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"Reframing Recidivism: The Necessary Tools for a Prison System Promoting Growth" by Buller et al.

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

Reframing Recidivism: The Necessary Tools for a Prison System Promoting Growth

Jason Buller, Vanessa Stolstajner, Maggie Broomfield, and Grace Shartle, Loyola University Maryland

Abstract: The United States has the highest recidivism rate in the world. Approximately 68% of prisoners in the U.S. find themselves behind bars again within three years of being released and 79% do so within 6 years (Alper, 2018). These disheartening rates are due to a lack of proper rehabilitation services available for prisoners during and after their incarceration. To decrease recidivism rates, prisons should reallocate their funding towards a variety of programs including secondary and post-secondary education, vocational training, mental health services, self-actualization opportunities aimed at cultivating the mind, post-release planning, financial literacy courses, and other hobby-developing activities. When prisons, both private and public, invest in these types of programs, prisoners are adequately prepared to reenter society as reconciled citizens, humbled by the transformative experience, aware of the consequences of their crimes, and incentivized not to recommit. Such rehabilitation programs would support an effective prison system that ameliorates certain sociological, economic, and lifestyle factors that fostered the original crime. Not only do such programs have profound benefits for the individual, but they are proven to contribute to economic growth, “for every dollar spent on prison education, the government saves $4 to $5 on the cost of reincarceration” (Benecchi, 2021). Investing in the rehabilitative capacity of the United States prison system while taking a holistic approach will set the formerly incarcerated population up for success while contributing to future economic growth.



Prior to the 1970s, the prison system in the United States operated on a philosophy that rehabilitation programs aimed at helping an offender learn and reenter society were effective. Between 1925 to 1974 the record high prison population occurred in 1961, when 220,149 persons were in prison (Langan et al., 1988). Then, in 1974, Robert Martinson published the “What Works” doctrine, which undermined the fact that rehabilitation programs reduce an individual’s chances to recommit a crime after completing their initial incarceration. The doctrine states, “…education… or psychotherapy at its best, cannot overcome, or even appreciably reduce, the powerful tendency for offenders to continue in criminal behaviour” (“Historical Background”). Martinson’s claims were based on methodologically weak studies yet prompted correctional authorities to halt investments in rehabilitation programs. In 1975, the prison population was 240,593; every year since a new record high has been set.

Today, the United States is the world leader in incarcerations with 1,900,000 individuals behind bars (Sawyer & Wagner, 2023). Per capita, the United States has 629 per 100,000 in prison followed by Brazil with 381 per 100,000. The United Kingdom, Italy, and Germany follow with 132, 92, and 71 per 100,000 people, respectively. In the past 30 years, America’s prison population has quintupled. This growth is directly correlated to the halt on investments in rehabilitation programs, the war on drugs, and mass incarceration. In addition, according to Michelle Alexander’s study, The New Jim Crow, “the target populations of our prison system are highly skewed toward three groups of citizens: Black males, low-income people in urban environments, and immigrants” (Harper, 2013).

Every year, about 600,000 former inmates are released from federal and state prisons, with another 9 million released from local jails. Two-thirds of these individuals are rearrested within three years and 50% are reincarcerated. Many times, this is not due to a new crime being committed, but for parole violations. Some of these violations include failure to secure employment, inability to pay court fines and fees, and missing appointments or curfews. It has been shown that inmates who participate in vocational training or academic remediation while in prison are 43% less likely to re-offend and return to prison. Only one third of American prisons offer education or job training programs, however (Eberhardt, 2022). The scant resources currently provided for these initiatives contribute to the inability of many newly released individuals to meet the expectations that come with parole, making it more likely that they will end up behind bars once again. With these prisoners back behind bars we are hurting not only the people themselves but the U.S. economy. Therefore, there is a need to invest in resources for prisoners to be able to meet expectations upon release to create a more sustainable economy and U.S. prison system.

Rehabilitation resources such as opportunities for education, basic and advanced, vocational training, mental and medical health services along with a holistic approach to uplifting the whole person, have the potential to provide a foundation for inmates’ successful reintroduction to society, benefitting individuals and setting the stage for sustainable economic growth for their communities.


