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Reducing Recidivism Through Career Programs in Prisons

*Editor's Piece

An alarming 50% of inmates released from prison will return within 3 years in the US (Incarceration, n.d.). Over the last two decades, numerous studies have explored the causes and effects of recidivism and how it can be prevented, with an emerging body of research suggesting that vocational and educational training programs have promising correlations to decreases in reincarceration rates among prison populations. This article will explore the past two decades of studies on this topic, analyzing how different characteristics of these programs and the implementation of their process can affect outcomes for incarcerated individuals.

 The Intersection of Race, Poverty and Imprisonment

Lockwood, Nally, and Ho (2016) conducted a study in the Indianapolis metropolitan area that examined the intersections of race, education, employment, and recidivism among offenders in the United States. Their findings indicated that there is an inverse relationship between educational attainment levels and recidivism rates; individuals with higher levels of educational attainment tend to have lower levels of recidivism once they are released from prison. They noted that White offenders had lower recidivism rates than Blacks, which they attributed to differences in educational attainment levels between the two groups (Lockwood et al., 2016). The authors noted that while race may not necessarily be a direct factor in predicting recidivism, it has a strong relation to recidivism via education inequities. 

Education provides inmates with access to knowledge and resources which can be used as tools when reentering society. This can include learning valuable life skills like how to create and manage budgets, job interviewing and resume writing techniques, critical thinking, relationship building and how best to handle stressful situations without resorting back to criminal behavior. Education also allows individuals the chance to gain insight into themselves and their own actions, allowing them space and time for reflection on what internal and external factors led to their conviction in the first place (Benecchi, 2021).

It has been found that in addition to education inequity, racial minorities face a host of other disproportionate disadvantages that influence, some may even argue justify, resorting to crime. Systemic oppression, poverty trauma, limited access to physical and mental healthcare, and the absence of generational wealth and general support that lower income BIPOC communities face pre-incarceration all contribute to poor wellbeing, emotional distress and faulty decision making. Long term imprisonment in today’s system exacerbates this, while for-profit prison systems exploit it (Arya, Connolly, Yeoman, 2021).

The Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that has conducted extensive research on prison conditions over the last 20 years, found that overcrowding influences recidivism. They noted that it leads to limited access to physical and mental health treatment as well as increased levels of violence and conflict between inmates. They also found that solitary confinement severely impairs mental health as long periods spent in isolation can lead to depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD, and other psychological issues. This can increase an individual's likelihood of reoffending after release from prison (Equal Justice Initiative 2021).  

The Value of Education and Job Training for the Formerly Incarcerated

In 2010, Zweig et al. conducted a study on the recidivism rates in former prisoners who partook in the CEO Program. This research provided evidence that participation in job training programs, such as the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) Program, is associated with reduced levels of recidivism among former inmates. Furthermore, it also notes that these programs have increasing levels of effectiveness when targeted toward higher-risk offenders rather than lower-risk offenders, due to the potential benefits they can offer toward successful reintegration into society post-release (Zweig, Yahner, & Redcross, 2010). 

In 2015, Mohammed and Mohamed (2015) published a study on reducing recidivism rates through vocational education and training (VET) that heavily supports the claims made by Zewig et al. (2010). They argued that providing VET programs for inmates prior to their release can help reduce their likelihood of committing another crime after their release from prison, noting that VET programs "help improve an individual’s skill set and prepare them for employment opportunities," which can ultimately reduce their risk for recidivism. The researchers also suggested that public-private partnerships should be established to provide inmates with improved access to VET programs while incarcerated. These partnerships could also create job opportunities for inmates upon their release from prison (Mohammed & Mohamed, 2015). 

Valentine and Redcross (2015) came to a similar conclusion when looking at the effects of transitional jobs (jobs given to recently released prisoners) on employment outcomes and recidivism rates. Their results showed that participation in these types of programs had reduced the likelihood of inmates reoffending by 12%-14% over a 5-year follow-up period (Valentine & Redcross, 2015). These findings suggest that transitioning into stable employment would be an effective tool for helping former inmates stay out of prison. 

Applying This Research to Create Real World Progress         

The first step in successfully implementing vocational and educational opportunities is to assess the needs of the prison population. Administrators should evaluate the current skill set of inmates, as well as their interests, with regard to viable career options. This will enable administrators to design programs that are not only engaging but effective (Mohammed & Mohamed, 2015). Furthermore, it is important to identify any mental health conditions, intellectual disabilities or substance abuse issues that may negatively impact learning and success (Benecchi, 2021). 

 Next, they can begin developing a pragmatic curriculum. It is important for such a program to focus primarily on learning practical skills that will enable inmates to gain meaningful employment after release (Mohammed & Mohamed, 2015). Administrators should also consider ways in which both existing staff members and relatable outside role models - perhaps someone inmates would consider a peer - can be utilized as mentors or instructors for inmates in the program. Mentors provide invaluable support and guidance. They also act as inspiring examples who can serve as positive influences on prisoners’ behavior while incarcerated and post-release (Zweig et al., 2010). 

Finally, prisons should also offer educational courses designed to help prisoners improve their academic abilities before reentry. Courses should focus on fundamental literacy and numeracy skills, as well as critical thinking and problem-solving skills (Mohammed & Mohamed, 2015). Classes should be taught by qualified teachers who understand the unique challenges faced by incarcerated individuals; moreover, course materials should be tailored specifically for this population in order for them to gain maximum benefit (Benecchi, 2021).


It is clear from various criminological, psychological and sociological studies, specifically over the last 20 years, that providing inmates with access to vocational and educational programs can have a significant impact on reducing recidivism rates. As research continues, it is hoped that further progress will be made toward creating fruitful strategies for helping those who have been incarcerated successfully transition back into society. With sufficient support from policymakers, human services agencies and legal system leaders, meaningful reductions in recidivism can be accomplished by enabling inmate rehabilitation and empowering the formerly incarcerated to be triumphant.


Arya D, Connolly C, Yeoman B. Black and minority ethnic groups and forensic mental health. BJPsych Open. 2021 Jun 18;7(Suppl 1):S123. doi: 10.1192/bjo.2021.357. PMCID: PMC8770055.

Benecchi, L. (2021, August 8). Recidivism imprisons American progress. Harvard Political Review. Retrieved January 2, 2023, from

Incarceration. Incarceration - Healthy People 2030. (n.d.).,50%20percent%20are%20incarcerated%20again.

Lockwood, S. K., Nally, J. M., & Ho, T. (2016). Race, education, employment, and recidivism among offenders in the United States: An exploration of complex issues in the Indianapolis metropolitan area. International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences, 11(1).

Mohammed, H., & Mohamed, W. A. W. (2015). Reducing recidivism rates through vocational education and training. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 204, 272-276.

Nally, J. M., Lockwood, S., Ho, T., & Knutson, K. (2014). Post-release recidivism and employment among different types of released offenders: A 5-year follow-up study in the United States. International Journal of Criminal Justice    Sciences, 9(1), 16.

Prison conditions. Equal Justice Initiative. (2021, March 10). Retrieved January 2, 2023, from,reforms%20that%20protect%20incarcerated%20people.

Valentine, E. J., & Redcross, C. (2015). Transitional jobs after release from prison: Effects on employment and recidivism. IZA Journal of Labor Policy, 4(1), 1-17.

Zweig, J., Yahner, J., & Redcross, C. (2010). Recidivism effects of the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) Program vary by former prisoners’ risk of reoffending. New York: MDRC, 922.

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