What does it say about our Corrections Department that the majority of inmates released from prison every year are rearrested?

Of the nearly 700,000 prisoners who will get out of prison this year, almost half a million of them will get rearrested within a few years for another crime. That’s half a million people cycling through the proverbial revolving door every year.

Aren’t prisons supposed to be reforming prisoners?  And since when do we put up with such colossal fiscal failures when tax dollars ($80 billion!!) are involved?

Prison and corrections costs have been the second fastest growing budget item for states, despite flattening rates of incarceration. The system is not working by anyone’s standards. 

Here are the original four Purposes of Prison:

  • Retribution: When a criminal commits a crime, he has to pay a debt back to society. That is serving time in prison. 
  • Incapacitation: Prisons keep dangerous criminals off the streets so they can’t commit another crime.
  • Deterrence: Prisons discourage people from committing future crimes
  • Rehabilitation: Prisons train and teach offenders to live a non-criminal life when they return to society. 

Correctional facilities, by and large, don’t even pretend to rehabilitate anymore. In the mid-80s, prison training and treatment programs were slashed to pay for the explosive costs of mass incarceration. 

It’s no wonder we have hundreds of thousands of criminals revolving through the system, which means we’re probably not doing a great job at deterrence anymore either. 


So what are evidence-based solutions that work? What causes a newly-released inmate from going back to a life of crime — and what prevents it? 

The leading predictors of low recidivism rates are education and employment. Education and job training are better predictors, in fact, than an inmate’s previous crimes: 

The more education an inmate has, the less likely he’ll commit another crime. If he’s employed, all the better. (Some job-training programs, especially the ones that offer full-service help, boast recidivism rates of close to zero.)

So what can be done?


There are highly motivated prisoners dead-set on living a law-abiding life. We need to help them prepare for life on the outside, but we don’t have to worry much about recidivism. There are also hard-core convicts everyone expects will be back because it’s just that obvious. Target the prisoners in the middle.

  • Create nationwide volunteer program for teaching inmates, like “Teach for America” has for schools. 
  • Create programs that offer inmates pre-approved college loans to pay on release.
  • Offer Life Skills on how to behave, plan and provide: family and parenting skills, anger management, cognitive training, substance abuse advice, goal-setting, financial skills.
  • Offer programs in substance abuse treatment, mental health treatment, health care, family counseling, literacy and housing assistance.
  • Offer vocational training programs that teach modern, practical skills for today’s job market and that align with the workforce needs of the state.
  • Tap into business/entrepreneurial skills of inmates for future entrepreneurships
  • Offer an industry or apprenticeship board-recognized certification reentry programs within 12 months of release
  • Increase standards and awareness-training for Correctional Officers. It’s not a job for anyone, but that’s exactly who they’re hiring. In prisons near urban cities, many guards are on the gangs’ payrolls or in gangs themselves. In rural areas, prisons are so desperate for employees, they’ll hire kids who’ve only been out of high school for a couple years.  
  • Like our law enforcement agencies working outside of prisons, it only takes a few bad apples to intimidate the less aggressive, more sympathetic prison guards into submission. They learn about the code of silence the hard way if they get involved in another guard’s abuse of prisoners. Screen and remove COs with the most behavioral misconduct violations.  
  • Eliminate Solitary Confinement for juveniles, limit how long prisoners can be held, find alternatives.
  • According to the Human Rights Group, prisoners have the basic rights and/or access TO: 
      • activities and education that help them reach their character’s full potential.
      • conditions that allow them to find and keep unemployment upon release. 
      • the best conditions possible to help them reintegrate into society, with help from the community and social institutions. 
      • the same health care available outside prisons. 
  • Corrections systems too often do a disservice to the ties between prisoners and their loved ones when family is very key to their return to a crime-free life.
  1.  MEASURE & TRACK Everything — then FUND WHAT WORKS
  • Improve data analysis on what is and isn’t working. Increase oversight to prisons with high recidivism. Rate job training programs based on their ability to find employment in occupations with a livable wage.

Since one of the best deterrents to returning to prison is having a job, and since those who receive vocational skills training are more likely to find jobs with higher wages after release, it’s as clear as day that spending resources on reducing recidivism beats paying for it in the future. The same goes with addicts in prison. Those who go through intensive drug treatment programs in prison are less likely to relapse outside of it. 

Two researchers studied how much it’d cost society for a high-risk youth who becomes a chronic offender and they came up with between $4 and $7 million — depending on his crimes and medical care. We’ll have to pay that now or pay later, and it’s a lot better for society if we pay for it now.