Incarceration and Rehabilitation: How Improved Legal Education for Prisoners Can Reduce Recidivism

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The issue of recidivism – or the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend – has long been a challenge for many countries. The cycle of crime, imprisonment, release, and re-offending has proven difficult to break. But what if the key to breaking this cycle isn’t just in the rehabilitation techniques employed but in the very education provided to prisoners about the legal system itself?

Legal Education: A Pillar of Rehabilitation

Prisons have, for a long time, been thought of as places of punishment. While punitive measures can deter some from committing crimes, they don’t necessarily prevent those already incarcerated from re-offending. That’s where rehabilitation comes into play. Among the myriad rehabilitation methods, legal education for prisoners stands out as a uniquely empowering tool. Legal education, in this context, involves teaching inmates about their rights, the intricacies of the legal system, and even training in specific areas of law. It is essential for inmates to be informed and educated and it is essential for governments to provide prisons with resources to be able to educate inmates without imposing any limitations on the education. This knowledge can serve multiple purposes that will be identified in this blog.

To begin with, it is a known fact that knowledge is power due to the fact that legal education empowers inmates by giving them a sense of agency. When they understand their rights and how to navigate the legal system, they feel less marginalized and more in control of their futures and can have an easier access to justice.

Moreover, legal education improves self-advocacy. Being equipped with legal knowledge allows prisoners to advocate for themselves, ensuring that they receive fair treatment within the system. Most importantly, for those interested, a legal education can pave the way for job opportunities in the legal sector upon release, be it as paralegals, legal assistants, or even consultants.

The Link Between Legal Education and Reduced Recidivism

Several studies have pointed out the benefits of educational programs in reducing recidivism rates. For example, a report by the RAND Corporation found that inmates who participate in educational programs have 43% lower odds of returning to prison than those who do not.1 While this study encompassed all forms of education, there’s reason to believe that legal education, in particular, can play a crucial role. When inmates are knowledgeable about the legal
system, they are:
Less Likely to Feel Disenfranchised: Understanding the system means they are less likely to feel it’s rigged against them, reducing feelings of resentment or hopelessness.
Better Equipped to Navigate Post-Release Challenges: Legal knowledge can help former inmates navigate challenges like housing disputes, child custody battles, or
employment issues which they might face after their release.

Revolutionizing Rehabilitation: The Federal Prison “School District” Initiative

Research consistently highlights the transformative capacity of education, even within prison walls. Impressively, inmates engaged in correctional education programs show a 43% reduced likelihood of re-offending as found by the RAND Corporation as stated above. Moreover, the fiscal benefits are evident: every dollar poured into prison education yields four to five dollars in savings on re-incarceration costs.

In partnership with the Bronner Group, an esteemed educational consultancy, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has launched a pioneering venture: establishing a quasi-independent school district within the federal prison system. This initiative strives to offer an array of educational opportunities, ranging from adult literacy to high school diplomas and beyond. A special emphasis will be placed on inmates with learning disabilities, tailoring the educational journey to individual needs.

In an innovative move in November 2016, the BOP enlisted Amy Lopez, an experienced professional in correctional education, to lead this transformative initiative as the inaugural “superintendent” of the BOP school district. The innovation doesn’t stop there. Every inmate entering the federal prison system will undergo an educational assessment to determine their current academic standing and highlight specific learning needs. This will form the basis of an “individualized education roadmap”, accompanying the inmate throughout their time in the BOP, ensuring consistent and structured learning.2

This pioneering endeavor stands testament to the belief in rehabilitation through education and promises a brighter, more constructive path for inmates, steering them towards productive reintegration into society.

Legal education, specifically, could have a particularly strong impact:

Legal education could facilitate a fair legal process. For example, The Prison Law Office, a nonprofit public interest law firm in California, offers legal information to inmates, helping them understand their rights and the prison system. This office engages in class action and other impact litigation and advocates for law changes and assists individuals in administrative actions and lawsuits. By doing so, inmates can better navigate their own cases and ensure they are treated fairly and understand the legal system in a better way. 3

Another example is The Jailhouse Lawyers’ Handbook, which is a seminal initiative that underscores the importance of legal literacy and empowerment within the incarcerated community.4 It is a resource offered for free to prisoners allowing them to understand and fight against the abuses of their rights in the prison system. In a system that can often be rife with abuses, disparities, and limited avenues for redress, this handbook equips prisoners with the knowledge to understand, advocate for, and protect their rights. Its availability is not merely a gesture of goodwill but a fundamental step towards ensuring access to justice. Every individual, regardless of their incarceration status, deserves to understand the framework of the legal system and how it impacts them. By providing this resource for free, the handbook bridges the gap between marginalized prison populations and the often complex legal processes that surround them, fostering a more transparent and equitable justice system.

Therefore, such initiatives are proven to increase inmates’ confidence, improve their problem-solving skills, and give them a sense of purpose – all of which are crucial for successful reintegration into society.

The Way Forward

The objective of incarceration needs a paradigm shift. Rather than solely being a punitive measure, it should also be an avenue for introspection, learning, and positive transformation. Legal education in prisons doesn’t just furnish inmates with skills; it sets the stage for their constructive societal reentry, diminishing the recidivism challenge.

In the words of Sir Francis Bacon, “Knowledge is power.” By acquainting inmates with the intricacies of the legal system they find themselves in, we’re bestowing upon them more than knowledge; we’re giving them hope and a concrete path towards a brighter, more informed future.

1 Davis, Lois M., Jennifer L. Steele, Robert Bozick, Malcolm V. Williams, Susan Turner, Jeremy N. V. Miles, Jessica
Saunders, and Paul S. Steinberg, How Effective Is Correctional Education, and Where Do We Go from Here? The
Results of a Comprehensive Evaluation. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2014. Also available in print form.

2 “Prison Reform: Reducing Recidivism by Strengthening the Federal Bureau of Prisons.” The United States
Department of Justice, March 6, 2017.

3 “Prison Law Office.” Prison Law Office, January 10, 2023.

4 Jailhouse Lawyers Handbook. Accessed September 6, 2023.


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Incarceration and Rehabilitation: How Improved Legal Education for Prisoners Can Reduce Recidivism