The Role of Education in Breaking the Cycle of Incarceration

Posted on November 7, 2017

Try this: Flip two coins. You need both to land on heads to win. If either or both land on tails, you lose. That’s about a 25 percent chance of winning. It doesn’t sound very fair.

And yet, that’s actually a better chance than the average American in the criminal justice system has of staying out of prison after five years post release, which is about 23.4 percent. More than 40 percent of those who return to prison in the first five years do so in the first year.

Of course, going back to prison isn’t at all like flipping a coin. The consequences of incarceration are heavy and they affect individuals, families, and society: Wasted potential, stolen futures, broken families, mental and emotional trauma. The stigma incarceration brings upon an individual is a significant barrier to opportunity for individuals after release, but it’s only the beginning. Prison often strips individuals of the dream of what’s possible, of hope for a future. A criminal record makes the pursuit of employment, housing, financial stability, education, and more, a nearly unnavigable journey.

The tolls of incarceration are nearly endless.

More than two million Americans are behind bars in federal and state prisons. Nearly 700,000 are released every year, returning to communities and families they have not seen in years, trying to make their way with little to no resources, looking for work in job markets that will not offer it. With little opportunity in sight, old habits and the familiar past can seem like the only option.

Then, the cycle of incarceration is likely to repeat itself. The correctional system seems to set up individuals for failure, rather than success after prison.

We believe that every individual, no matter their past, has potential to use their talents and skills to improve their lives and the lives of others. A criminal record can add disproportionately undue obstacles to individuals returning to society in their pursuit to flourish.

Education: The Key to Unlocking Opportunity

That’s why we are partnering with several Stand Together Foundation Catalysts making transformational changes in the lives of individuals who are currently and were formerly incarcerated.

The key? For many, it’s education.

George Washington Carver once said that education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom—and that’s very true in a literal sense. With education, those who were formerly incarcerated are significantly less likely to return to a life of crime. They see the opportunities available to them through their education, that crime doesn’t have to be a way of life, that success can be attained in their communities, and that it can come through their hard work and unique talents. They can return to their communities with much more to offer, much more to gain, and a newfound sense of self-worth. They can achieve financial independence, find fulfillment in stable work, and with that independence, they can give back to their communities, helping to fight the cycle of poverty for their families and others.

Individuals who were formerly incarcerated and who received their GED or participated in other educational programs in prison dramatically improve their chances of finding employment post-release. Education not only opens more windows of opportunity by making more employment accessible—after all, those without a high school degree are ineligible for 90 percent of jobs—it also changes how we see the world, and how we see ourselves. When someone makes that investment in us, endowing us with the invaluable gift of knowledge, we see that we’re worth more than a life of crime.

Intensive studies have found that correctional education improves the chances that those released from prison will not return. It’s also been found to dramatically reduce the costs tax-payers shoulder for recidivism, and research has shown that, for each formerly incarcerated individual who receives it, the public saves hundreds of thousands of dollars. Considering how many individuals are currently in the criminal justice system, the economic impact of reducing recidivism rates is not just substantial; it’s startling.

Even more than the economic impact, the impact on individuals’ lives is unquantifiable. With the necessary support in place post-release, people really can have a second chance.

How Stand Together Foundation Catalysts are Breaking the Cycle of Incarceration through Education

Many organizations are working to provide individuals with education and entrepreneurship programs, with amazing results. Stand Together Foundation Catalysts utilize some of the best models in the prison education space.

Defy Ventures, a 2016 Stand Together Foundation Catalyst, harnesses the talents of men and women in prison or post-release, providing services like employment readiness and entrepreneurship training, and job placement, mentorship, and startup incubation and funding assistance. To date, Defy boasts a recidivism rate among formerly incarcerated clients of less than 5 percent, and a 95 percent employment rate. Additionally, Defy’s graduates have founded over 165 startups, creating over 350 jobs.

Hudson Link, a 2017 Stand Together Foundation Catalyst, delivers a quality college education to currently and formerly incarcerated individuals, providing an active alumni network to help students polish up on their job readiness skills and find long-term, fulfilling work. They have awarded over 500 degrees, allowing many of their graduates to leave prison and stay out: Hudson Link has less than a 4 percent recidivism rate. It costs $60,000 to incarcerate one individual per year, compared to the $5,000 it takes to provide them with a life-transforming education.

Café Momentum offers a restaurant training platform for young men and women exiting juvenile facilities, providing a 12-month paid, post-release internship program in one of the top-rated restaurants in Dallas. Participants are 68 percent less likely to return to prison, and Café Momentum alone has saved Texas taxpayers over $19 million in expenses to juvenile detention.

Getting Out and Staying Out (GOSO) provides emotional support, soft skills and job skills training, and educational opportunities to young American men with a record. With 75 percent of graduates hired, GOSO sees 171 job placements per year, with an 81 percent retention rate. Additionally, close to 90 percent of GOSO graduates stay out of prison, and 93 percent of participants who begin vocational training complete it.

At Stand Together Foundation, we believe education is one of the most powerful tools to fighting recidivism, reuniting families, strengthening communities, restoring social trust, and putting individuals on the path to success. We don’t believe prison or jail should be the end of the path for those with a record. We want to improve the chances of that coin flip for millions of Americans impacted by the criminal justice system so that they can transform their own lives and in doing so, give back to their communities and families. We’re empowering Catalysts to help individuals make those transformational changes in their communities to break the cycle of recidivism, and to break the cycle of poverty.