Investments in prison job training will lower the cost of Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis

Stable employment is the single biggest factor in determining whether Oklahomans released from prison are likely to re-offend. Unfortunately, the unemployment rate for justice-involved Oklahomans is five times higher than the statewide average. Workforce training in prisons is one of the most cost-effective ways to improve public safety. The past ten years of budget cuts and disinvestment from prisons and rehabilitation programs mean that this mechanism for lowering crime has been critically underfunded.

Now Oklahoma’s budget realities have started to improve, and the state has an estimated additional $544 million to appropriate this year. Lawmakers should invest some of this growth revenue in more career training for inmates. These investments would build on the success of public-private partnerships which already provide some inmates with training for high demand jobs, and in turn, inmates with valuable career skills would be less likely to end up back inside Oklahoma’s costly and overcrowded prisons.      

Cuts to prison job training harm rehabilitation

If more inmates are trained for better-paying jobs in high demand industries, then more Oklahoma inmates would successfully return to their communities after being released. This is why lowering the state budget for this training has been so harmful.

The Department of Corrections partners with a number of vocational and workforce development schools in Oklahoma. Part of the Corrections budget and some of the state’s general appropriations are allocated to these schools.

Oklahoma Career Tech is one of the largest of these providers of job training for inmates in Oklahoma. The school offers training at 12 sites and has 35 programs in prisons across the state. However, budget constraints have dramatically reduced the impact of these programs.  The entire Oklahoma Career Tech budget has declined 28 percent in the past decade, and this has been particularly detrimental to their prison workforce training programs.

In fiscal year 2016, their Skills Centers School System program for inmates served 1,353 full-time students and 355 short-term students. The next year the agency faced a 10 percent reduction of staff and was unable to fund 70 requested new classes. This means that hundreds of inmates who could be trained for high-demand jobs aren’t able to receive that training because of budget cuts.

Oklahoma Career Tech has requested a 14.8 percent increase in its total budget for next year, and part of that new funding would go towards prison training to add 12 new programs inside state correctional facilities that would serve 500 to 600 more inmates. Expanding access to prison workforce education will reduce recidivism and, ultimately, the cost to taxpayers.

Investing in prison job training helps keep Oklahoma families together  

Incarcerated parents are significantly more likely to lose their parental rights than parents without justice involvement. These custody determinations often have little to do with a child’s well-being. Mothers and fathers who have a child placed in foster care because they are incarcerated — but who have not been accused of child abuse, neglect, endangerment, or even drug or alcohol use — are more likely to have their parental rights terminated than those who physically or sexually assault their kids, according to a Marshall Project analysis of approximately 3 million child-welfare cases nationally.

Parents being separated from children produces trauma for those kids. Children with incarcerated parents are six times more likely to end up in prison themselves. Studies show that stable employment increases the likelihood of a justice-involved family staying together. Employment decreases the likelihood of re-offense, it decreases the likelihood that justice-involved parents will lose their housing and it lowers the chances that the children of incarcerated parents will ultimately end up in prison themselves. These outcomes improve dramatically for justice-involved parents with the skills for higher wage jobs.

Better pay has a proven positive effect on mental and physical health and the overall well-being of a family. This is why improving the budget for prison workforce training is so important. Training for high demand technical and vocational skills offers families life-changing economic opportunities. Programs like The Last Mile, which has a pilot program training women in computer coding at Mabel Bassett Correctional facility, are a template for improving the economic well-being for Oklahomans.

Even traditional vocational training programs offered in prisons can have a profound impact. One of the Career Skills programs at Lexington Prison trains eligible inmates to become journeymen, a high demand electrician position with a starting average pay of $25 an hour. Expanding these types of high wage, high demand job training programs would increase the likelihood that justice-involved families in Oklahoma stay together.

Job training in prison can lower the cost of incarceration long-term

Practicing high demand skills like electrical repairs and plumbing while in prison can reduce facility costs and provide job training for inmates. The Department of Corrections requested about $32 million for “critical” facility maintenance in prisons. While these investments are vital to a functioning prison system, job training programs can help defer some of those costs and give inmates an opportunity to practice their trade.

The Career Tech program at Lexington prison trains inmates to become journeymen. These licensed journeyman practice their skills at Department of Corrections facilities across the state. This program saves the Department of Corrections thousands of dollars annually, according to Greg Dewald, the Superintendent of Career Tech Skills Centers.

[pullquote]There is no evidence that investments in prison beds significantly lower crime. However, work has a remarkable effect on recidivism.[/pullquote]

Lower recidivism rates also mean lower prison costs over time. As Oklahoma’s prison bed cost has increased investments in rehabilitation programs like job training for inmates has steadily declined. There is no evidence that investments in prison beds significantly lower crime. However, work has a remarkable effect on recidivism. Investing in the human capital of Oklahoma inmates means a smaller percentage of them will return to prison and those cost savings will help produce a more efficient justice system over time. 

Job training for the incarcerated lowers crime and improves communities

Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and despite recent reforms, our prisons are still projected to grow more than 14 percent over the next decade. This growth is projected to cost Oklahoma nearly a billion dollars. Workforce training is one of the most proven and cost-effective ways to reduce re-incarceration. Lawmakers should invest in the human capital of those in prison. These budget investments will reduce the cost of incarceration and empower these Oklahomans to return to their families with the skills to improve their communities and ultimately to improve our state.


Damion served as the criminal justice policy analyst for the Oklahoma Policy Institute from July 2018 until June 2022. He grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and has lived in Oklahoma since the late 90s. Prior to joining OK Policy, he was an educator at Jenks Public Schools and the Oklahoma School for the Performing Arts. He’s written education and justice features as a contributing writer for the Tulsa Voice since 2016, and he was awarded best Education and General News Reporting features by the Society for Professional Journalists in 2017. Damion earned a Bachelor’s Degree from Oral Roberts University and started several voter registration and political advocacy initiatives during his time on campus. He lives in Tulsa with his wife Rachel.

4 thoughts on “Investments in prison job training will lower the cost of Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis

  1. Great, informational article. Do you know of any re-entry program to get involved with as a volunteer. Also, Could you do an article about released prisoners and their voting rights?

  2. I like where you are going with this. I hope to further investigate how we can change the lives of offenders through job security, prosperity instead of negative reinforcement and punishment.

    1. I believe that my case CF-2016-448 is up for reform. But I’m not sure how to go through with the process.

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