Readers: this blog is set in the future (sometime after the year 2020). Each entry assumes there has been a 5th revolution in the US — the Revenge Revolution. More about the Revenge Revolution and author, How the 5th US Revolution Begins and About the AuthorOccasionally I do a “sense check” about the likelihood of a Revenge Revolution.  Entry #318 is the most recent “sense check.”  One more note — sometimes I write about another topic that does not quite fit the theme of the blog.  Those comments are available on the page titled “JRD Thoughts and Comments.” 

In the entry describing the coming technology tsunami (#319), I suggested a way to help mitigate the impact of the inevitable tsunami was increasing support for public education. Here’s another aspect of public education that needs more discussion.

Educating people in prison? Why? “Those people” don’t deserve it. Just another cockamamie socialist idea. Plus, there are lots of people more deserving than criminals.

All those arguments are true until one looks at the picture another way. Ask yourself these questions:

  • As a taxpayer, would you rather have someone else pay taxes or would you rather pay more taxes?
  • Would you rather have less crime or pay more taxes for prisons and law enforcement?
  • If you want more manufacturing jobs in the US, would you like to have a large pool of skilled workers?

Yes, yes, yes! But I still don’t understand why taxpayers should provide a free education to those incarcerated. Just doesn’t seem fair.

OK, some aspects might not seem fair. But how many people want to be incarcerated just to get a free education? Maybe, just maybe we…societal we…should also rethink why getting advanced technical training or a college degree is so expensive. (Let’s save that discussion for another entry.)

Why educate prisoners? Put societal benefits side and take a hard look at the financial side – return on investment, ROI. For taxpayers, it is cheaper over time to provide a college education than to incarcerate most prisoners. Keep reading. You’ll be shocked at the ROI.

What is the incremental cost to educate prisoners with a technical or college degree?

  1. Room and board? No, it’s already being paid for.
  2. Most support costs are already paid
  3. No incremental funds for sports teams, recruiting students, and the like

What remains are incremental costs for: (i) instructors who meet standards of an accredited college or university; (ii) remedial training instructors for those prisoners requiring such training; (iii) coursework material; (iv) classroom hardware, much of which could be used for other activities; (v) other miscellaneous expenses, although likely not significant.

As a gauge for comparing cost, let’s take the cost of tuition only per year at three state universities: (i) Michigan State, $14,460; (ii) NC State, $6,535: (iii) UC-Davis, $14,463. The average in-state tuition for the three is $11,819.

Now, let’s assume that 50% of the tuition is allocated to incremental costs outlined previously, On that basis, someone in prison earning a degree in say five (5) years would cost the taxpayer an additional roughly $30,000. (Annual tuition x 50% x 5)

What’s the ROI for taxpayers? That depends on several factors, including time to be served in prison. Time to be served…and therefore expense to taxpayers for each prisoner…has been increasing. While the average time varies by state, the trend is for longer sentences, with the average sentence having increased roughly five (5) years from 2000 to 2014. (Source) Five years is a reasonable estimate for a prisoner to secure additional technical training or undergraduate degree. Time required could be less since prisoners can likely devote more time to studying.  I mean, how much party time is there in prison?

By earning a degree, a prisoner could earn an early release – say one for one. And why not? Staying in prison after having acquired marketable tech skills or an undergraduate degree is not productive for the prisoner or beneficial to society. Plus, an early release avoids taxpayers footing the bill to house prisoners — national average of $30,000 per year. In some states the cost for housing prisoners exceeds $60,000 per year.

What’s the estimated ROI to taxpayers for an education program? For prisoners in their 20’s and even up to age 30, what’s the ROI for taxpayers…without any recognition of reduced cost of law enforcement, reduced court support costs, safer neighborhoods, etc.? The ROI to taxpayers is 700%. For prisoners say age 35-40, the ROI is 400%.

(I realize there are many variables and one must make numerous assumptions but the results are so striking that the idea seems worth analyzing in more detail. The ROI calculation for this entry is available on an Excel worksheet. (19 03 03 #326 Cost Avoided Educating Prisoners) Feel free to analyze the assumptions and calculations. Keep in mind, as with other entries, the purpose of this blog is to stimulate conversation and more analysis, not create another master’s thesis.)

Will some former prisoners commit crimes and return to prison? Of course. But it is hard to argue that society is worse off with fewer prisoners and lower costs for operating prisons. Plus, there would be more people paying taxes.

Will some people commit crimes just to secure a free education? Yes, but so what? This concern indicates why the US needs to restructure its education system to allow all residents an opportunity to have an affordable advanced education.

While educating prisoners might seem more like socialism to many, look at the problem of incarceration from a different angle:

  1. US has the highest incarceration rate and cost of incarceration of any developed country. Reducing incarceration rates will reduce taxpayer cost…and crime.  Some classes will need to address anger management and why the individual committed the crime(s);
  2. In order to maintain competitiveness worldwide, the US needs more skilled workers. The prison system offers a substantial pool of potential skilled workers. For technical skills, the incremental cost of training prisoners is probably less than training workers from the general populace. Prisoners can also produce products while learning. In my undergrad days, virtually all the furniture in the fraternity house was made by prisoners. The furniture wouldn’t have won any design awards but it was high quality and withstood severe use;
  3. Educating prisoners eliminates the need to build new prisons. By educating prisoners, say 30-35%, and possibly up to 50%, of the existing prisons could be eliminated. The highest cost to taxpayers is not the cost of building the prison facility. The highest cost is compensation for staff to operate the prison. Most of an organization’s overhead cost walks in every day on two feet.
  4. The net cost of educating prisoners is not really a net cost to taxpayers. Educating prisoners is really a net savings to taxpayers. With a properly structured education program, including managing the underlying cause for incarceration, a substantial portion of prisoners could become taxpayers instead of tax users.

Why don’t more members of Congress, especially Republicans, support the idea of educating people in prison? Why do many representatives in legislatures continue to believe putting more people in prison and leaving them uneducated is smart policy?

Beats me. Like many policies from trickle-down economics to denial of climate change, the idea of not supporting education for those incarcerated, especially among Republicans, seems to have no facts to support. Rather the policies seem based more “gut feel” and what plays well with hard-core supporters rather than what’s right for the country.