Importance and Availability of Vocational Training in Prisons

Vocational training or educational programs that teach inmates useful skills while in prison are crucial to employment, but availability varies.

Vocational training is the most common higher education in prisons. However, access is limited, and inmates must often have a high school diploma or GED and a history of good behavior. Vocational training could have a more significant impact if more inmates could access it and if it focused on in-demand skills.

Obtaining Employment upon Release Is Critical

Employment is critical in keeping released offenders out of prison. Up to 89% of those who return to prison are unemployed (Kimmitt, 2011). Vocational training is one of the most critical educational and rehabilitative programs that prisons can provide. Training gives inmates the skills for a trade or industry and a chance to earn a good wage.

Less Than a Third of Inmates Receive Vocational Training

There is not enough capacity to meet the needs of the prison population.  In many prisons, inmates must have a high school diploma or GED to take part, yet 40% of prisoners have neither (Harlow, 2003).  Inmates with disciplinary infractions may be barred.

In 2000, 94% of federal prisons, 56% of state prisons, 44% of private prisons, and 7% of local jails offered vocational training. A 2003 report stated 50% of state prisons provided training (Harlow, 2003).

In 1997, 32% of state prisoners, 31% of federal inmates, and 5% of local jail inmates took vocational training during their incarceration. (Harlow, 2003). A fall to 27% of state inmates by 2008 demonstrates fewer state prisons offer training (Crayton & Neusteter, 2008).

However, vocational courses are the most common form of higher education in prisons. More than 90% of inmates earned a degree or certificate through vocational programs, and around two-thirds of inmates taking post-secondary education were enrolled in credit-earning vocational certificate programs.

Prison Industries May Offer Useful Vocational Training

Many inmates work at prison factories, making items such as textiles or office furniture, or working in food service or even farming. While inmates may gain useful experience, the point is to keep inmates busy and often raise money for their prison. Critics claim this is a wasted opportunity, and more prisoners should learn useful job skills. However, at least one study has shown inmates who worked in prison industries are less likely to return to prison (Saylor & Gaes, 1997).

Training Opportunities Vary

The amount and quality of vocational training, along with the skills taught, vary significantly from state to state and prison to prison.

North Carolina

Community colleges provide more than 90% of post-secondary education through a partnership between the Department of Corrections and the North Carolina Community College System.

Eighty-six percent of inmates complete their courses. In 2006, inmates earned more than 6,000 non-credit and 1,458 for-credit vocational certificates (Erisman & Contardo, 2005).

Washington State

Inmates can take one- and two-year vocational certificate courses or short courses like bookkeeping or building maintenance.  In 2010, 800 inmates were enrolled in vocational programs, earning 56 vocational and 27 short course certificates (Tolbert, 2009).


Milwaukee Area Technical College offers distance learning to students in Alaska, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin (Spycher, Shkodriani, & Lee, 2012).


Alabama established the J.F. Ingram State Technical College in 1965 to ensure high-quality post-secondary technical education to state inmates. It now has three campuses co-located with state prisons and offers programs at others. Funding comes from the state budget (Carsen, 2014).


The Indiana Department of Corrections designed its vocational training programs around occupations and skills in high demand but with workers in short supply.

Mountain View Prison Unit

Mountain View Prison Unit near Waco, Texas, trains female inmates to become certified braille transcribers. Inmates transcribe textbooks into braille for blind Texas students (Irby, 2013).  So far, 25 released inmates had transcribing jobs waiting for them. In the public sector, a certified braille transcriber can earn up to $100,000 a year (Howerton, 2014).

In Texas, over 2006-2007, state inmates from 31 prisons earned 1,689 vocational credit certificates in 24 different occupations (Munro, 2007).

California Prison Industry Association (CALPIA) and Folsom Women’s Facility

CALPIA is rolling out a computer-aided design (CAD) program through its Career Technical Education Division at Folsom Women’s Facility (Kane, 2014). The six-month course leads to certification in AutoCAD and Autodesk Inventor. AutoCAD-certified drafters earn an average of $54,000 a year, and the number of open positions continues to increase (A CAD designer career, 2011).

A Potent Force for Rehabilitation

Vocational training offers inmates a chance for a fresh start after prison, but programs are often generic and not widely available.  With forethought and planning, matching training to demand, and ensuring there is enough availability, vocational training could be much more beneficial than it is today.


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Carsen, D. (2014, August 27). J.T. Ingram State Technical College: A ‘life school’ for inmates struggles for funds. NPR News. Retrieved 9/19/2014 .

Crayton, A., & Neusteter, S. R. (2008, April 1). The current state of correctional education. Presented at Re-Entry Roundtable on Education. John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Prisoner Reentry Institute. New York.

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

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

Howerton, M. (2014, February 26). Unique program offers local prison inmates chance at salvation. KWTX News 10. Retrieved 9/19/2014.

Irby, B. J. (2013, Spring). The mountain view Braille facility program: An interview with Warden Melodye Nelson. Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin. 79(3). Retrieved 9/19/2014.

Kane, M. (2014, March 11). California prison industry authority launches technology training center for female offenders. CDCR Today. Retrieved 9/19/2014.

Kimmitt, S. (2011, June). The impact of community context on the risk of recidivism among parolees at one-, two-, and three-year follow-ups. Honors Thesis, Ohio State University.

Munro, J. (2007, August). Success through supervision: Annual review 2007: Mission, philosophy, and goals. Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Retrieved 9/19/2014.

Saylor, W. G., & Gaes, G. G. (1997, February). Prep: Training inmates through industrial work participation and vocational and apprenticeship instruction. Corrections Management Quarterly, 1(2), 32-43.

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.

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.