How Prison Secondary Education Cuts Recidivism, Boosts Employment and Raises Wages

Around 40% of American prisoners lack a high school diploma or GED, but most inmates know education is important and want to earn their high school diploma or GED. Studies show educated prisoners are less likely to return to prison, have improved employment rates, and earn more money. Educating prisoners contributes to safer communities and saves money for taxpayers.

Why You Should Support Prison Education

About 926,000 American prisoners have no high school diploma or GED (Anderson, 1995). Because of that, prison educators mostly focus on secondary education geared around the GED. Yet, insufficient space, teachers, and funding mean inmates may wait months or years to be placed in classes.  Even then, the quantity and quality of teaching are inconsistent.

It’s important for prisoners to have access to secondary education. Prisoners fail to complete high school for many reasons, and most are ashamed of that and keen to earn their GED.  For many, it will be their first real achievement.  In-prison secondary school reduces recidivism and raises employment rates and wages. Educating prisoners means more offenders successfully reenter society, making communities safer and saving taxpayers’ dollars.

Educating Prisoners Reduces Recidivism

Over the years, many studies have investigated how prison secondary education affects recidivism. Researchers followed the progress of released offenders who received a GED or high school diploma in prison versus inmates who did not.

Click the infographic for studies conducted between the 1980s and 2005 in Ohio, South Carolina, New York, and Indiana prisons.

While these studies are not comprehensive, they prove completing secondary education in prison reduces the chances of prisoners going back to prison.  Scientists also used meta-analysis, a technique calculating the average effect from multiple studies.

Wilson and colleagues’ 1999 meta-analysis used data from 14 studies of adult basic and secondary prison education. The results estimate programs help reduce recidivism by 18% (Wilson, Gallagher, Coggeshall, & MacKenzie, 1999).

In 2013, the RAND Corporation released its meta-analysis results, commissioned by the Department of Justice.  Using data from 22 studies from 1980 to 2011, this is probably the best analysis of the effects of education in state prisons.  Prisoners participating in prison secondary education help reduce recidivism by 30% (Davis, Bozick, Steele, Saunders, & Miles, 2013).

Secondary Education Means Higher Employment and Wages

The National Education Association claims high school dropouts are 72% less likely to be employed than those with a high school diploma (McKeon, 2006).
Several studies show that released offenders with a prison education are more likely to have a job, but few studies explore individual effects. Holloway and Moke’s study of 317 released Ohio offenders showed those who earned a high school diploma or GED in prison were 51% more likely to have a job by the end of their first year out of prison (Holloway & Moke, 1986).

Some sources claim offenders released with no education earn 40% less than their peers do.  One study found earning a GED increased the annual wages of 6,081 non-Caucasian offenders by an average of $704 in the first year after their release and $912 in the second year (Tyler & Kling, 2007).

Inmates who complete a high school education in prison are currently 30% less likely to re-offend. Educated prisoners have higher employment rates and wages.  Prisons should ensure no inmate leaves prison without a GED or high school diploma.


Anderson, S. V. (1995). Evaluation of the impact of correctional education programs on recidivism. Office of Management Information Systems Bureau of Planning and Evaluation, Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.

Batiuk, M. E., Lahm, K. F., McKeever, M., Wilcox, N., & Wilcox, P. (2005, February). Disentangling the effects of correctional education. Criminal Justice Quarterly, 5(1), 55-75.

Clark, D. D. (1991). Analysis of return rates of the Inmate College Program participants. New York State Department of Correctional Services. Albany, New York. Unpublished report.

Davis, L. M., Bozick, R., Steele, J., Saunders, J., & Miles, J. (2013). Evaluating the effectiveness of correctional education – A meta-analysis of programs that provide education to incarcerated adults. RAND Corporation.

Holloway, J., & Moke, P. (1986). Post-secondary correctional education: An evaluation of parolee performance. Unpublished manuscript. Wilmington College, Ohio.

Institute for Higher Education Policy (2005). The investment payoff: A 50-state analysis of the public and private benefits of higher education.

McKeon, D. (2006). Research talking points on dropout statistics. National Education Association. Retrieved 9/19/2014.

Ramsey, C. (1988). The value of receiving a General Education Development certificate while incarcerated in the South Carolina Department of Corrections on the rate of recidivism. South Carolina Department of Corrections. Columbia, South Carolina.

Tyler, J. H., & Kling, J. R. (2007). Prison-based education and re-entry into the mainstream labor market. In Bushway, S., Stoll, M., Weiman, D. (Eds.). Barriers to reentry: The labor market for released prisoners in post-industrial America. Russel Sage Foundation Press, New York, pp. 227-256.

Wilson, D. B., Gallagher, C. A., Coggeshall, M. B., & MacKenzie, D. L. (1999). A quantitative review and description of corrections-based education, vocation, and work programs. Corrections Management Quarterly, 3(4), 8-18.