Deputy attorney general Sally Yates in her office at the Justice Department in May. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post) (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

The Justice Department’s second­-highest-ranking official Thursday said that the federal prison’s most successful education and reentry program has “dramatically” shrunk in recent years, leaving more than 10,000 inmates on a waiting list for prison jobs and educational training.

On the eve of the early release of thousands of federal inmates back to their homes, Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates said that the Bureau of Prisons vocational and educational program known as Federal Prison Industries (FPI) has been reduced to half of the size it was 10­ years ago. The program gives inmates the opportunity to build products such as furniture and electronics, while also earning money to pay court-ordered obligations.

“Inmates who participate in FPI are significantly less likely to recidivate after returning home and more likely to get a job after prison,” Yates said in a speech Thursday afternoon at Columbia Law School. “While FPI is a great recidivism-reduction program, reduced demand for its products and services has caused it to dramatically shrink over the past few years.”

About 40 percent of federal prisoners and two-thirds of those released from state prisons will re-offend within three years, she said.

Yates’s acknowledgment suggests that even as the Obama administration has called for reducing the incarceration rate, the government may not have adequate programs for helping inmates prepare for life after prison.

Inmates “are clamoring for the opportunity to develop these much-needed job skills,” and the program has a waiting list of 10,800 inmates who want to participate but can’t get in because there are not enough spots, Yates said. She also said that as far as prison literacy programs, too many inmates leave without “access to the most basic of life skills — the ability to read.”

“In the coming months, we plan to take a hard look at the Bureau of Prisons’ literacy efforts and roll out changes,” Yates said. “No one should leave the Bureau of Prisons without being able to read.”

She also said that Justice officials will try to retool the prison industry program, which has been hurt by declining demand. The decreased demand is partly because of changes in law and policy that have weakened the requirement that federal goods must be acquired from the prison program before they are bought from the private sector. The program has also been hurt by protests that inmates are paid extremely low wages for their work. Whole Foods, for example, stopped selling goat cheese and tilapia that were produced by prison inmates after an advocacy group protested that Whole Foods was supporting “exploitation.”

Yates, a longtime prosecutor and the former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, said that her Atlanta office started a reentry program to match recently released ex-offenders with service providers. Each inmate had to fill out a form indicating the assistance they needed, including housing, substance abuse treatment and employment. She could not figure out why they were getting so few forms back.

“Then I discovered that it was because some of the former offenders couldn’t read the forms,” Yates said. “They weren’t going to raise their hands and tell us that. You can imagine what a humiliating experience that would be.”

“They weren’t able to take advantage of the assistance we wanted to provide because the educational system and then the prison system had twice already failed” them, Yates said.

Yates called for criminal justice reform, as she did in her testimony in support of sentencing reform legislation in the Senate last week.

“As the deputy attorney general, I oversee day-to-day operations for the Justice Department,” Yates said. “I see all sides of our criminal justice system, and I can tell you confidently: The status quo needs to change.”

She recounted a lesson that she first learned as a prosecutor. “Our job is not to win convictions or to obtain the longest sentences possible,” she said. “Our job is . . . to seek justice in each and every case. That requires not only resolve and determination, but also empathy and a sense of proportionality.”

Yates highlighted a prisoner reentry program that she observed during a recent visit to Charleston, S.C., and that she said illustrates “a new way of thinking.” The program, Turning Leaf Project, is a collaboration of state and federal prosecutors, the courts and the city’s business community.

In addition to helping ­ex-offenders find jobs, the program offers them cognitive behavioral therapy, helps them focus on thinking differently and tries to help them control their criminal impulses and make better decisions, Yates said.

She told the story of one ­ex-offender — she called him “Bobby” — who had spent his life in and out of prison. The last time he was arrested, he was given a choice to go back to prison for a long time or successfully complete the Turning Leaf Program. He chose the program.

“They not only nurtured Bobby, but they demanded more of him than had ever been expected in the past,” Yates said. “They helped him better understand the dangerous choices he had made, and with their help, Bobby found a job with a company willing to hire program participants.”

“ ‘I have spent a lifetime putting people in prison,’ ” Yates said, quoting an e-mail from an assistant U.S. attorney who supervises the program. “ ‘This is what we are trained to do. But we have something now that we haven’t really had before: an openness to trying new things in a holistic way. Teaching a prisoner to change his thinking so as to change behavior.’ ”

“ ‘Done right, it can change the whole criminal justice system,’ ” she said.