Cuts in Prison Education Put Illinois at Risk

A new report (PDF) by the John Howard Association has found a disturbing trend.

For much of the past decade, Illinois has allowed its prison vocational and academic programs to wither away. While the prison population has grown, the opportunity for inmates to learn a skill or earn postsecondary academic certificates has shrunk.

This negative trend is significant. Research shows overwhelmingly that vocational or academic education for people in prison mean they are much less likely to commit new offenses when released. Education protects the public from crime.

Now the pace of neglect is accelerating.

The seemingly endless fiscal crisis in Illinois state government means long delays in payments for community colleges, which are the backbone of vocational and higher education in the Illinois Department of Corrections. Some colleges are terminating classes, ending programs, and, in some cases, simply shutting down their efforts in the prisons.

Community colleges teach inmates how to work in restaurants, manage businesses, or clean offices. Academic programs allow inmates to earn credits towards a college degree.

There is no question that education helps people who leave prison avoid a return. Recidivism rates for individuals who take vocational or academic classes are as little as one-third that of inmates who study nothing.

When education reduces recidivism, it minimizes the financial and social costs of crime. Education does not cost the public money; it saves money.

The management of the Illinois Department of Corrections supports education in its prisons. But unless state government finds money to finance the community colleges, prison educational programs are certain to continue shrinking, and the public will be the victims.

Download JHA's full report here (PDF).

JHA's work on prison education is made possible through a generous grant by United Way of Metropolitan Chicago.