There are a wide range of issues regarding recidivism rates and the rehabilitative environments in prisons. The underlying problem is that private and public prisons are not incentivized to implement effective rehabilitation programs. Around 127,000 prisoners in the U.S. are housed in facilities operated by private companies such as the Corrections Corporation of America or the GEO Group. High recidivism benefits them and generates profit, so they are not eager to implement programs that will decrease recidivism; thus, decreasing profit. In fact, the Bureau of Justice Assistance demonstrates that the existence of private prisons is not financially justified (Austin, 2001). American prisons operate to generate profit; therefore, this motive incentivizes them to provide the least amount of services to as many inhabitants as possible.

Implementing rehabilitation programs is also very expensive. The population of the U.S. prison system is larger than the entire U.S. university system, and it costs $10,000 more to send someone to prison than it does to send them to an Ivy League college (Harper, 2013). Stefan LuBuglio, a nationally recognized reentry specialist and former chief of prerelease in Montgomery County, Maryland states that “Over the past 20 years, interest and innovation in reentry services for incarcerated individuals has risen dramatically in this country, yet ironically, correctional education – the mainstay of correctional rehabilitation since the founding of jails in this country in the late 1700s – has not ridden this increased wave of support” (Steurer, 2020). Education in the prison system is perceived to be more expensive than other programs due to the space, materials, and technology required; thus, short-term budget difficulties also influence administrative decisions about programs, rather than long-term program savings due to the impact of lower recidivism. These decisions have severe negative consequences for society.

The ETS Center for Research on Human Capital and Education found that two-thirds of the formerly incarcerated population in the U.S. could not perform basic tasks, such as writing a letter to explain a billing error or calculating miles per gallon, and only 30% of them had attended education classes in prison (Steurer, 2020). Also, increasing rates of incarceration mean large numbers of the formerly incarcerated population reenter society with 3 major disadvantages: difficulty finding a job with a living wage, lack of valuable work experience required by employers, and employer reluctance to hire formerly incarcerated individuals. In this study, researchers looked at the literacy scores of incarcerated individuals using the PIAAC literacy test and found that the mean score (249) was 21 points lower than that for the general population (270). These scores indicate that these individuals lack “the most basic information-processing skills considered necessary to succeed in today’s world” (Steurer, 2020). With these scores, prisoners will be unable to enter society from an educational standpoint, not including the mental and emotional trauma of being imprisoned. It is unreasonable to expect for people, let alone formerly incarcerated individuals, with inadequate literacy scores to be able to maintain a job able to meet their financial needs and the requirements of parole.

A survey distributed to 2,000 federal inmates at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma found that 1) job training classes are limited to prisoners nearing their release dates, 2) programs are inconsistent among prisons regarding topics and skill sets, 3) fellow inmates taught classes 93% of the time, and most classes lacked rigor and substance, 4) the high cost of classes making earning a college degree nearly impossible, and 5) 3% of inmates had computer access, a necessity for many online colleges (George, 2017). Thus, there are many barriers preventing inmates from pursuing education, even if they wish to. These examples highlight only some of what contributes to high recidivism in the U.S. prison system: lack of proper education in the U.S. prison system, the lack of enforcement and incentivization of such programs, and the negative preconceptions that individuals in our society have towards the formerly incarcerated population.

In addition to the limits outlined above, incarcerated individuals must also contend with poorer mental and physical health outcomes. Time served has a direct correlation to years of life lost. Incarcerated individuals have also been found to have a lower life expectancy than the general population; for each year lived in prison, a person can expect to lose two years off their life expectancy. More specifically, five years in prison increased the odds of death by 78% and reduced the expected life span at age 30 by 10 years (Widra, 2017). The effects of time in prison are tremendous on individuals; they are repaying their debt to society without a doubt. However, a sentence to months or years in prison should not be equivalent to a life sentence chipping at years off their lives. These statistics are concerning from a population health standpoint, as well as the impact on individuals, families, and communities on a personal level. The system should aim to reform citizens without concurrently negatively impacting their mental and physical heath.

