Formal education sets path to remain out of prison

Preventing prisoners from returning to jail can be greatly helped by inmates completing VET education and training studies during their incarceration.

New research that supports this claim comes as Australia’s prisoner population is growing rapidly, with increases of 40% over the past five years. Virtually all these prisoners will be reintroduced to the community at some stage, so it is of vital importance to best prepare these individuals for reintroduction to society and to remain out of custody.

Finding employment for ex-prisoners after release is a key to prevent recidivism, and so encouragement for prisoners to complete education programs while in prison became the focus of this study. It found that successful VET study completers were 2.5 times more likely to remain custody-free at two years after release from prison (a probability of almost 60%) – and 2.1 times at five years after release (a probability of more than 78%).

“Our results suggest that VET and education exerted a positive impact on recidivism, enhancing the capacity of both male and female prisoners to remain custody free post-release,” says David Bright, Associate Professor in Criminology at Flinders University’s Centre of Crime Policy and Research and one of the research study’s co-authors.

The study of almost 11,000 prisoners released from custody in four Australian states between 2010-2011 represents the first broad Australian study of vocational education outcomes for ex-prisoners, as most research in this area has so far been conducted in the US.

The Australian study showed that completing studies in prison was most effective for low-risk offenders. However, numbers were not as effective for high-risk male prisoners – and the researchers believe this should warrant a new course of action.

“Corrections agencies should consider calibrating VET for high-risk men,” says Associate Professor Bright. “Such training may need to be more intensive and perhaps more comprehensive to match the higher risk and needs profiles of these prisoners.”

In contrast, higher proportions of high-risk female prisoners benefitted from completing studies in prison. However, the researchers noted that there has so far been a lack of focused research on recidivist outcomes for female prisoners, despite women continuing to enter prison at a faster rate than males.

On the back of this research, Associate Professor Bright says the aim should be to encourage the development of improved and more specifically focused vocational education and training in prison. He believes such training should connect more cleanly with employment in the community upon release.

The researchers noted that it was not possible in the current study to investigate post-release employment outcomes of the ex-prisoners and therefore it is unclear whether the learning interventions assisted ex-prisoners to gain employment post-release – but the results certainly support more uptake of VET education and training for prisoners.

“VET should be more comprehensive, include enhanced outreach of services, and target individual needs of prisoners to increase the likelihood of remaining offence free post custody,” says Associate Professor Bright.

The research paper “Australian prison vocational education and training and returns to custody among male and female ex-prisoners: A cross-jurisdictional study,” by Jesse Cale, Andrew Day, Sharon Casey, David Bright, Jo Wodak, Margaret Giles and Eileen Baldry, has been published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology (DOI: 10.1177/0004865818779418).

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