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Work and Education for Offenders

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Kimberley Garth-James
July 29, 2019

To the enthusiasts of administrative efficiency in corrections (prisons) the objections to warehousing principles as the one way to manage prisoners are enduring as education and work resolutions are proven effective. High unemployment among offenders returning to the community is not a disputed hypothesis. This is true in the 1990-2010 scientific studies in the literature about effective reentry (or recidivism reduction) services and post-release outcomes for ex-convicts.

The National Institute of Justice grant-funded research about work (joint ventures) and education programs in 2010-2018, empirical studies by Canadians penal scholars such as Paul Gendreau as well as work by researchers Joan Petersilia and Kristine Szifris and colleagues about what does work to reform specific offenders can point away from the Nothing Works doomsaying. Currently, though, economic activity has been picking up; in the mid-2010s, and in 2018 reports that unemployment hover around 3.6 percent, labor participation rates exceeded 61 percent, and employment numbers for ethnic and racial minority groups are trending upwards.

 Offenders that return home—to family, community—are having a difficult time with employment without marketable job skills and education. Doomsayers are unsentimental about what works to help individual offenders wanting to reform through correctional education (e.g. basic, secondary, diploma and General Education Diploma (GED), English Second Language (ESL), financial and family literacy, certificate and college courses).

Under these circumstances, it makes sense to explore strategic public-private partnerships that provide workplace literacy, and job training, for the employability of ex-offenders, which can be particularly effective in training prisoners to address their employability risk factors (or ERFs). According to a 2001 Urban Institute Report the marginal reductions in individual recidivism rates can translate into noticeable safety gains; therefore, attention to behaviors of offenders through mentoring, work and education can result in substantial improvements upon return to neighborhoods.

Efficiency should remain central to American corrections reform, which is a value that public policy leaders can now accept based on the promising evidence. Empirical research about the progress in corrections education is summarized as individual offenders participating in education programs increases the likelihood of finding work. Annika Andersen, Noé Nava and Patricia Cortez’s 2018 work suggests that recidivism and corrections-based strategies are reducing individual offenders’ return to prison; literacy programs help with job preparation, financial literacy, family counseling and substance abuse interventions. Closing the gap on what works (and doesn’t work) for specific offenders using scientific evidence is necessary to recognize sensible justice policy for corrections reform.

Although marketable job skills training is essential, participation in prison-based education using technology may also have a statistically significant impact on recidivism and reentry. A critique of prison population management is negating the applicability of education technology which aims to build human relationships whether by face-to-face or distance education models. A feature of rehabilitation programs is to apply principles of what works for specific offenders to help rescue a generation of offenders that require correctional assistance. The efficiency critics want departments of corrections to determine the individual offenders desire and effort to reform and then provide the assistance through work and education.

Why not conceptualize efficient corrections that prioritize job skills training and literacy reflective of the modern demographic and economic situations? As John Rawls (1976) rightly observed of the principles of justice; and, elaborations by other scholars, a procedural (steps to help offenders with reform goals) proportional (reward effort on basis of individual effort) justice perspectives reflect a modern view of corrections according Bornstein’s 2007 work. If efficiency is a goal, then evidence can help in improving reentry outcomes for ex-convicts; taking a stand against policy limitations of overreliance on lock’em up and warehousing is a deliberative commitment to intellectual humanity.

In 2006, Sheldon Zhang  and colleagues study of parole prevention programs indicate individual offenders’ deciding to refrain from completing the conditions of correctional supervision programs will recidivate, but participants that focus on skill building experienced a 60 percent reduction in recidivism (see Wright, Zhang, Farabee and Braat’s 2014 ten-year study of prisoner reentry success with programs).

The preferences of corrections administrators about policy decisions requires quantifiable performance data. The structuring of education and work systems to help offenders reform can reduce recidivism and enhance reentry success is well-established. When criminal offenders land in prison, they can hardly be expected to concern themselves with the broader political issues that affect prison administration and management; they simply require, and hopefully want, proportional procedural justice and professional help to become productive members of their communities.


Author: Kimberley Garth-James, Fulbright Specialist in Public Policy and Administration; degrees are MPA (Administrative Management), MA International & Multicultural Education, and Doctor Public Administration.Experienced project manager, policy implementation advisor and public relations expert at the international, national and local levels regarding corrections, California Legislature Resolution Community Service honoree.Current professor & director MPA Program.

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