On top of poor mental and physical health, inmates face racism and logistical issues that perpetuate the cycle of mass incarceration and act as a deterrence to trying to alter the trajectory of their lives. In a study conducted by the Crime and Research Alliance in 2018, they found that “the most potent predictor of recidivism was being a Black male, even though Black men had less contact with the criminal justice system and few of the risk factors traditionally associated with recidivism” (Crime and Justice Research Alliance, 2018). Black men scored lower on all but two risk factors thought to drive recidivism – age at intake and marital status. Furthermore, more than 58% of Black men in the study were reincarcerated in a North Carolina state prison within the 8-year follow up period, compared to fewer than half of the White men and White women, and just over 41% of the Black women released during the same time frame (Crime and Justice Research Alliance, 2018).

Given all of these deficiencies, it is clear that incarcerated individuals are not given a fair chance at proper rehabilitation. The issues surrounding recidivism demand a holistic approach that starts with caring for the entire person. With this approach there can be positive economic and social impacts for American society at large.

Making a Difference

Many prisons only focus on one aspect of education and rehabilitation while the demonstrated needs run much deeper. Cura personalis is "care for the entire person" and suggests individualized attention to the needs of the other. A holistic approach to rehabilitation including mental and physical healthcare, vocational training, education, spirituality, and interconnection with a broader society will lead to broad economic benefits and lower levels of recidivism. Utilizing cura personalis as a framework, we have developed three guiding pillars in our approach to prisoner rehabilitation: mind, body, and spirit.

The first pillar of rehabilitation focuses on education and providing prisoners with the technological tools for success upon reentry to society. According to Vivian Nixon, "In a country where second chances and opportunity are professed values, democratic access to high-quality higher education must include access for people in prison. We cannot bar the most vulnerable people from the very thing that has the greatest potential to change their lives” (Esperian, 2010). Many prisoners are unable to read and write, let alone able to obtain their GED. It is recommended that legislation be advanced to mandate that prisons require inmates to take educational classes no matter their age. There are already acts supporting our “mind” pillar of rehabilitation. For example, the Promoting Reentry through Education in Prisons (PREP) Act establishes an office of prison education within the Bureau of Prisons that is mandated to create and implement educational programs across all federal prisons. This established a new program focused on the partnerships between federal prisons and local education providers. The Maryland Resources and Education for All Prisoners (REAP) Act has many ambitions including setting goals for the number of inmates in rehabilitation programs, tracking the progress of inmates in rehabilitation programs, and helping inmates receive Pell grants.

Often overlooked is the technological setback that prisoners experience while in prison. With such a fast-paced society and constant innovation, prisoners are released not understanding the basic technology needed to both find a job and navigate the work environment. Their understanding of technology is put on hold while in prison and by the time they are released, their knowledge is outdated, and they are forced to learn a whole new system. Employers frequently do not have time to account for this learning curve or fill in the gaps. The introduction of technical-skill development programs in prisons is underway, but red-tape barriers such as not allowing chargers in prison cells for donated hardware hinders the effectiveness of these innovative approaches to prison education (Steurer, 2020). Keeping prisoners up to date is vital to ensure their smooth reintroduction into society. By creating accessible learning programs, recidivism rates could decline and create a population capable of successful reintegration into society and the working population.

The second pillar pertains to rehabilitation of the body, specifically healing from potential substance abuse and mental health struggles. According to the American Psychological Association, inmate drug abuse treatment slows prisons’ revolving door. The American Psychological Association cites a Federal Bureau of Prisons Report that stated, “in fiscal year 2002, more than 16,000 inmates participated in in-prison residential drug abuse treatment programs, and more than 82% of them participated in community transition drug abuse treatment. Rigorous analysis of these programs by the Bureau of Prisons and the National Institute on Drug Abuse shows these programs make a significant positive difference in the lives of inmates following their release from prison, as they are substantially less likely to use drugs or to be rearrested, compared to other inmates who did not participate in the treatment programs” (American Psychological Association, 2004). Research shows that potentially creating and mandating inmate substance abuse treatment programs can deter former inmates from falling back into bad habits after release. With these tools, prisoners will be able to heal their body from the damage done and increase their motivation to strive for right-minded goals.

