Staying Out of Prison

More than 1.5 million people occupy federal and state prison cells in the United States. All too many of them - 35 percent nationwide - serve their time only to return and serve more.

Recidivism is a perennial problem, with devastating social and personal repercussions. Anything that puts a dent in it is welcome.

A number of states have recently expanded programs that allow prisoners to work for private companies. Some Nevada inmates, for example, have rebuilt classic cars. South Carolina's inmates sew draperies and bed covers for hotels. Minnesota's produce bird feeders sold by major retailers. All together, according to a report in this month's Governing magazine, 34 states and three counties are ready to run such work projects under the federal Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program.

Studies in Florida and Ohio have shown that meaningful work experience - as opposed to breaking rocks on a chain gang - is one way to chip away at recidivism. Another is intellectual development. Prisoners who have an opportunity to study and earn degrees are more likely to stay out of trouble. A well-motivated prison librarian, like Fukiau Bunseki at Boston's Suffolk County House of Corrections, can make a significant difference.

Religious training brings results too. The March 22 Monitor examined a program run by the New York Theological Seminary to give inmates an opportunity for graduate study behind bars. The program has bestowed degrees on 200 inmates over the past 15 years, most of whom returned to their home neighborhoods to help others avoid prison.

All these efforts face obstacles. Work programs raise hackles about low-paid "prison labor." Prison libraries are typically underfunded. The seminary's program has run into the argument that prison should be for punishment, not subsidized education.

Yet every inmate who is given an opportunity to discover a more productive life lifts a burden of pain and expense from society. Rehabilitation doesn't take root easily in the grim environment of prison, but where it shows some promise of sprouting, it should be nurtured, not choked off.

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