Funding Prison Education

Educational funding for prison inmates is inadequate and varies throughout the United States, despite the many benefits of correctional education. Budgets are relatively small and depend on state funding or private funding.  Many inmates must pay for their correspondence programs, but most prisoners can’t afford it.

Public Support for Prison Education

Considering America’s prisons are overcrowded, budgets are strained, and it’s proven that prison education reduces recidivism, funding should be a priority. Yet, it isn’t.
When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed modestly funding college education in state prisons in 2013, he was condemned. Republican state Senator Greg Ball described the proposal as “a slap in the face to hard-working New Yorkers” (Schulzke, 2014). Petitions were organized, and soon Cuomo abandoned the idea.

The Loss of Pell Grants Decimated Prison Higher Education

It was the same with the federal Pell Grants. Pell Grants, established in 1972, encouraged post-secondary education. The grants were a critical source of funding for prisoners.

From 1993-1994, Pell Grants supported the education of approximately 27,000 inmates. Funding totaled $35 million, less than 0.6% of the $6 billion awarded that year (Taylor, 2008).  The grants averaged $1,300 per inmate student.

Prisoners became ineligible for Pell Grants with the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Within weeks, nearly all of the 350 college programs for prisoners around America collapsed. (Winters, 1995).

The loss of the Pell Grants created a hole in prison education. Funding was slowly re-introduced.


Congress enacted the Workforce and Community Transition Training for Incarcerated Youth Offender Program.  The program provided limited funding for academic, vocational training, and other services. It was limited to offenders aged 25 and under, with a high school diploma or GED, and within five years of release.

In 2008, the program was renamed the Workforce and Community Transition Training for Incarcerated Individuals Program (Erisman & Contardo, 2005).

Offenders aged 35 and under could now access the program, but the budget was cut from $23 million to $17 million, and those convicted of murder and some sexual offenses were excluded.


The Second Chance Act of 2007 promotes the successful reintegration of offenders into society and includes funding for correctional education (Second Chance Act, 2008).

Despite these programs, funding for correctional education is inadequate and patchy.  Different states, prisons, colleges, and private benefactors have risen to the challenge in different ways.  Some have not risen at all.

Some States Are More Equal Than Others

According to a 2011 Institute for Higher Education Policy survey, states fell into two groups in providing correctional education: high and low-enrolling states.
Other discoveries from the survey included:

  • 13 states accounted for 86% of all higher education students in state prisons.
  • 95% of the states reported using IIP (Incarcerated Individuals Program) funding.
  • 90% of the states were challenged by financial constraints.

Click on the infographic to discover why the availability of funding is critical.

Citation: Gorgol & Sponsler, 2011.


In 1965, the Alabama legislature established the J.F. Ingram State Technical College to provide technical and vocational education to state prisoners.  The college has three campuses co-located with prisons and offers programs at other prisons.  Funding comes from the state budget (Tolbert, 2009).


Inmates can earn credits toward early release by completing education and training programs. Prisoners who earn their GED may be released six months earlier.  For an associate degree, it’s a year and two years for a bachelor’s degree.

Indiana credited 1.3 million days for the 2008-2009 academic year and saved more than $68 million in averted prison costs (Steurer, Linton, Nally, & Lockwood, 2010).


Inmates who meet residency and income requirements can use the Board of Governors’ Fee Waiver, which waives community college fees (Spycher, Shkodriani, & Lee, 2012).  California’s Public Safety and Offender Rehabilitation Services Act of 2007 required expanding rehabilitation programming, including academic education, with an appropriation of $50 million (Spycher et al., 2012).

Rhode Island

Revenue from prison industries is channeled to education (Spycher et al., 2012).

Ohio, Utah, and West Virginia

Revenue comes from inmate phone charges (Spycher et al., 2012).

The Charity of Universities and Wealthy Benefactors

Elsewhere, universities have stepped in to fill the funding gap.


Boston University established the Metropolitan College Inmate Program in 1972 to provide college education to prisoners.  The university-funded program operates in four Massachusetts prisons (Rosseau & Matesanz, n.d.). Additionally, inmates can earn good time for educational participation.

