SALT LAKE CITY — Utah sees a more than 13-to-1 return on investment when inmates complete vocational secondary education in prison and get a job afterward, according to a University of Utah study released for the first time this week by the state's Department of Corrections.
The study looked at spending on corrections education, the benefit to the state, and the effect of an education and post-prison employment on recidivism rates.
"It shows that we're actually doing something out here, rather than just warehousing individuals," said Lt. Vic Smith.
The report, dated October 2012, takes into account data from the Department of Corrections and the Utah State Office of Education and applies it to the 2012 Utah Benefit Cost Model.
It found the raw taxpayer cost ratio to a corrections education is 2.9, or 6.03 when tangible victim costs of crime are taken into account. Translated, Smith said, it's $6.03 of benefit for every dollar invested.
The benefit cost ratio jumps to 13.66 — or $13.66 cents for every dollar spent — when an educated ex-con finds work and the victim costs are counted, according to the study.
"The benefit far outweighs the cost," Smith said.
A prison education also appeared to have a significant impact on whether an ex-con would return to prison within 36 months of release. The report cited a 50 percent base recidivism rate, and revealed the recidivism rate dropped to 41 percent with a corrections education and 31 percent with a corrections education and employment.
It shows that we're actually doing something out here, rather than just warehousing individuals." -Lt. Vic Smith.
Effectively, the study showed an 18 percent reduction in recidivism in former inmates who completed a corrections education and 38 percent in those who also were able to get a job.
The picture wasn't always so rosy. Prison educations came under scrutiny as recently as in the past decade, when lawmakers and others questioned whether inmates should have the opportunity - as they once did - to earn up to a bachelor's degree behind bars while victims' families struggled to make it through college.
Department of Corrections spokesman Steve Gehrke said the Utah State Prison in Draper began contracting with the Davis Applied Technology College in 2010 in part to alleviate those concerns.
"It was the emphasis on the victims and making sure there's some credence given to the hard life they've got to live," Gehrke said.
The Draper prison previously had partnered with Salt Lake Community College.
Gehrke said the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison now contracts with Snow College, and Duchesne County Jail - which also houses state inmates - has a partnership with the Uintah Basin Applied Technology College.
Gehrke said approximately $1.2 million is spent annually on secondary education for prisoners. DATC officials said their contract was for a number between $800,000 and $900,000.
Gehrke said the state budget only provides $400,000 for corrections education. $700,000 to $750,000 of the money spent is generated from surcharges placed on inmate phone calls to their families.
Inmates, Gehrke said, pay for half of their education through low-interest loans. They have two years after the termination of their sentences to make payments on the loan, and the money is returned to the education fund.
DATC offers training at the prison in maintenance, machining, auto, welding, culinary arts and business technology. DATC program manager Mary Crawford said inmates can earn a full program certificate, just like they could on campus.
"I've had grown men who get their certificates and they get teary-eyed because they've never completed anything in their lives," Crawford said.
To be admitted into the vocational programs, Smith says inmates must have a high school diploma or GED, must have a certain privilege level at the prison, and are required to be "five years to the door" to be admitted into the vocational programs.
"The reasoning behind that is if we give them a skill — for instance the automotive skill — we don't want to provide them that skill in the course and then not have them parole until 2087 and the technology has already advanced beyond the scope of what they've learned," Smith said.
Disciplinary and gang histories are also reviewed. Crawford said the programs are making a difference in inmates' lives.
"If they get out of here and they have nothing, no skill, where can they start?" Crawford questioned. "Where at least now, to me they are ‘one up' — they have a certificate, they can prove themselves."
Crawford also says if ex-cons finish their programs with over 900 hours, they can turn those hours into credits at Weber State University.
DATC was also tentatively working with Utah Valley University and LDS Business College to provide similar exchanges, according to Crawford.
For Nathan Roberts, who has been in and out of prison since 1999, the vocational training has given him a reason for hope when he gets out next year.
"This is the best thing I've seen this prison do," Roberts said. "It's given me something positive in my life and I'm really proud of the stuff I've done over here."
Roberts says he had a college degree, but he needed a trade. He's been specializing in automotive work.
"It's something I've wanted to do," Roberts said. "I like doing it."
Ken Taylor, who is eyeing a December release, is realistic to the white collar job market challenges an ex-con will face. Though he has a bachelor's degree, he has studied multiple trades.
"I didn't think there was anything like this here in prison - I thought you'd go sit in your cell and kind of waste the time," Taylor said. "I've learned an incredible amount and the neat thing about this is - you can go as far as you want."
Taylor said he hoped his ability to demonstrate his training and proficiency along with his bachelor's degree would help him potentially land a supervisor's job when he is free.
It's not an unheard of feat. Program officials said one recent success story included an ex-con who is now making over $60,000 in a manager's post.
Crawford acknowledged inmates were likely to fall into entry-level jobs to start. Still, their average starting earnings have been well above the minimum wage — ranging from $12 to $18 per hour.
"The sky's the limit," Taylor said.