How Prison Education Impacts Inmate Outlook

Inmate students report increased self-confidence and raised self-esteem. They are calmer, and their presence leads to a safer prison environment.

Inmates who participate in educational programs develop an improved outlook, increased self-esteem, and confidence to set goals. Prison education also has a positive effect on behavior, with prisoners often becoming role models for others.

The Hidden Benefits of Prison Education

There is clear evidence that prison education has a significant impact on the future lives of prisoners. Education reduces recidivism, improves employment rates, and increases wages. As we have reviewed at, these benefits must be exploited to the fullest.

Other positive effects are less studied. Inmate students report increased self-confidence and raised self-esteem. They are calmer, and their presence leads to a safer prison environment. Prisoners often develop greater maturity and are able to set goals and plan for a brighter future.

Prison Education Raises Inmates’ Confidence and Self-Esteem

A study for the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center examined some of these benefits (Winterfield, Coggeshall, Burke-Storer, Correa, & Tidd, 2009).  They looked specifically at post-secondary education programs.  The inmates surveyed said education brought many benefits, including:

  • A realization they can complete something worthwhile.
  • Discovering they are more intelligent than they had previously given themselves credit for.
  • Having renewed confidence.
  • Having a new ability to set goals and plan for the future.
  • Pride in being the first in the family to graduate from college.
  • Feeling able to set a good example in their communities.

(Winterfield et al., 2009)

The researchers also asked prison and teaching staff about the benefits of education for inmates. Their observations included:

  • Improved self-image and pride.
  • Fewer issues with misconduct amongst students.
  • A safer prison environment overall.
  • Improved employment prospects.
  • A sense that prison time goes by faster.
  • An interest in continuing further education.
  • Students serve as role models and can become tutors and mentors.

(Winterfield et al., 2009)

Educating the Way to a Safer Prison Environment

Facilities offering higher education have proven to run more smoothly and with less violence than institutions without educational programs.

The student’s behavior changes first. In Texas, 147 inmates had 115 disciplinary infractions in the three months before they enrolled in vocational training programs.  After they began the programs, they had only 13 rule infractions between them, an almost 90% decrease (Lahm, 2009).

Higher education improves cognitive function and helps reduce anti-social attitudes and behaviors associated with criminal behavior.  Many prisoners have said education helped them disengage from a prison mentality and instead create positive goals and a meaningful life direction.

These changed attitudes, and behaviors have a positive effect on the wider prison population.  Educated inmates tend to be a stabilizing influence, acting as role models and enhancing the safety and security of everyone.

A Place to Escape and to Grow

Classrooms or workshops are rare places in the prison, removed from the noise, politics, and hostility. People can interact on a more human level, let their guard down, and show a little bit of their true selves.

As Daniel Lawrence of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections noted, “Correctional education programs are one of the few experiences and places within any prison where the basic reality of prison can, even temporarily, be overcome.  The classroom becomes . . . a refuge, a sanctuary from the realities of prison where the geniality between teachers and students can prevail.”

In this environment, inmates can study and work on their character and their future.  The English essayist Joseph Addison said, “What a sculptor is to a block of marble, education is to a human soul.”  It is in the interest of all of us that prisoners should be given every opportunity to improve themselves.


Addison, J. (1711, November 6). “Education draws out virtue and perfection.” The Spectator. p. 32.

Lahm, K. (2009). Educational participation and inmate misconduct. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 48(1), 37-52.

Lawrence, D. (1994). “Inmate students: Where do they fit in?” Oklahoma Department of Corrections. Oklahoma City, The Consortium.

Winterfield, L., Coggeshall, M., Burke-Storer, M., Correa, V., & Tidd, S. (2009). The effects of post-secondary correctional education: Final report. Urban Institute, Justice Policy Center. Washington, DC.