Prison Education for Ethnic Minority Inmates

Ethnic minorities are overrepresented in American prison populations, especially African-Americans and Hispanic Americans, who make up more than 60% of the prison population. A lack of education is part of the problem, and in private and public prisons, access to education varies. Ethnic minority prisoners should acquire as many skills and qualifications as possible before being released.

A Disproportionate Reality: Race in American Corrections

The influence of ethnicity pervades America’s criminal justice system, and prison education is no different.

More people from ethnic minority groups are in prison than Caucasians. Click on the infographic to see the incarceration rates.

The difference is significant for 30 to 34-year-old black males, who have an incarceration rate of 6,932 per 100,000 (Carson & Golinelli, 2013).

The Sentencing Project estimates that black men spend 20% longer in prison than their Caucasian peers for the same crimes (Kansal, 2005). Young black males have a recidivism rate of more than 70%, almost double that of the prison population (Spycher, Shkodriani, & Lee, 2012). Although African-Americans make up 12% of the U.S. population, they comprise more than 40% of the prison population.

Ethnic Minorities Tend to Have Lower Educational Attainment

Many African-American boys drop out of school, often due to growing up in deprived neighborhoods, with less-than-ideal schools, and peer pressure to rebel. Consider the statistics below of black male high school dropouts:

  • For 18 to 25-year-olds: 27% are employed, and 23% are in prison.
  • For 26 to 30-year-olds: 30% are employed, and 34% are in prison (Coley & Barton, 2006).

Statistics are equally sobering for African-American males taking higher education. There are more black men aged 17 to 34 in prisons, jails, halfway houses, and on parole, probation, and supervision than there are in all colleges and universities combined. In 2009, 264, 515 black American men were released from prison compared to 155,499 who completed some sort of post-secondary education (Spycher et al., 2012).

Hispanic Americans also make up a chunk of the prison population. While only 8% of America’s population, Hispanic Americans comprise about 22% of the prison population. They usually receive less education than black Americans (Glaze & Parks, 2012).

A Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of state prisons examined how many Hispanic, African-American, and Caucasian inmates had a high school diploma, GED, or grade eight education or less. The results are below:

Inmates with a high school diploma or GED

  • 40% of Hispanic Americans
  • 46% of African-Americans
  • 58% of Caucasians

Inmates with a grade eight education or less

  • 11% of Caucasians
  • 12% of African-Americans
  • 28% of Hispanic Americans

Citation: Harlow, 2003

Equal Opportunities in Public Prisons, But Not in Private Prisons

Once in the public prison, inmates seem to have equitable access to education, with ethnicity not as big a factor. Look at the statistics of a study below:

Inmates in state prisons who participated in basic or secondary education

  • 21% of Caucasians
  • 29% of African-Americans
  • 30% of Hispanic Americans

Inmates in state prisons who participated in vocational training

  • 29% of Hispanic Americans
  • 32% of Caucasians
  • 34% of African Americans

Inmates in state prisons who participated in college-level education

  • 7% of Hispanic Americans
  • 9% of African-Americans
  • 12% of Caucasians

About 6% of Hispanic inmates took classes in English-as-a-Second Language (Harlow, 2003).

Private prisons tend to have fewer educational opportunities than state or federal prisons. Private facilities also have a disproportionate number of non-Caucasian prisoners. Click on the infographic to discover how private prisons and public prisons compare in providing education. Click on the infographic to discover the statistics of private prisons in Oklahoma and Texas.

It’s a Tough World for Minority Jobseekers

Reducing access of ethnic minority inmates to education is the last thing our society needs. Minority groups need every advantage to compete for jobs.

Pager conducted a study of around 200 Milwaukee employers. Four groups of men applied for a variety of jobs to see who would be offered a job. The groups were similar in education and work experience, except for being black or Caucasian, and the offender or non-offender. Caucasian offenders were offered jobs 14% of the time versus 34% for non-offenders. For black job seekers, only 14% of non-offenders were offered jobs, and just 5% of offenders (Pager, 2003). It is crucial for black offenders to amass as many skills and qualifications as possible while in prison to offset prejudice when seeking employment.

Two researchers found inmates who participated in prison education earned more money when released (Tyler and Kling, 2007). They showed ethnic minority offenders who earned a GED could earn an average of $800 more per year for the first two years out of prison. The amount was less if they had taken classes but not passed the exams. Caucasian offenders didn’t see an increase in income.

Because there are so many inmates from ethnic minorities in prison, their educational needs must be carefully considered. The difficulties they face in finding employment after prison underlines the importance of acquiring as many skills and qualifications as possible before their release.

The Potential for Community Growth and Betterment

One in three African-American men will spend time in prison during their lifetime, as will one in seven Hispanic-American men. Now is the time to make interventions, which can change the lives of these men and their communities.


Carson, E. A., & Golinelli, D. (2013). Prisoners in 2012, Trends in admissions and releases, 1991-2012. Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice. NCJ 243920.

Coley, R. J., & Barton, P. E. (2006, February). Locked up and locked out: An educational perspective on the U.S. prison population. Educational Testing Service. Princeton, New Jersey.

Glaze, L. E., & Parks, E. (2012). Correctional populations in the United States, 2010. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. NCJ 239972.

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

Hunt, J. (2014, March 6). Black, brown inmates herded into private prisons. Frost Illustrated. Retrieved 9/19/2014.

Kansal, T. (2005). Racial disparity in sentencing: A review of the literature. The Sentencing Project. Retrieved 9/19/2014.

Pager, D. (2003). The mark of a criminal record. American Journal of Sociology, 108(5), 937-975.

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.

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