Prisoners Know Education Is Important

Most prison inmates know the importance of education, want to participate in correctional education programs, and are motivated students. Prisoners want to build a better future, and education is often a positive experience. Despite the demand for prison education, there isn’t enough availability.

Inmate Students Are Highly Motivated and Want to Succeed

A stereotype of prisoners is that they are lazy, lying, cheating bunch looking for the next scam, but prisoners are a mixed bunch. Some prisoners do fit that stereotype, but many made bad decisions. They want to rebuild their lives and earn the skills and qualifications needed to succeed once they are released.

Prison can be a very negative environment. The education and vocational training areas are usually the best (and sometimes only) places to retreat from the depressing realities of prison.  As such, students tend to be highly motivated.

Inspirations to Study

Researchers organized focus groups of inmates enrolled in post-secondary education and asked what drew them to those programs (Winterfield, Coggeshall, Burke-Storer, Correa, & Tidd, 2009).  The most common reasons given were desires to:

  • Open and operate a business.
  • Get a better job than manual labor.
  • Acquire a higher level of education and skills.
  • Strengthen chances of success after release.
  • Make something positive out of the negative prison experience.
  • Participate in an affordable program.
  • (Winterfield et al., 2009)

General surveys of prisoners prove virtually all inmates see education as important.  One researcher discovered 94% of inmates said they wanted to be educated.  Click on the infographic to discover how prisoners rated education above essential needs.

Indiana offers an incentive program where inmates earn credits towards 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.

From 2008-2009, inmates who completed their programs were credited with a total of 1.3 million days, and the Department of Corrections saved $68 million in averted prison costs (Steurer, Linton, Nally, & Lockwood, 2010).

The federal prison system and many states “motivate” inmates to get their GED through the punishment of failure.  Secondary education classes are mandatory for prisoners without a high school diploma or GED. Inmates without their GED typically cannot advance in their prison jobs, are kept on basic pay (perhaps $5 per month or less), and cannot take vocational training or adult education classes (Bureau of Prisons, 2005).  It is not surprising students do not feel motivated by such policies.

A Self-Selected, Highly Motivated, and Capable Group

Except for GED classes, prison education programs are largely voluntary, so participants are typically motivated and behaved. Programs usually have less capacity than demand, so only the most persistent are accepted.

Charles Bland Burt, who taught in both universities and in New York state prisons, noted, “I found the inmates to be receptive and eager to learn, intelligent and protective of their program.  Except for the very brightest students in universities generally, they were equal to and much better motivated.”

There is a willing, eager, and capable audience in prison for high-quality education. Inmates are not being force-fed unwanted education. The demand is far from being satisfied.  Given the benefits of prison education, more should be done to meet that demand.


Bureau of Prisons Program Statement No. 5380.08 (2005, August 15) — Inmate financial responsibility program. Federal Bureau of Prisons, U.S. Department of Justice.

Burt, C. L. (2014, March 12). Prison education benefits everyone. The Buffalo News, Letter to the Editor.” 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.

Travis, J. (2011, February). Rethinking prison education in the era of mass incarceration. Paper presented at the Conference on Higher Education in Prisons. John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.

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.