Faculty & Staff / Social Justice

Private Prisons and the End of Rehabilitation

Greta Ferkel, M.M.Ed., is Executive Dean of Adler University’s Global Campus. A member of the University’s Leadership Team, she holds more than 20 years of experience leading online education program development, management, assessment, and student support.

Each year, nearly 700,000 people are released from prison in the United States. Within three years, 40 percent of them will go right back. According to a 2014 study by RAND Corporation, educated offenders have much lower recidivism rates than those who are released but received no education while incarcerated. These findings suggest that a major factor in our criminal justice system’s failure to rehabilitate is a basic lack of education.

A review of the InMateAid website reveals that only 28 out of the 50 states have any kind of education program listed, meaning 44 percent offer nothing—a number that correlates closely to the overall recidivism rate. More generally, states consistently prioritize funding for incarceration far beyond what they offer for K–12 education. Annually, on average, states spend $15,000 to $60,000 maintaining a prisoner, but only $7,000 to $18,000 on educating a student.

The Pew Charitable Trusts reports that federal spending for prisons rose seven-fold over the last three decades, from less than $1 billion (adjusted for inflation) in 1980 to nearly $7 billion in 2013. It’s hard not to look at this dramatic increase and not make a connection to the privatized industrial prison complex, which has also rapidly grown over the past 30 years.

Privately owned prisons make their money based on the number of occupied beds, meaning states pay a certain amount for each prisoner. Often, in their contracts with state governments, privately owned prisons stipulate the state guarantee a certain rate of occupancy, sometimes as high as 90 percent. Keeping this in mind, it’s alarming that inmates assigned to private prisons on average serve 4 to 7 percent more time than those assigned to public prisons. A major driver of this increase is the heightened incidents of prison conduct violations. Inmates in private prisons incur twice as many infractions—and subsequent sentence increases—than those in public prisons.

And yet the value proposition of a private prison is cost savings to the state, meaning a lower amount spent per prisoner on an annual basis. Given that sentences are longer in private prisons, the only way to reduce costs is to spend less on prisoners. There’s no magic, no smart innovations in the way private prisons accomplish this; they simply cut services. Education and training programs are often among the first to go.

Beyond cost savings, providing education to prisoners goes directly against the interests of private prisons. Studies have shown education programs reduce recidivism by 40 percent. No business designed to maximize profit would intentionally provide a service or product that ensures 40 percent of its customers never return.

This conflict of interest highlights a clear need for reform of the criminal justice system and a distinct opportunity for institutions of higher education. We are positioned to have a tremendously positive impact. This is an opportunity to leverage the maturation of online education and strong cybersecurity measures, as a cost-effective, efficient means to provide instruction and support services, including tutoring, writing labs, and career services virtually.

This is higher education’s moment. With our capacity for focused research and innovation, we can develop increasingly effective means to educate and rehabilitate incarcerated people. It is, in fact, the moral responsibility of educational leaders and institutions to create opportunities for the most vulnerable among us and the advancement of social justice. We should seek to partner with policymakers, prison leaders, private providers and communities to create a system that will make education available to those incarcerated.

Our success as a society depends upon it.