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How Much Does It Cost To Rehabilitate a Prisoner?

The cost of incarceration in the United States is staggeringly high. Billions of dollars are spent each year to house over 2 million people in state and federal prisons and local jails. While incarceration aims to punish criminal behavior, it does little to address the root causes of crime or prevent future offenses.

Many policymakers and criminal justice reform advocates argue that investing in rehabilitation and reentry programs could both lower recidivism rates and reduce the financial burden of mass incarceration. But how much would it really cost to provide effective rehabilitation services to the incarcerated population?

The Goals and Challenges of Prisoner Rehabilitation

The primary goals of rehabilitation programs for prisoners are to:

  • Address mental health issues, substance use disorders, and trauma
  • Provide educational and vocational training
  • Develop life and social skills
  • Connect individuals to employment, healthcare, and housing resources upon release

However, there are many challenges to achieving these goals in the prison environment:

Overcrowding and Understaffing

With limited space and staff, prisons struggle to provide adequate programming and services to the incarcerated. Group sizes end up being too large for effective treatment.

Lack of Proper Diagnosis and Consistent Programming

Inmates have high rates of mental illness, addiction, and trauma. But prison staff often lacks proper training to diagnose and develop customized treatment plans. Programming can start and stop abruptly due to transfers between facilities.

Negative Prison Culture and Violence

The prison environment itself can be traumatic and unsafe, undermining rehabilitation efforts. Some prisons have pervasive gang activity and violence.

Insufficient Post-Release Support

Even excellent rehabilitation programming in prison will have limited success if individuals do not receive support services once released back into the community.

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Key Components of Effective Prison Rehabilitation

While challenges exist, Correctional experts point to several key components of meaningful rehabilitation programs in prisons:

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Treatment

Prisons must have funding for licensed mental health professionals, addiction specialists, and medications to treat psychiatric and substance use disorders. Individual and group counseling should be available.

Education and Vocational Training

Academic and vocational education gives incarcerated individuals skills for employment after release. Postsecondary education programs have been especially effective.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT helps prisoners change anti-social thinking patterns and develop problem-solving skills. It can lower recidivism substantially, especially when combined with vocational training.

Release Reentry Planning

Connecting prisoners to healthcare, housing, employment, and social services before release is crucial for successful reentry. Continuity of services and community supervision helps sustain progress.

Breakdown of Costs for Comprehensive Prison Rehabilitation

Providing the full spectrum of rehabilitation programming in prisons would certainly come at a monetary cost. But just how expensive is comprehensive rehabilitation? An analysis shows:

Mental Health and Addiction Treatment

Appropriate mental health staffing and medications could cost up to $2,000 per prisoner per year. Group and individual treatment would require hiring more psychiatrists, psychologists, and nurses.

Education and Vocational Training

Academic and vocational education with qualified instructors could cost over $1,500 per inmate per year. Vocational equipment and supplies would require additional upfront investments.

Release Reentry Services

Assisting prisoners with healthcare enrollment, housing, job placement, and other services pre- and post-release may cost around $750 per person. Additional staff would coordinate reentry plans.

Fixed Costs

Extra prison space and facilities for programming would also be necessary. Construction costs are around $50,000 per prison bed. Upgrades to existing spaces could be $5,000-15,000 per bed.

In total, comprehensive rehabilitation costs for each incarcerated person could exceed $5,000 per year. With over 2 million incarcerated, the nationwide price tag would be over $10 billion annually. This is in addition to current prison operational costs.

Long-Term Return on Investment of Prisoner Rehabilitation

While $10 billion or more per year is undoubtedly a hefty price tag, the long-term benefits could outweigh the upfront costs of effective prisoner rehabilitation programs:

  • Lower recidivism rates – Educational and CBT programs have been shown to reduce reincarceration rates significantly, saving future imprisonment costs.
  • Improved mental health – Treating psychiatric disorders improves wellbeing and functioning for prisoners and the communities they return to.
  • Increased employment – Vocational training leads to higher employment rates and income for ex-prisoners, boosting economic productivity and tax revenues.
  • Reduced crime – Rehabilitated ex-prisoners are less likely to commit new crimes. This directly lowers societal costs associated with crime.
  • Improved family outcomes – Successfully reintegrated parents are better positioned to support the health and economic outcomes of their children.

While more research is needed, some estimates indicate that every $1 spent on prison education programs yields a return of $4-5 in lower reincarceration costs and crime reduction. Significant upfront investment is justified by the long-term economic and social benefits of effective rehabilitation programs.

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Examples of Prisoner Rehabilitation Programs and Costs

Below are a few examples of actual rehabilitation initiatives in prisons and their price tags:

Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative

  • Cost: $15 million per year
  • Program Details: Vocational education, substance abuse treatment, and employment assistance pre- and post-release. Saw a 19% reduction in return to prison.

Minnesota Correctional Facility – Stillwater

  • Cost: $1.5 million per year
  • Program Details: Integrated cognitive behavioral therapy, mental health treatment, and vocational programs. Reduced recidivism by 17%.

Federal Bureau of Prisons Rehabilitation Pilot

  • Cost: $36 million over 6 years
  • Program Details: Education, CBT, vocational training, and reentry services. 16% lower re-arrest rate for participants.

