foundation, we are collaborating with another not-for-profit, Horizon Communities in Prison, to deliver Adult Basic Education programs that use a combination of re-furbished hardware, our specialized software and inmate tutors to deliver sustainable programs that completes an inmate’s basic literacy and education, gets them through the GED, and then through industry certification. The cost of Horizon’s program, including education, is less than $200 per inmate per year, much of it donated to Horizon. Moreover, Horizon demonstrates higher rates of GED completion and at lower program cost compared to alternative GED programs, when offered in the same prison. Under a five-year study, the measured recidivism rates for graduates of the Horizon program was 17% (Key, Denny, 2009).


Bridgeland, J., DiLulio, J., & Morison, K., (2006). The silent epidemic: Perspectives of high school dropouts. Washington, DC: Civic Enterprises.

Bureau of Justice Statistics, (2003). Education and Correctional Populations, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved from http:/ on January 20, 2013.

Bureau of Justice Statistics, (2006). Reentry Tends in the U.S., Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved from on January 20, 2013.

Chappell, C., (2004). Post-secondary correctional education and recidivism: A meta-analysis of research conducted 1990-1999, The Journal of Correctional Education, 55 (2), p 148 – 169.

Key, J., Denny, D., (2009). Efficacy of the Horizon Communities in Prison

Faith-Based Program. Unpublished Manuscript, University of Oklahoma

Nuttall, J., Hollmen, L., Staley, M., (2003). The Effect of Earning a GED on Recidivism Rates, Journal of Correctional Education, v.54 n3, p 90-94.

Pew Charitable Trusts, (2011). State of recidivism: The revolving door of Americas Prisons, Washington, DC.

Porporino, F., Robinson, D., (1992). The correctional benefits of education: A follow-up of Canadian federal offenders participating in ABE. Journal of Correctional Education, 43 (2), p 92-98.

Seigel, G.R., (1997). A research study to determine the effect of literacy and general educational development programs on adult offenders on probation. Tucson. AZ: Adult Probation Department of the Superior Court in Pima County.