It is also important to consider mental health while healing. “Studies indicate that approximately 18-22% of the general youth population suffers from a mental disorder while 40-90% of youth involved with the juvenile justice system have one or more mental disorders” (Harper, 2013). It is an injustice to not provide treatment to juvenile offenders suffering from mental illness, which is even more pressing under the stressful conditions of present-day prison. Therapy and healthy outlet programs can increase emotional intelligence which is a vital tool to operate successfully in the workforce and in life interactions, let alone survive the prison environment intact.

In creating these programs, prisoners can learn to forgive themselves and see that prison doesn’t have to be the end of their story. The impact of the disconnect from society and families is a major contributor to the mental setbacks that prisoners face. The national GAINS (Gather, Access, Integrate, Network, and Stimulate) Center and Project Avary both work to help prisoners and families connect and heal. The magazine State v.US provides a platform to connect inmates with the outside world, keeping them up to date and able seamlessly blend back into society upon return. It is recommended that therapy and healthy outlet programs be mandated to help manage mental health and increase emotional intelligence among all prison populations.

The soul or spiritual pillar focuses on forgiveness of oneself and healing through a creative outlet such as art and religion. To combat the risk of mental health, spirituality shows promise to aid rehabilitative efforts (Roman, 2019). While some religious support is already offered in prisons, it is important to spread awareness and help inmates to see the larger picture and the meaning of life outside prison walls.

Holistic rehabilitation programs that incorporate a spiritual component have been shown to empower individuals, promote their dignity, foster humanity, and cultivate faith (Stewart, 2019). Participants in these spirituality-oriented programs often experience stronger relationships and exhibit increased prosocial behavior. Engaging in spiritual practices prompts individuals to become aware of their personal issues and encourages deep reflection on their past offenses, leading them to seek self-improvement and forgiveness. Rehabilitative programs that embrace spirituality instill hope within prisoners, enabling them to set ambitious goals despite the challenges posed by a painful and broken system. The shift in mindset that occurs through spiritual growth catalyzes a transformation of behaviors, decreasing the likelihood of reoffending. By addressing the spiritual needs of individuals in the rehabilitative process, these programs contribute to the holistic development of prisoners, fostering positive change and enhancing their chances of successful reintegration into society.

Chris Wilson is an example of someone who has been able to heal through the creation of art.

At age 17, Wilson was sentenced to natural life in prison. While he was imprisoned, he was able to earn a high school diploma, graduate from all of the vocational shops, earn an Associate of Arts Degree, and teach himself to speak and write in several foreign languages. Wilson’s endless motivation for self-betterment and shifting his perspective to view prison as an opportunity rather than the end, allowed him to take advantage of these opportunities. Chris Wilson spreads awareness for the issues in prison systems through the creation of art and other creative outlets. Wilson, as an artist himself, said in a Gothamist article, “Art is a way of forcing people to confront that both elevates the spirit but also challenges the soul" (Wilson, 2022).

“Art has the capacity to absorb the interests and mold the values of those who practice it” (Welch, 1991). Art can create a way for prisoners to reconnect with themselves, heal, and find a greater purpose. Allowing prisoners to embrace their emotions and express them in a beautiful and meaningful way can create more Chris Wilson. Wilson went on to become a mentor, start a career center, and a book club. Wilson served 16 years in prison then was able to reenter society a changed man and a valued community member.

It is important to provide programs pertaining to the mind, body, and soul pillars to change the mindset of prisoners and give them the tools available to self-reform. Positive economic effects can arise from changing the prison system’s mission from focusing on punishment to advocating for individual change and betterment.

Benefits of a Holistic Approach to Rehabilitation

The basis of the solutions presented comes from the idea that prisoners can reflect on their actions, feel humility, understand what led them to commit their offenses, and reenter their communities with a better understanding of themselves to not recommit and become functioning, reconciled, and productive members of society. In reimaging the corrections system with a pre- “What Works” philosophy, we recognize that investing in the rehabilitative capacity of the prison system has compounding benefits across society as both communities and former prisoners turn economic losses into gains. The benefits of investing in a holistic rehabilitation prison system which accounts for the mind, body, and soul have the potential to yield strong economic results while improving prison conditions and reducing recidivism rates.

