By: Francis P. Koster, Ed.D.
America has the highest rates of imprisonment of any of the advanced societies in the world, with one out of every 100 of our adult citizens behind bars at any one time. [i] This is a higher ratio than Russia, and China!
The numbers are even more startling when you add in the number of offenders who are parole or probation - which results in a jaw dropping total of 1 in 31 adults under some form of correctional supervision at any one time. [ii]
Across the United States, the average cost of maintaining a person behind bars is around $29,000 per year.
Now consider this: unlike other countries, roughly 40% of people who spend time behind bars in the United States return there within 3 years[v] - often because once an "ex-con" they become unemployable - and their options to make a living are largely illegal. Whatever disregard for normal rules of behavior which led them to their first offense may still exist, but now they have the added burden of having limited ways to make an income.
If we imprison a large portion of our population, and as a consequence of their offense they become unemployable, we increase the risk of future crime, and the risk of higher taxes to pay for their repeat confinement. We need to break the cycle, or it will break us.
Only about half of the inmates are confined because of violent or sexual crimes, and these tend to have the highest rate of recidivism.[vi] The rest, with higher chances of staying clean, may be trainable in ways that benefit them, and the larger society. Remember - all prisoners except those with life sentences get out , and are back in our neighborhoods - unemployable, and in many cases surrounded by the same circumstances that had them in trouble in the first place. If we face that fact squarely, we must ask the question "what could we do to lower the recidivism rate of prisoners?" Fortunately, the answers are being discovered.
One of the emerging strategies is to train incarcerated people in a trade or skill which they can practice in an entrepreneurial way either self employed or in very small (often family owned) business, where they are well known, and have watchful family eyes on them.
In Florida, one successful program teaches inmates how to keep bees. Nineteen inmates were trained by a national expert in hive management. During their 6 week training program, over 600 pounds of honey were produced for use in the prison kitchen. The program is run in conjunction with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which in this state which produces a significant part of the nation’s citrus crop and has much to worry about as the native bee population is declining. They report that graduating, soon to be released bee keepers have industry officials wanting to interview them for employment. The waiting list among the prisoners to get into the program is long - and growing.
As my colleague Jon Kennedy discovered while researching this subject for a longer story for TheOptimisticFuturist.org, while most people with this kind of life history would usually have a difficult time finding work, CCSC graduates enjoy an 85% employment rate, and a 6 month job retention rate of 86%. And during their training program they prepare 5000 meals for other social service programs each week!
Since June of 1998, CCSC has graduated over 640 people and has an 85 percent placement rate. Graduates have been placed in local restaurants, country clubs, retirement centers and institutional food establishments.
Compared to the cost of keeping a person behind bars, the cost of such training is quite small - and the fiscal conservatives among us will delight in the rate of financial return.
Our nation is facing many challenges - including little discussed problems like declining bee populations to pollinate our crops, and prisoners who commit repeat offenses. But, with bureaucratic and social courage, facing the facts squarely, and selecting the right inmates, we can spread a little honey around, while lowering our taxes, and making our society safer. Almost the sting out of a bad situation.