High Security High School

Inmates Need Secondary Education

Secondary education for inmates is crucial because so many haven’t completed high school. Although some prisoners earn their GED in jail, 40% of prisoners still don’t have a GED or high school diploma. Prisoners with GEDs benefit both themselves and society.

Teaching varies from institution to institution, with differing amounts of class instruction, tutoring, and personal study.

For the most part, secondary education is limited to preparing for the GED, and teachers vary by institution. However, some administrators are working to improve educational services.

Most Prisoners Don’t Have a High School Diploma

Far fewer prisoners have graduated high school than the general adult population (Harlow, 2003).  The reasons why youth don’t graduate and why they commit crimes are largely the same:

  • A lack of parental support and supervision
  • Living in impoverished urban neighborhoods
  • Peer pressure, including gang membership
  • Mental illness or behavioral problems

Check out the infographic to learn how many inmates in state, local, and federal prisons failed to complete high school and how many prisoners don’t have a high school diploma or GED.

Secondary Education in Prisons

Providing secondary education is the main educational focus within American prisons. But slightly fewer state prisons offered that option from 2000 to 2005.

The number of prisoners pursuing their GED varies. In 1997, 23% of state and federal inmates and only 9% of local jail inmates were participating, while 36% of state prisoners without a GED or high school diploma participated in secondary education during their current incarceration (Harlow, 2003).

The GED Test

The GED test is designed for individuals not enrolled in high school. The test assesses academic skills and knowledge expected of high school graduates and is considered equivalent to a high school diploma.

Examinations focus on math, language arts, reading, writing, science, and social studies.  While the math, reading, and writing components require significant study and mastery, the science and social study tests essentially measure comprehension and analysis of short passages, diagrams, maps, or graphs, requiring little if any prior learning of the subjects.

The Prison School Experience

Secondary education is a very different experience in prison. There isn’t the luxury of years of full school days to acquire a comprehensive education. Classes may only be for an hour or two a day, and perhaps not every day of the working week.  The focus is simply on preparing for the GED test.

Teaching varies from institution to institution, with differing amounts of class instruction, tutoring, and personal study.  Certified staff teachers, uncertified staff members, or other inmates tutor prisoners.  While inmate tutors are supposed to act as teachers’ aides, they are often the only teachers. With around 73,000 college graduates within the prison system, these inmate tutors can be more highly qualified and more effective than staff, or they can be lazy, disinterested, and incompetent.

Raising the Bar

Some administrators see education as just another component of the prison machinery. Others understand its potential to change lives and strive to improve their educational services.

New York has often researched to understand its inmate’s educational needs. Ohio increased funding for prison education by 7.4% between 2009 and 2012, when national spending fell by 6% (Holloway & Moke, 1986; Ross, 2004).  Ohio increased its inmate participation rate in educational programs by over 11%.  Ohio’s recidivism rate is one-third below the national average (Holloway & Moke, 1986).

Texas established its own prison school district, the Windham School District (Tracy & Johnson, 1994).  The Florida Department of Corrections established its Online Campus in 2012, in partnership with Smart Horizons Career Online Education, creating the first online high school within a correctional facility (Yahoo Finance, 2014).  It is now being expanded to seven institutions across Florida.

Only 55% of local jails offer secondary education, and just 9% of inmates participate (Harlow, 2003).  Inmates are typically held for a short and stressful time while awaiting bail, or conviction and designation to a state or federal prison, but some serve short sentences. Jail budgets are also limited.

Yet, some local sheriffs know education can turn people away from crime. At Catoosa County Detention Center in Georgia, Sheriff Gary Sisk collaborated with the County Sheriff’s Department, Georgia Northwestern Technical College, and Catoosa Citizens for Literacy to provide a GED teacher and laptop computers for the detention center along with the inmate’s testing fees (The Chattanoogan, 2014).  At Coconino County Jail in Arizona, Sheriff Bill Pribil appointed an educational coordinator to establish effective GED and vocational training courses (Betz, 2014).

A Win-Win Solution

The quality of secondary education available to inmates is often random, dependent on their state, their prison, and their class. Yet the benefits are obvious.  Earning a GED reduces an inmate’s likelihood of finding himself back behind bars, increases his chances of obtaining employment, and can even increase his earnings.  This makes our communities safer and saves taxpayer money.


Betz, E. (2014, March 12). Coconino County Jail inmates to hit the books. The Arizona Daily Sun. Retrieved 9/19/2014 from http://azdailysun.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/coconino-county-jail-inmates-to-hit-the-books/article_3a3fc4c4-a9aa-11e3-b3ae-001a4bcf887a.html.

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

Holloway, J., & Moke, P. (1986, May 14). Post-secondary correctional education: An evaluation of parolee performance. Unpublished manuscript. Wilmington College, Ohio.

Ross, J. (2004). Education from the inside out: The multiple benefits of college programs in prisons. Correctional Association of New York. Unpublished report.

Stephen, J. J. (2008). Census of state and federal correctional facilities, 2005. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Prisoner Statistics Program. NCJ 222182.

The Chattanoogan. (2014, March 12). A partnership in education gives Catoosa County inmates a new chance. The Chattanoogan. Retrieved on 9/19/2014 from http://www.chattanoogan.com/2014/3/12/271586/A-Partnership-In-Education-Gives.aspx.

Tracy, C., & Johnson, C. (1994). Three-year outcome study of the relationship between participation in Windham School System programs and reduced levels of recidivism. Texas Department of Criminal Justice. TR 94-001.

Yahoo Finance (2014, March 14). Online high school diploma gains traction in Florida Department of Corrections facilities across the state.