Most people don’t think of education when they think of prison.  They think of punishment, lack of freedom and loss of rights.  They think of the old adage that crime doesn’t pay, which is true, especially if you are a Louisiana taxpayer.

Our state has 39,683 adult prisoners, with about half in state prisons and half in local jails.  Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in America, adjusted for population.

This is expensive for two reasons.  First, it costs taxpayers about $15,000 a year to incarcerate an inmate.  Second, many of our prisoners are repeat offenders: 50 [percent] of the 15,000 prisoners released, on average, each year commit another crime and return to prison within five years.

Some people, of course, need to be in jail.  They deserve it, and society is entitled to demand they be put and remain there.  Others, however, could live productively in society after serving their time if they had the proper skills, the most important of which is education.  Unfortunately, the average Louisiana inmate has a fifth grade education and little or no vocational training.  When he gets out of prison, he can’t find a job, so he returns to a life of crime and winds up right back in prison.

We know that crime and illiteracy correlate, so why don’t we do something about it?  Other states have.

Georgia, for example, has made passing the General Educational Development (GED) test a priority for its inmates, after finding that the attainment of a GED reduced recidivism rates by 29% over three years.

After analyzing 18,414 inmates released from its prisons, the Florida Department of Corrections concluded that inmates who earned a GED while in prison were 8.7% less likely to recidivate than those who did not complete a GED.

New York has also been aggressive in offering high school equivalency diplomas in its jails. A recent study concluded that of 16,302 releases, 1,141 fewer of the inmates that earned their diplomas returned to jail within three years than the inmates who did not earn a GED while incarcerated.

A reduction in recidivism can mean real savings for taxpayers. A U.S. Department of Education study of 3,600 prisoners in Maryland, Minnesota and Ohio found that every $1 spent on correctional education saved $1.98 in prison costs.

To be fair, Louisiana state prisons and many local jails have prison-based education programs, but they need to be a greater priority. Allen Correctional Center, for example, has a capacity of 1,461 state inmates, but in 2010 only 28 completed their GED. Avoyelles Correctional Center has a capacity of 1,564 inmates, but in 2010 only 48 completed their GED. Winn Correctional Center had 59 GED graduates in 2010 out of a capacity of 1,461. Moreover, over the past four years, the state has reduced prison education dollars more than 20%, and our local jails never even had enough money for prison education to begin with.

This makes no sense. The state is being penny wise and pound foolish. Experience in other states proves that correctional education works. It reduces crime and recidivism, which in turn save taxpayer money and make our state safer.  (And that doesn’t even count the monetary savings of crimes avoided; crime costs the American people $450 billion annually in property losses, medical costs, lost earnings, social program costs, pain, suffering and reduced quality of life.)

In short, Louisiana needs a new rule:  If you are a Louisiana prisoner (in a state prison or local jail) who is not cognitively impaired and who does not have a high school diploma, you will not be eligible for parole until you complete your GED.  Alternatively, the GED requirement could be made voluntary; a prisoner could be given an appropriate amount of sentence credit for GED coursework completed while incarcerated.

The new law does not have to be expensive.  Many other state prisons are using technology-based educational tools and affordable multimedia computer software, delivered on state surplus hardware, to teach prisoners and allow them to learn at their own individual pace.  The GED Academy (www.passged.com), for instance, is an online GED prep program that costs $189 per person.  And that’s before the volume discount we would ask for.

The average Louisiana prisoner serves 4.78 years.  Let’s help them put that time to use earning a GED.  We will all be better off.

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