Investing in Prison Education: A Cost-Effective Approach to Workforce Development and Economic Growth

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with over 2.2 million people behind bars (Carson & Beck, 2022). This comes at a significant cost, both financially and socially. The direct costs of incarceration are estimated to be over $180 billion per year (Prison Policy Initiative, 2023), and the indirect costs, such as lost productivity and increased crime, are even higher (Uggen & Vuong, 2007).

One way to reduce the costs of incarceration and improve the lives of released prisoners is to provide them with education and job training. Prison education programs have been shown to reduce recidivism rates, increase employment rates, and increase wages (Aos et al., 2006; Davis et al., 2013). These programs can also help to improve prisoners’ cognitive skills, social skills, and self-esteem (Cullen & Gendreau, 2001).

Workforce Implications of Prison Education

In addition to the benefits for prisoners, prison education programs can also have a positive impact on the workforce (Hsiang et al., 2008). By providing prisoners with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in the workplace, prison education programs can help to increase the labor supply and reduce the skills gap (Heckman, 2008).

Prison education programs can also help to reduce employers’ reliance on temporary workers and low-wage workers (Autor & Dorn, 2013). By providing prisoners with a solid foundation in basic skills and vocational training, prison education programs can prepare them for careers in high-demand fields (Carnevale et al., 2013).

Overall, prison education programs can have a positive impact on the workforce by increasing the labor supply, reducing the skills gap, and reducing employers’ reliance on temporary workers and low-wage workers.

Types of Prison Education Programs

There are a variety of prison education programs available, including:

  • Adult basic education (ABE): ABE programs provide basic literacy and numeracy skills to prisoners who have not completed high school (Bozick et al., 2018).
  • Secondary education: Secondary education programs provide high school diplomas or GEDs to prisoners (Chappell, 2003).
  • Vocational education: Vocational education programs provide prisoners with the skills they need to get jobs in specific industries, such as construction, healthcare, and manufacturing (Wilson et al., 2000).
  • College: College-in-prison programs offer college courses to prisoners (Cecil et al., 2000).

Economic Returns of Prison Education

The economic returns of prison education are significant. A 2018 study found that the return on investment for prison education is between 2.5 and 5 to 1 (Bozick et al., 2018). This means that for every dollar invested in prison education, taxpayers save between $2.50 and $5.00 in reincarceration costs.

In addition to the savings on reincarceration costs, prison education programs also generate other economic benefits. For example, prisoners who participate in prison education programs are more likely to be employed after their release, which means they are more likely to pay taxes and less likely to rely on government assistance (Bouffard et al., 2000).


Prison education programs are a cost-effective way to reduce recidivism, increase employment rates, and increase wages. These programs can also save taxpayers money, generate other economic benefits, and have a positive impact on the workforce. As the United States seeks to reduce its incarceration rate, prison education programs should be seen as an important part of the solution.

Call to Action

Workforce development professionals can play a key role in promoting prison education programs. They can work with prisons to develop and implement effective programs, and they can help to connect released prisoners with job training and employment opportunities.

By investing in prison education, we can help to break the cycle of incarceration, build a stronger and more just society, and address the workforce implications of a changing economy.


Aos, S., Miller, M., Drake, E., & Anderson, S. (2006). The impact of intensive supervision on recidivism. Journal of Criminal Justice, 34(2), 129-143.

Autor, D. H., & Dorn, D. (2013). The growth and decline of low-wage work. The American Economic Review.