The costs of incarceration vary widely across the country. In Kentucky, the average cost per inmate is $14,603, whereas in New York, the average cost is $60,076. Despite the high costs of imprisoning individuals, recidivism rates remain high and create an economic drain. While costs differ across state lines, it is estimated that the U.S. loses between $57 and $65 billion of output per year due to recidivism (Hernandez, 2020). Contrasting the level of investment in the prison system against the outcomes of high recidivism rates and immense economic losses, policy makers must look to the benefits of levying investments towards holistic rehabilitation programs to reduce the propensity to reoffend while simultaneously creating economic savings.

Vocational training and educational programs can reduce recidivism rates thus reducing economic losses. When prisoners participate in secondary education courses in prison, their chances of recidivism drop by 43% (Benecchi, 2021). If a prisoner can participate in post-secondary education courses, their chances of recidivating drop to 6%. Further, participation in vocational training programs significantly reduces one’s odds of recidivism by up to 36% and increase odds of finding jobs post-release by 28% (National Institute of Justice). Lower recidivism rates produce positive outcomes for the economy overall. A report by the RAND Corporation, a non-partisan American nonprofit global policy research institute, has found that for every $1 invested in prison education programs, the government saves $4-$5 on the costs of reincarceration (RAND, 2014). Educational and vocational training programs decrease recidivism rates as they prepare ex-convicts to assimilate into a rapidly changing society, allowing for economic savings.

A significant barrier prisoners must contend with upon release is the prejudice they face in obtaining gainful employment. This creates significant challenges for the over 1.9 million people with criminal records who are unable to find employment, resulting in substantial economic losses. In 2014 alone, these barriers cost the economy an estimated $78 to $87 billion (Taylor, 2018). Over 40,000 laws and regulations across the country that restrict ex-offenders from certain jobs, residences, and activities exacerbate the problem. Surprisingly, despite approximately one in three Americans having a criminal record, 60% of employers say they are unlikely to consider hiring an ex-offender (Taylor, 2018). However, research indicates that businesses can benefit from hiring individuals who are exiting the prison system. The study found that this not only leads to a reduction in turnover rates, from 25% to 11%, but also provides these individuals with opportunities to find stability and rebuild their lives (Taylor, 2018). By giving ex-offenders a chance to secure gainful employment, businesses can tap into a pool of potentially well-rounded employees who have undergone rehabilitation programs and acquired valuable skills while in correctional facilities. This approach not only aids the individuals themselves but also contributes to the overall well-being of society by promoting successful reintegration and reducing recidivism rates. Thus, by overcoming negative attitudes and misconceptions surrounding hiring ex-offenders, businesses can play a crucial role in facilitating their reentry into the workforce, ultimately leading to positive economic and social outcomes.

Equipping prisoners with the skills and tools to adapt to the changing world after serving their sentence offers significant benefits not only to the individuals themselves but also to the families who have endured emotional and economic hardships throughout their incarceration. A survey conducted on families of inmates revealed that the average debt attributed to court-related fines and fees amounted to a staggering $13,607 (Martin, 2017). The burden of such financial obligations is compounded by high recidivism rates, which perpetuate the cycle of economic strain for these families. By effectively reducing recidivism through comprehensive rehabilitation programs, the cumulative costs borne by families can be alleviated, thereby reducing financial stress, and fostering increased economic mobility. Empowering prisoners with the necessary skills and support to successfully reintegrate into society not only positively impacts their own lives but also brings much-needed relief to their families, offering them the opportunity to rebuild and thrive in the aftermath of their loved one's incarceration.

Decreased recidivism is good for the economy and society at large and therefore a heightened systemic effort to invest in the transformation of the prison system to be holistic and care for the individual’s rehabilitation must be made. Not only are the investments cost-effective, but they are humane; attitudes of forgiveness may ripple across society to create a more harmonious culture.

There have been notable successes in various rehabilitation programs across the country, demonstrating their potential to decrease recidivism rates and expand education opportunities for individuals involved. One such program is Defy Ventures, founded by Catherine Rohr, an ex-venture capitalist. Defy Ventures focuses on creating internship programs that empower ex-convicts to succeed as entrepreneurs, income earners, responsible fathers, and positive role models within their communities (Harper, 2013). By providing these individuals with the necessary skills, resources, and support, Defy Ventures has achieved remarkable outcomes in terms of reducing recidivism and facilitating successful reintegration into society.

