Prison education

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Prison education, also known as Inmate Education and Correctional Education, is a broad term that encompasses any number of educational activities occurring inside a prison. These educational activities include both vocational training and academic education. The goal of such activities is to prepare the prisoner for success outside of prison and to enhance the rehabilitative aspects of prison.

Educational programs offered inside prisons are typically provided and managed by the prison systems in which they reside. Funding for the programs are provided through official correctional department budgets, private organizations (e.g. colleges, nonprofits, etc.), and the prisoners or their families, if the prisoner is pursuing education through a correspondence program. Educational opportunities can be divided into two general categories: academic education and vocational training.

Academic education[edit]

Academic education usually is provided in the form of GED or literacy classes [1]. These free classes assist the prisoner in learning to read, write, and perform basic mathematical computations. This is especially important in a correctional setting because, compared to the general population, prisoners are an under-educated group – who maintain less than 5th grade proficiency in reading and writing [2] – coming from a culture of poverty, with few skills for handling everyday tasks, and little or no experience in a trade or career [3]. Hence, many require significant remedial help before they can attend more advanced educational classes [4]. The goal of these classes is to prepare the prisoner to take the official GED tests – the official high school diploma equivalent – and to hopefully further their education with more advanced studies. Other free basic forms of academic education, which are on the level of the GED courses or below, include English-as-a-Second Language classes and special education classes. Depending on the facility, one, none, or both will be offered.

After the student earns a GED, they are then usually offered the opportunity to further their education through in-prison programs. This continued education is coined Adult Continuing Education in the federal prison system and is also free to participants. These are courses which are led by inmate-instructors and encompass any number of topics. For example, at FCI-Petersburg, the Education Department offers Writing and Publishing, Personal Finance, Spanish, Basic Math, Legal Basics, and more.

Past this basic level of academic education is college education. While the most effective way to offer advanced college-level programs in prisons is to partner with local colleges and universities who are willing to send in teachers [5], this rarely happens because of funding and staffing concerns. Hence, the prisoners' best bet, in terms of an advanced academic education, is to enroll in college correspondence courses. These are courses from legitimate colleges which are delivered in a correspondence format. These courses are not free to the prisoner. The prisoner must find a way to pay for the courses up-front (e.g. through their own means or through family members or other organizations). College correspondence courses usually cost several hundred dollars apiece.

Congress revoked this source of funding for post-secondary education some two decades ago in 1994 when it passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (VCCLEA). A provision of this Act overturned a section of the Higher Education Act of 1965, which created the Pell Grant for postsecondary education. The provision reads, “No basic grant shall be awarded under this subpart to any individual who is incarcerated in any Federal or State penal institution.” There is growing advocacy for reinstating Pell Grant funding for all prisoners who would qualify, despite their incarceration status. Perhaps the most prominent statement has come from Congresswoman Donna F. Edwards along with several other members of the House of Representatives who introduced the Restoring Education and Learning Act (REAL Act) in the spring of 2015. At the executive level, the Obama Administration is backing a program under development at the Department of Education that would allow for a limited lifting of the ban for some prisoners called the Second Chance Pell Pilot. [1]

Vocational training[edit]

Vocational training, on the other hand, offers more opportunities in the prison setting. Much of what is offered will depend upon the local prison's programming. For example, at FCI-Petersburg, inmates have the option to learn Computer Aided Design, Carpentry, and a number of other vocations via "live work" employments (e.g. plumbing, electricity, landscaping). All of these are free to the prisoner-participants.

Outside of the prison setting, the prisoner can usually enroll in vocational correspondence education. These include legal studies, mediation, religious studies, and much more. All costs and fees are the responsibility of the individual prisoner and usually run from several hundred dollars per course to several thousand per program of study. Vocational training via correspondence is almost exclusively less expensive than correspondence academic education.


The United States, with an incarcerated population of 2.3 million, has the largest prison population of any country in the world.[6] The US spends approximately $52 billion on corrections each year, with the cost of providing a college degree to an incarcerated student at $2,000 to $3,782 compared to $32,000 to $40,000 per year to incarcerate the same individual.[11]. Each dollar spent on funding prison education programs reduces incarceration costs by $4 to $5 during the first three years after an individual is released, the period when those leaving prison are most likely to return.[2]

An American study found "One million dollars spent on correctional education prevents about 600 crimes, while that same money invested in incarceration prevents 350 crimes. Correctional education is almost twice as cost-effective as a crime control policy" [14].

Reductions in recidivism[edit]

Recent research on prison education programs presents discouraging statistics on the current recidivism rate. The Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) reported in 2011 that nearly 7 in 10 people who had been incarcerated will commit a new crime, and half will end up back in prison within three years. Given that about 95 out of every 100 incarcerated people eventually rejoin society, it is crucial that we develop programs and tools to effectively reduce recidivism. [3] Not only is it important to develop programs in prison that are educational but if recidivism is a goal then there also needs to be support programs in the community to support the reentry population where they can either continue their education or get assistance in finding a sustainable job[4] .