Key Facts on U.S. Prisoner Rehabilitation Costs

  • Over 10% of prison inmates participate in educational programs. Less than 6% receive vocational training.
  • Psychiatric medication costs for prisoners averaged $234 per person in 2014.
  • A RAND analysis found adult prison education programs returned over $4 in benefits per $1 in costs from reduced recidivism.
  • A Vera Institute study calculated that providing effective reentry services to all exiting state prisoners would cost an additional $2 billion nationwide.

Table of Notable U.S. Prisoner Rehabilitation Programs and Outcomes

ProgramLocationDetailsOutcome
EMAGES Substance Abuse ProgramILCognitive behavioral therapy for drug offenders36% reduction in reincarceration
Drug Treatment Alternative to PrisonNYMandatory substance abuse treatmentReturn to custody rate 13% lower
Prison to Employment ConnectionOHVocational training and job placement servicesIncreased 1-year employment by 38%
Henry Vill College Prison ProgramIL57 associate degree tracks27% lower recidivism rate
Federal Post Release Employment PilotMultipleVocational training and job assistance pre-releaseIncreased 5th quarter employment by 10%
Washington State Correctional IndustriesWAPrison labor and job trainingReduced recidivism by 7%
Guiding Rage Into Power (GRIP)CACognitive-behavioral techniques for violence prevention36 month violent recidivism rate 62% lower

Quotes on Prisoner Rehabilitation From Corrections Leaders:

“It’s so much better that we educate them, to reduce the recidivism rate and the enormous financial burden and problem it is for society. Through education, we can help one person at a time turn their life around.” Catherine J. Jones, Corrections Educator

“There are some who question the wisdom of providing any rehabilitation services under these circumstances…but the plain fact is that, as a rule, all inmates will return to the community, and in the interests of public safety alone it is better for them to participate in meaningful programs that may help them adopt law-abiding behavior when they get out.” Martin F. Horn, Corrections Commissioner of New York City

“Simply punishing the broken only breaks us all. We have to believe that redemption is possible and rehabilitation is worth our time and energy if we are going to call ourselves a compassionate, Christian nation.” Bryan Stevenson, Equal Justice Initiative Founder

“The prisoner reentry movement fundamentally seeks to address the revolving door characterizing incarceration in America. We send more people to prison proportionately than any other nation. And they get out. Ninety-five percent of inmates get out…If we don’t educate them while they’re there, that’s sending poorly educated people back to communities.” Jeremy Travis, President of John Jay College of Criminal Justice

Frequently Asked Questions About Rehabilitating Prisoners

Does rehabilitation actually help prisoners?

Yes, high-quality rehabilitation programs have been proven to improve outcomes for prisoners after release. Education, vocational training, mental healthcare, addiction treatment, and cognitive-behavioral therapy have all been shown to reduce recidivism rates through multiple rigorous studies. Rehabilitation helps prisoners develop life skills and address issues that often contribute to criminal behaviors.

What happens if we don’t rehabilitate prisoners?

Without rehabilitation, most prisoners will be released back to their communities ill-equipped to build productive, law-abiding lives. Untreated mental health and addiction issues could worsen. The likelihood of returning to criminal activities for income and shelter increases dramatically. Lack of rehabilitation leads to higher recidivism rates, more future incarceration costs, and preventable crime.

Does everyone support spending more money on prisoner rehabilitation?

No, rehabilitation remains a politicized topic. Some policymakers and citizens feel that money should be prioritized for prevention programs, policing, or incarceration itself rather than “rewarding” prisoners with services. But many leaders across political parties now embrace the strong evidence showing rehabilitation’s benefits and cost savings. Public opinion increasingly favors rehabilitation.

What are some prisoner rehabilitation programs that have worked well?

Vocational education focusing on in-demand job skills consistently shows excellent results. Post-secondary academic programs have above-average recidivism reduction. Individual and group cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is highly effective, especially when paired with job training. Studies also show medication-assisted treatment for opioid disorders in prisons helps prevent fatal overdoses after release.

How much would full rehabilitation for every U.S. prisoner cost?

Experts estimate that providing comprehensive evidence-based rehabilitation services (mental healthcare, different types of therapy, academic and vocational education, release planning) for all incarcerated individuals would likely cost between $10-15 billion per year nationwide on top of existing prison operational budgets. While very expensive upfront, studies show the long-term benefits could justify the costs.

Conclusion

While the U.S. spends over $80 billion on incarceration annually, little funding is devoted to prisoner rehabilitation. With 95% of inmates eventually released, the lack of rehabilitation drives high recidivism rates. Investing in rehabilitation through mental healthcare, vocational training, treatment programs, and education can change lives and lower future societal costs.

But providing meaningful rehabilitation to over 2 million incarcerated people carries a steep price tag of potentially $10 to $15 billion or more per year by most estimates. The substantial upfront costs to taxpayers face continued political and budgetary obstacles. But recombinant analyses show impressive potential returns on investment over the long-term through lower future incarceration and crime costs.

With strong evidence demonstrating rehabilitation’s benefits, policymakers must increasingly weigh if the high yet possibly worthwhile budgetary impact of prioritizing prisoner rehabilitation today could pay dividends down the road through safer, more just communities in the future.

Prison Inside Team

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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