Another example of a successful program is the Safer Foundation of Illinois, which offers job-finding services to individuals with criminal records. Through their dedicated efforts, the Safer Foundation has managed to lower recidivism rates to just 13 percent among their participants, a significant decrease when compared to the state's overall recidivism rate of 52 percent (Harper, 2013). This success demonstrates the effectiveness of targeted job-finding services in providing opportunities for individuals to rebuild their lives and break the cycle of repeated offenses.

The Hudson Link for Higher Education is yet another noteworthy program that focuses on providing college education, life skills training, and comprehensive reentry support to both currently and formerly incarcerated individuals. By equipping them with education and essential life skills, the program aims to empower participants to make positive impacts not only on their own lives but also on their families and communities. This approach has resulted in lower rates of recidivism, increased employment opportunities, community regeneration, cohesiveness, and reciprocity. Hudson Link values transformation, lived experience, a holistic approach, access and agency, collaboration, dedication, and family as guiding principles for their program's success (Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, 2023).

These examples highlight the transformative power of rehabilitation programs in creating positive outcomes for individuals involved in the justice system. Through education, skills training, employment services, and comprehensive support, these programs have successfully decreased recidivism rates and provided individuals with opportunities to reintegrate into society as productive and law-abiding citizens. By investing in and expanding such successful initiatives, communities have the potential to break the cycle of incarceration, foster social and economic mobility, and create safer and more inclusive environments for all.

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard stated that there is “a higher mentality than socially sanctioned morality that goes beyond logical thinking. It’s called faith” (Kierkegaard, 2005). We must work to change the current narrative and encourage society, as well as former inmates, to express more forgiveness for themselves and others. We must instill the radical idea in prisoners that they can have a second chance to achieve their big goals despite a painful and broken system. A change in mindset will cause a transformation of behaviors, reducing recidivism, thus incentivizing further investment in rehabilitative capacity. Overall, a systematic overhaul within the prison system is necessary. Prisons must shift from operating solely to generate profit, to operating for the betterment of society. The financial resources are available. By pairing these resources with a moral compass of uplifting other humans, society will achieve these goals.


Currently the U.S. is supporting a system that does not give prisoners the resources to succeed in society, and sadly, there does not seem to be a lessening of the social and financial crises that cause individuals to commit crimes and become incarcerated. Without attention to the needs of this sizable population, the economy of the United States is at risk of losing the productive capacity of a significant portion of its citizenry.

The forces at work that bring many Americans into the prison system include failures at many levels such as basic education, available and affordable health care, negative attitudes towards mental health care, poverty, and domestic strife, among others. Then, while incarcerated, inmates are exposed to yet more failures to adequately address their ability to one day become productive, law-abiding citizens. This failure upon failure leads to hopelessness and despair that can become endemic and systemic.

Providing inmates with perhaps their first opportunity to be treated fairly and as persons worthy of having a better life should be the foundational mantra of the American prison system. Making a difference by attending to the three pillars of rehabilitation, 1) education and technological competency, 2) drug abuse treatment and in-depth mental health evaluation and therapy, and 3) creative and spiritual methods to achieve self-healing, have the potential to change the trajectory of incarcerated individuals. An introduction to resources integral to the concept of cura personalis allows for prisoners to heal and reform their mind, body, and spirit. The path towards humility and self-worth can turn a ward of the State into a functioning, creative and productive member of society, with a significantly lowered risk of recidivism; this may even have the unintended, but desirable, effect of lowering the future number of incarcerated Americans.

It is critical to note that the economic impact of a person who is gainfully employed, living in a stable community, and spending on goods and services, has an unintended multiplier effect on the broader community and U.S. GDP overall. In implementing the holistic approach described here, it is possible that even the poorest of communities can find a way to thrive and grow as their men and women are welcomed back into the life of their communities ready to fully commit to their responsibilities as citizens and live productive and happy lives.


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