New York

The privately funded Cornell Prison Education Program was founded in the mid-1990s in response to the loss of Pell Grants.  Cornell instructors teach inmates at two New York prisons.

Robert Scott, Cornell Prison Education Program’s executive director, said every student who doesn’t return to prison funds another 12 students through savings in avoided prison costs (Laser, 2014).

The Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prisons, established in the late 1990s, brings together New York colleges such as Nyack, Mercy, and Siena.  Wealthy benefactors fund the successful program, which has a three-year recidivism rate of less than 1% for the 168 graduates released from prison (Rojas, 2012).

Washington State

Walla Walla Community College has an Associate of Arts program. It’s funded federally through the state community college system and by Doris Buffett’s Sunshine Lady Foundation.  Funding covers college faculty instruction, textbooks, and supplies (Tolbert, 2009).

Degrees by Mail, For the Wealthy

Many institutions offer post-secondary education only through correspondence courses. Even then, availability is declining as colleges and universities move to online distance learning.  Incarcerated students generally must pay for their own courses, and most can’t afford it.

The following universities provide a wide selection of correspondence courses for associate and bachelor’s degrees (although not all the universities offer degrees):

  • Adams State University
  • Louisiana State University
  • Ohio University
  • Upper Iowa University
  • Colorado State University
  • Thomas Edison State College

For 2012-2013, tuition costs and fees for a bachelor’s degree at Louisiana State University were $17,800 (Tolbert, 2009).  Associate degrees are about half this amount.  Textbooks add about another $2,000.  A typical prison wage is $30 to $40 per month.

Military Veterans

Military veterans makeup about 13% of the prison population (Harlow, 2003) and may seek educational funding from the Veterans’ Administration.  Eligibility and benefits depend on considerations such as length of service, type of discharge, and the amount the individual paid into the scheme. At best, the Veterans’ Administration will cover the full cost of tuition, fees, and textbooks.

Funding for Prison Education Helps Prisoners Wanting To Change

It makes no sense that funding is not readily available for prison education when the benefits are so clear.  Until both our lawmakers and society take a more enlightened view of inmate rehabilitation, it is likely that prisoners who crave a fresh start will be denied the educational tools to do so.


Erisman, W., & Contardo, J. B. (2005). Learning to reduce recidivism: A 50-state analysis of correctional education policy. Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Gorgol, L. E., & Sponsler, B. A. (2011). Unlocking potential: Results of a national survey of post-secondary education in state prisons. Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Harlow, C. W. (2003). Education and correctional populations. Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, U.S. Department of Justice. NCJ 195670.

Laser, M. (2014, April 29). Programs that promote positive reintegration for the incarcerated. Cornell University, Cornell Prison Education Program. Retrieved 9/19/2014.

Rojas, M. (2012, October 8). Sing Sing inmates find future lies in schooling. The Journal News. Retrieved 9/19/2014.

Rosseau, D., & Matesanz, J. (n.d.). Prison education program. Boston University, Prison Education Program. Retrieved 9/19/2014.

Second Chance Act. P.L. 110-199, s. 1, 122 Stat. 657 (2008).

Schulzke, E. (2014, February 21). New York moves to expand higher education inside prison walls. Deseret News. Retrieved 9/19/2014.

Spycher, D. M., Shkodriani, G. M., & Lee, J. B. (2012). The other pipeline: From prison to diploma. College Board Advocacy and Policy Center. Retrieved 9/19/2014.

Steurer, S. J., Linton, J., Nally, J., & Lockwood, S. (2010, August). The top-nine reasons to increase correctional education programs. Corrections Today, pp. 40-43.

Taylor, J. M. (2008). Pell Grants for Prisoners: Why should we care? Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, 17(1), 18.

Tolbert, M. (2009). Partnerships between community colleges and prisons: Providing workforce education and training to reduce recidivism. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, Office of Correctional Education.

Winters, C. A. (1995, January). Inmate opinions toward education and participation in prison education programs. Police Journal, 6(1), 39-50.