Educating Utah prison inmates pays off, study says

Published: Sunday, July 21 2013 6:25 p.m. MDT

Inmate Ken Taylor operates a grinder at the Davis Applied Technology College auto and machining shop at the Utah State Prison, July 11, 2013

Andrew Adams, Deseret News

UTAH STATE PRISON — Utah sees a more than 13-to-1 return on investment when inmates complete vocational secondary education in prison and gain employment afterward, according to a University of Utah study released this week by the state’s Department of Corrections.

The study looked at spending on corrections education, the benefit to the state, and the effect of an education and post-prison employment on recidivism rates.

“It shows that we’re actually doing something out here, rather than just warehousing individuals,” said Lt. Vic Smith.

The report, dated October 2012, takes into account data from the Department of Corrections and the Utah State Office of Education and applies it to the 2012 Utah Benefit Cost Model.

It found the raw taxpayer cost ratio to a corrections education is 2.9, or 6.03 when tangible victim costs of crime are taken into account. Translated, Smith said, it’s $6.03 of benefit for every dollar invested.

The benefit cost ratio jumps to 13.66 — or $13.66 cents for every dollar spent — when an educated ex-con finds work and the victim costs are counted, according to the study.

“The benefit far outweighs the cost,” Smith said.

A prison education also appeared to have a significant impact on whether an ex-con would return to prison within 36 months of release. The report cited a 50 percent base recidivism rate, and revealed the recidivism rate dropped to 41 percent with a corrections education and 31 percent with a corrections education and employment.

Effectively, the study showed an 18 percent reduction in recidivism in former inmates who completed a corrections education and 38 percent in those who also gained employment.

The history

The picture wasn’t always so rosy. Prison educations came under scrutiny as recently as in the past decade, when lawmakers and others questioned whether inmates should have the opportunity — as they once did — to earn up to a bachelor’s degree behind bars while victims’ families struggled to make it through college.

Corrections spokesman Steve Gehrke said the Utah State Prison in Draper began contracting with the Davis Applied Technology College in 2010 in part to alleviate those concerns.

“It was the emphasis on the victims and making sure there’s some credence given to the hard life they’ve got to live,” Gehrke said.

The Draper prison previously had partnered with Salt Lake Community College.

Gehrke said the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison now contracts with Snow College, and the Duchesne County Jail — which also houses state inmates — has a partnership with the Uintah Basin Applied Technology College.

Gehrke said approximately $1.2 million is spent annually on secondary education for prisoners. DATC officials said their contract was between $800,000 and $900,000.

Gehrke said the state budget only provides $400,000 for corrections education. Between $700,000 and $750,000 of the money spent is generated from surcharges placed on inmate phone calls to their families.

Inmates, Gehrke said, pay for half of their education through low-interest loans. They have two years after the termination of their sentences to make payments on the loan, and the money is returned to the education fund.

The program

DATC offers training at the prison in maintenance, machining, auto, welding, culinary arts and business technology. DATC program manager Mary Crawford said inmates can earn a full program certificate, just like they could on campus.

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