The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
September 30, 2015

Prison programming works. So why do we have so little?

September 30, 2015

On Sunday evening, HBO aired VICE’s “Fixing the System,” a documentary report highlighting mass incarceration in the United States. Viewers accompanied President Obama on his historic visit to El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in Oklahoma to talk with six of the over 206,000 people currently under the authority of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

That same morning, Pope Francis visited the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia. His message to the incarcerated congregation was one of hope and redemption: “This time in your life can only have one purpose: to give you a hand in getting back on the right road [and] to give you a hand to help you rejoin society.” 

For people serving long sentences in federal prison, hope comes in very small measure. But the men who met with President Obama highlighted steps they’re taking to get back on the right road. Tyrone Ramsey is earning his college degree, and Timothy Jordan is participating in a job-training program that teaches workplace skills. Arnell Stewart’s drug abuse programming is helping him change negative thinking patterns and find himself. And they’re not the only ones touting the benefits of these opportunities: research shows that education, in-prison jobs, and drug treatment all help reduce recidivism.

For many viewers, the report provides insight into the despair that reverberates through individuals, families, and communities as a result of long-term incarceration. “Fixing the system” will require significant reform across criminal justice laws and practices, from policing through sentencing and release.

The documentary’s focus on programs that promote positive growth and inspire hope for individuals behind bars is a welcome reprieve from the story of a broken system. While the VICE report helps viewers understand the value of in-prison programming, the documentary doesn’t explore its availability across the federal prison system (which holds only a fraction of the 2.2 million people incarcerated across the country). Spoiler: it’s lacking.

On-the-job training: Despite its proven success in reducing recidivism and improving employment outcomes post-release, only 8 percent of work-eligible federal inmates actually get to participate in Federal Prison Industries (FPI). This number is down from 33 percent of the federal prison population in 1988. The length of the waitlist? Around 25,000 people.

Limited availability is in large part a result of the shrinking number of prison-based work opportunities. In an effort to protect private business from any adverse impact of FPI on market competition, Congress has increasingly restricted its operations.

Drug abuse treatment: Research also shows that the BOP’s Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP) reduces recidivism and substance abuse. But it’s also only available at just over 60 percent of federal facilities, and maintains a regular waitlist in the multiple thousands. To address a substance abuse issue, an individual may have to sacrifice his or her placement in a facility close to home and move to a facility that offers RDAP.

College education: High-rigor studies have shown that postsecondary education programs reduce recidivism. But college is expensive, and the US prison population hails disproportionately from low-income communities of color. Despite these facts, Congress banned prisoners from receiving Pell grants in 1994. Until it lifts that prohibition, many of those who stand to benefit most from a college education in prison won’t be able to afford one. 

Lawmakers are talking about the harms of mass incarceration and recognizing that poor policy decisions are at the root of the problem. Some national leaders, such as former President Clinton, have admitted that the tough-on-crime laws they supported worsened the situation. Through data, two decades of human experience, and hindsight, we are well-positioned to make smarter criminal justice policy.

As policymakers own their past mistakes and try to choose the right road forward, let’s give people in federal prison the tools they need to do the same.

President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Okla., Thursday, July 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

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