Prison literacy programs as crime control

Since crime competes with licit work for the time of ex-offenders released from prison, and since literacy contributes statistically both to the chance of getting a job and to the wages available, it stands to reason that improving the reading skills of inmates would tend to reduce their recidivism. That appears to be the case; graduates of prison literacy programs are about 20% less likely than otherwise similar non-graduates to return to prison.

Since the cost of a typical prison literacy program is only about $1000 per inmate, if that difference reflected a real program effect prison literacy programs would be among the most cost-effective crime-fighting techniques, preventing serious crimes at a cost of about $2000 per crime averted. Preventing crime by just building more prisons costs at least half again as much.

[I learned about this from my students Audrey Bazos and Jessica Hausman, who wrote a prize-winning master’s project on the topic.*]

Moreover, even a modest reduction in reincarceration, far smaller than the published estimates, would make literacy programs better than a break-even proposition in purely fiscal terms. The cost saving to a typical state the state from avoiding a two-year prison term is between $40,000 and $50,000; a program that costs $1000 only needs to reduce the recidivism rate by two or three percentage points to pay for itself in reduced reincarceration costs alone.

But in the absence of a true random-assignment experiment, it’s hard to know how much of the measured difference in recidivism between program graduates and other inmates reflects the factors that lead some inmates, but not others, to enter literacy programs and stick with them, rather than the effects of the programs themselves.

An experimental test of this idea would be conceptually simple and operationally manageable. Identify a group of, say, 400 serious offenders within a few months of scheduled prison release. Randomly identify half of them, and use some combination of program availability, persuasion, and incentives to attempt to raise the participation of that group, but not of the control group, in literacy training. Use automated criminal history systems to track reincarceration, and compare the two groups: not just the graduates of the literacy program, but everyone in the group randomly selected for aggressive “marketing” of literacy training.

For example: in California prisons, educational programs and work programs are scheduled for the same time slots. Prisoners who don’t get money from their families or friends — who tend to be the poorest, most socially disconnected, and least literate, and who have therefore among the highest recidivism rates — need to work for canteen money, and therefore can’t take reading classes. By selecting a group of such inmates, dividing it randomly in half, and offering to pay the inmates in one half the pennies per hour they would otherwise be earning in prison jobs to learn to read instead, one could boost participation in the “experimental” group and not in the “control” group, without the moral onus of assigning anyone to a no-treatment condition.

Even if operational or ethical concerns made random assignment infeasible, it would be possible to design interventions to raise the rate of literacy-training participation in one or a few prisons, and use as controls inmates of other, similar prisons or releasees from those same prisons in the period before the program started.

With somewhat greater difficulty and expense, the outcome measures could be expanded past reincarceration to cover workplace and family functioning, physical and psychological health, and self-reported crime.

One reason for the rather sad performance of most in-prison rehabilitation efforts is that they focus on behavioral change. In creating behavioral change, environment matters: talking to someone about not using drugs when he’s in prison may have little effect on his drug use when he’s out of prison. Because literacy is a set of skills rather than a set of behaviors, it seems likely to be much more portable.

It is a sad fact about American politics that “crime” as a political issue has very little to do with figuring out ways to actually reduce victimization or the criminal riskiness of various social environments. Even if it were true, as I think it probably is, that putting a million dollars into prison literacy programs would prevent substantially more crimes than putting that same million dollars into locking up another forty inmates for a year, a politician who preferred literacy programs to prison construction would bear the politically devastating label “soft on crime.”

[Mitch Daniels, before he started running for governor of Indiana, when he was still helping GWB wreck the fiscal stability of the federal government as his first OMB Director, specified the teensy program of Federal aid to state prison literacy programs as one of the things that ought to be cut to restore balance to the budget. (*) Anyone who can close a twelve-figure deficit by cutting a seven-figure program shouldn’t be wasting his time in the public service; he should be out there in the private sector running Ponzi schemes. But of course the point of his proposal wasn’t to save money, but to indicate his dedication to the holy cause of making bad people suffer.]

So it would be fatuous to imagine that just showing that funding prison literacy programs is cost-effective crime control will magically make those programs popular.

Still, there is some benefit to knowing whether prison literacy is as good a deal socially as it appears to be. Anyone who knows of a corrections official who might let his or her institution be used as an experimental venue will earn my gratitude by putting me in touch with that person.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: