REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: If You Want to Follow Up


I set out to track whether young offenders in New York City who attended school at Rikers Island and received their GED there have a lower incidence of recidivism compared with those who went through Rikers and did not attend classes (because they earned too few credits and will age out before they can get a diploma) or were unable to obtain their GED. Although, as noted in my story, no figures are available to measure recidivism rates, there is evidence to support the notion that college-level education curbs recidivism.

D. Clark, in the 1991 study “Analysis of Return Rates of Inmate College Program Participants,” investigated the success of inmates enrolled in 21 prison college-level education programs in New York State. This study generated data that answered the question whether completing a college degree during a period of prison incarceration reduced the likelihood that participants would return to prison following their release. Clark found that inmates who earned a diploma returned to prison custody at a significantly lower rate (26.4%) than those inmates who did not earn a degree (44.6%). Other studies, including those looking at prison populations in Oklahoma, Ohio and Canada, produced similar results.

Still, New York (along with North Carolina and Connecticut) is unique in its position of treating high school-age offenders as adults. And there is no research to support that a high school education for inmates curbs recidivism.

According to Tim Lisante, a deputy superintendent at the Department of Education, one solution to determine whether education at the high school level curbs recidivism would be to link an offender’s high school ID number with his NYSID number, the unique identifier assigned to an individual by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. Then, a cross-checking database could compare educated and non-educated offenders. “But that is labor intensive and resources are scarce,” he says. And with budgets being cut, it’s just not a priority.

In 2003, according to the private non-profit, Friends of Island Academy, 5,138 youth were sent to jail in New York City. Upon their release, not one of them was enrolled in school. As many as 60% were expected to return to jail within a year.

It is time for city and state officials to make it a priority to find out whether offering offenders a high school education keeps them from returning to jail later in their life, when they’ll be faced with having to earn a college degree behind bars to decrease the likelihood they will spend even more time locked up.

Read the Island Academy Story here.

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