Illinois prison policy opens access for incarcerated to get college education

Study found that for every $1 that taxpayers invest in prison education, they receive a $4 to $5 return on re-incarceration costs.

Updated: November 28, 2022 - 12:07am

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The Illinois Department of Corrections introduced the Comprehensive College Education in Prison Policy, which focuses on post-secondary education for the incarcerated.

According to Illinois Justice Project Program Director Ahmadou Dramé, the program outlines how Illinois prisons will categorize different educational opportunities and emphasizes accredited education programs. It also codifies policies that Dramé said should "theoretically keep incarcerated students in the classroom."

"I think Illinoisans should really care about people who are incarcerated being able to access good high quality educational programs," Dramé said. "And the reason being is that first of all ... after a person has been incarcerated, 38-40% of those people will be returning to the criminal legal system, re-arrested. They may have a technical violation, but ultimately, these things land them back in prison. And each time that happens ... it costs taxpayers ... more than $150,000 per person and per event."

A study by the University of California Los Angeles found that for every $1 that taxpayers invest in prison education, they receive a $4 to $5 return on re-incarceration costs within the first three years following the release of a prisoner. The study also discovered a 43% recidivism reduction rate for those who participated in education programs versus their non-education counterparts.

Other studies by the Bureau of Justice show high recidivism rates among released prisoners. In fact, the BOJ in 2005 traced 404,638 prisoners in a study across 30 states after their release from prison. They discovered that 67.8% of prisoners were arrested again within three years of their release, with 76.6% re-arrested within five years. Over half, 56.7%, of those re-arrested happened the first year after release.

Although prison rehabilitation is proven effective, it is often not practiced. According to Dramé, that kind of neglect proves that placing an emphasis on punishment over rehabilitation does more harm than good.

A crime bill from the mid-1990s prevented individuals in prison and the formerly incarcerated from gaining access to federal resources to help pay for and be provided with a higher education. In fact, crime was already high in 1994, yet incarceration rates continued to soar for another 14 years.

With decades of calls for change that occurred long before and well after the 1994 law, Dramé says IDOC's new policy is just one step in the right direction. Illinoisans must stay vigilant if they wish to see reform.

"We want a strong economy," Dramé said. "We need people in jobs and we want people to be able to live lives of dignity and to pursue their goals and their ambitions so that they can live happy lives as well, and education is one way to do that."