Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education: A Meta-Analysis of Programs That Provide Education to Incarcerated Adults

This report explores the connection between correctional education a reduction in postrelease recidivism.

Lois M. Davis
Robert Bozick
Jennifer L. Steele
Jessica Saunders
Jeremy N. V. Miles
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
The RAND Corporation
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

Each year, thousands of incarcerated adults leave the nation’s prisons and jails and return to their families and communities. While many successfully reintegrate into their communities, find jobs, and become productive members of society, many others will commit new crimes and end up being reincarcerated. Although a number of factors account for why some ex-prisoners succeed and some don’t, we know that a lack of education and skills is one key reason. This is why correctional education programs—whether academically or vocationally focused—are a key service provided in correctional facilities across the nation. But do such correctional education programs actually work? We care about the answer both because we want ex-prisoners to successfully reenter communities and because we have a responsibility to use taxpayer dollars judiciously to support programs that are backed by evidence of their effectiveness. 

The results presented in this report confirm the results of previous metaanalyses—while using more (and more recent) studies and an even more rigorous approach to selecting and evaluating them than in the past—RAND researchers show that correctional education reduces postrelease recidivism and does so cost-effectively. And the study also looks at another outcome key to successful reentry—postrelease employment—and finds that correctional education may increase such employment. 

This need for more high-quality studies that would reinforce the findings is one of the key areas the study recommends for continuing attention. Just as important is the need to better understand what makes some programs more effective than others—is it the program design, the type of instruction, the length of the program, or, more likely, some combination of these and other factors? Having such knowledge is key to telling us which programs should be developed and funded—which programs will provide the greatest return on taxpayer dollars. The results provided here give confidence that correctional education programs are a sound investment in helping released prisoners get back on their feet—and stay on their feet— when they return to communities nationwide. 

What the experts say

This is the most important piece of research pertaining to the support for and promotion of furthering access to educational programming in secure prison and jail facilities to date. Already, this meta-analysis has served to begin an important discusion around the cost effectiveness of continuing the Country's policy of mass incarceration, versus investing resources in providing educational opportunities that afford returning citizens the chance to attain meaningful employment, thereby improving their chances for re-entry success.

Practitioners, policymakers, advocates, legislators, incarcerated learners and those who support them will be interested in this study, its background and conclusions around the importance and effectiveness of education programming for people in prisons. While its level of detail might be daunting for those not accustomed to such complex analyses, it provides compelling information for those hoping to strengthen allocation of resources and provision of educational opportunities for people in prisons.

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