Skeptics claim that, in many cases, prison education produces nothing more than "better educated criminals".[5] However, many studies have shown significant decreases in recidivism. "The more educational programs successfully completed for each six months confined the lower the recidivism rate" according to Harer (1994), in his Federal Bureau of Prisons Office of Research & Evaluation report[27]. [6]

Personal development[edit]

To those afforded the opportunity to further their education, it "may be the first glimmer of hope that [they] can escape the cycles of poverty and violence that have dominated their lives" [24]. Pursuing an education can also undo some of the damage accrued during their stay in prison; it can awaken senses numbed and release creativity that is both therapeutic and rehabilitative [25].

With good skills and an education, released prisoners have a better chance at moving on with their lives despite their criminal record. 75% of college-educated ex-prisoners are able to find stable employment [26]. Employment helps ex-prisoners stay out of prison, despite the formidable obstacles, including the social stigma of being an ex-con and state laws that bar them from professions requiring licensure. They will be dealing with these obstacles for the rest of their lives.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ SpearIt (2016-01-06). "Keeping It REAL: Why Congress Must Act to Restore Pell Grant Funding for Prisoners". Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network. 
  2. ^ Bidwell, Allie. "Prison Education Programs Could Save Money". Retrieved 28 January 2014. 
  3. ^ Grygiel, Jennifer. "Why Prison Education?". Retrieved 27 January 2014. 
  4. ^ Linden, R., & Perry, L. (1983). The effectiveness of prison education programs. Journal of Offender Counseling Services Rehabilitation6(4), 43-57.
  5. ^ D:\ASAWEB~1\PSCF\1986\PSCF3-86Bergman.htm
  6. ^ SpearIt (2016-01-06). "Keeping It REAL: Why Congress Must Act to Restore Pell Grant Funding for Prisoners". Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network. 

_____ 1-Gerald G. Gaes, "The Impact of Prison Education Programs on Post-Release Outcomes," Reentry Roundtable on Education (2008)

2-Brazzell, Crayton, Lindahl, Mukamal, and Solomon, "From the Classroom to the Community: Exploring the Role of Education During Incarceration and Re-entry," The Urban Institute, Justice Policy Center, John Jay College of Criminal Justice (2009)

3-Gaes, op. cit.

4-In New Mexico, the corrections department reported that 10% scored at or below the third-grade level, 32% tested at or below the sixth-grade levels in reading and math, only 50% had a high-school diploma, and fewer than 20 prisoners (.003%) had some college-level education [Gerald G. Gaes, "The Impact of Prison Education Programs on Post-Release Outcomes," Reentry Roundtable on Education (2008)].

5-W. Erisman and J. B. Contardo, "Learning to Reduce Recidivism: A 50-State Analysis of Postsecondary Correctional Education Policy," The Institute for Higher Education Policy (2005) 6-"The Effect of Prison Education Programs on Recidivism," The Journal of Correctional Education (Dec 2010) pp. 316–334

7-Pew Center on the States, "State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America's Prisons," The Pew Charitable Trusts (April 2011) p. 1

8-Pew Center on the States, "Prison Count 2010: State Population Declines for the First Time in 38 Years," The Pew Charitable Trusts (April 2010) p. 5

9-Pew Center on the States (April 2011) p. 1, op. cit.

10-J. Garmon, "Higher Education for Prisoners Will Lower Rates for Taxpayers," Black Issues in Higher Education (Jan. 17, 2002)

11-National Association of State Budget Officers, "2009 State Expenditure Report," National Association of State Budget Officers (December 2010)

12-K. Mentor, JD, PhD, "College Courses in Prison," draft of submission to the Encyclopedia of Corrections, M. Bosworth, Ed.

13-Erisman and Contardo, op. cit.

14-Audrey Bozos and Jessica Hausman, "Correctional Education as a Crime Control Program," UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research, Department of Policy Studies (March 2004) p. 2

15-Pew Center on the States (April 2011) p. 2, op. cit.

16-Patrick A. Langan and David J. Levin, "Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994," U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (2002)

17-"The Effect of Prison Education Programs on Recidivism," op. cit.

18-L.O. Burke and J.E. Vivian, "The Effect of College Programming on Recidivism Rates at the Hampden County House of Correction: A 5-Year Study," Journal of Correctional Education, Vol. 52, No. 5 (2001) pp. 160–162

19-Harer, M.D., "Recidivism Among Federal Prisoners Released in 1987," Journal of Correctional Education, Vol. 46, No. 3 (1995) pp. 98–128

20-E.R. Haulard, "Adult Education: A Must for Our Incarcerated Population," Journal of Correctional Education, Vol. 52, No. 4 (2001) pp. 157–159

21-F.J. Porporino and D. Robinson, "Can Educating Adult Offenders Counteract Recidivism?" Correctional Services of Canada, Research Branch (1992)

22-T.A. Ryan, "Literacy Training and Reintegration of Offenders," Journal of Correctional Education, Vol. 3, No. 1 (1991) pp. 1–13

23-"The Effect of Prison Education Programs on Recidivism," op. cit. 24-Erisman and Contardo, op. cit.

25-J. Piche, "Barriers to Knowledge Inside: Education in Prisons and Education on Prisons," Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, Vol. 17, No. 1 (2008) p. 10

26-Erisman and Contardo, op. cit.

27- Harer, Miles (1994). Recidivism Among Federal Prisoners Released in 1987. Federal Bureau of Prisons Office of Research & Evaluation.