The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 8, 2016

Can Orange is the New Black pay for success?

August 8, 2016

A version of this post also appeared on PFS Perspectives.

Netflix’s original series Orange is the New Black, based on Piper Kerman’s best-selling memoir, has been lauded for its honest and heartfelt portrayal of the lives of women in a minimum-security prison. It challenges the idea that anybody is wholly good or bad, and sheds light on our justice system.

In the current season, cost-cutting measures implemented by the fictional Litchfield Prison’s new leadership shape several story lines about the quality of life inside the prison. In one episode, prison warden Joe Caputo pitches a new education program he describes as a “college program” of liberal arts classes with some vocational training to help prepare the women for reentry while giving them some purpose as they serve their sentences. When a colleague pushes back because of cost concerns, Caputo argues that evidence shows that education programs reduce recidivism, which will ultimately save the prison money.

I won’t reveal what ultimately happens with Caputo’s proposal. But we can look at the relevance his idea has for real-life communities seeking to reduce recidivism. Do education programs for people in prison have the evidence base that he claims? Would a program like the one he describes be a good candidate for pay for success (PFS)?

Evidence suggests that high-quality education programs for people who are incarcerated can reduce recidivism; a 2013 meta-analysis found that the risk of recidivism was reduced by 13 percent for participants in the education programs. Participants were also more likely to find employment upon release. The Urban Institute worked with the Council of State Governments to develop the What Works in Reentry Clearinghouse for the National Reentry Resource Center. Resources such as the clearinghouse and the US Department of Justice’s CrimeSolutions.gov use program evaluations to catalog and rate programs implemented at prisons around the country, including some that resemble the “college program” Caputo wants to bring to Litchfield.

Evidence-based recidivism programs are good candidates for PFS projects. Recidivism is a quantifiable and measurable outcome; metrics such as costs per occupied bed in a facility like Litchfield show a clear financial benefit associated with fewer people reoffending. There is also a social benefit for formerly incarcerated people and their community: if they can find legitimate work after their release, they contribute to the tax base, use fewer social services, and are present to raise their families and live fuller, richer lives.

Prison conditions and demographics must inform the selected intervention. A PFS project at Rikers Island in New York City concluded last summer without meeting its target outcomes for reducing recidivism, so the project’s investors took the loss. The intervention program had strong evidence to support it, but the evaluators found that the chaotic environment at Rikers made it difficult to implement the intervention properly. If Caputo is serious about finding a good education program for the women of Litchfield, he should consider programs with a strong evidence base that have been effective in prisons with similar characteristics, including population size. Implementing the program with sufficient fidelity to the model increases the chances of program success.

There are two active PFS projects addressing recidivism in New York State and Massachusetts. The interventions in both projects address employment and life skills training for formerly incarcerated people who are at high risk of reoffending. Evidence suggests that programs offering strong transitional support, like the ones used in the two projects, can decrease participants’ likelihood of rearrest and can prolong time to rearrest.

Programs like this might be worth Caputo’s consideration in addition to an education program, because there does not appear to be any support available to those released from Litchfield. Plot lines in the first and fourth seasons show the characters Taystee and Aleida struggling to find employment and avoid reoffending after release because the only people offering them any support were connected to their criminal pasts.

Will a future season of Orange is the New Black feature a PFS project being implemented at Litchfield? Probably not. Although an alternative financing mechanism might be attractive to Litchfield’s leaders given their budget situation, potential partners would probably view Litchfield as a risky bet thanks to the management scandals of the last couple seasons.

But as real-life prisons grapple with similar concerns about recidivism and the quality of life for people as they serve their time, it is worth considering whether PFS is the right approach to fund evidence-based interventions that can help incarcerated people get the second chance they deserve.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

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