What is Prison Education and Why Should We Care?

What is Prison Education and Why Should We Care?


Prison education, also known as Inmate Education and Correctional Education, is a very broad term that encompasses any number of educational activities occurring inside a prison. These educational activities include both vocational training and academic education. The goal of such activities is to prepare the prisoner for success outside of prison and to enhance the rehabilitative aspects of prison.
Educational programs offered inside prisons are typically provided and managed by the prison systems in which they reside. Funding for the programs is provided through official correctional department budgets, private organizations (e.g. colleges, nonprofits, etc.), and the prisoners or their families, if the prisoner is pursuing education through a correspondence program.
Educational opportunities can be divided into two general categories: academic education and vocational training.

Academic Education

Academic education usually is provided in the form of GED or literacy classes [1]. These free classes assist the prisoner in learning to read, write, and perform basic mathematical computations. This is especially important in a correctional setting because, compared to the general population, prisoners are an under-educated group – who maintain less than 5th-grade proficiency in reading and writing [2] – coming from a culture of poverty, with few skills for handling everyday tasks, and little or no experience in a trade or career [3]. Hence, many require significant remedial help before they can attend more advanced educational classes [4]. The goal of these classes is to prepare the prisoner to take the official GED tests – the official high school diploma equivalent – and to hopefully further their education with more advanced studies.
Other free basic forms of academic education, which are on the level of the GED courses or below, include English-as-a-Second Language classes and special education classes. Depending on the facility, one, none, or both will be offered.
After the student earns a GED, they are then usually offered the opportunity to further their education through in-prison programs. This continued education is coined Adult Continuing Education in the federal prison system and is also free to participants. These are courses that are led by inmate-instructors and encompass any number of topics. For example, here at FCI-Petersburg, we offer Writing and Publishing, Personal Finance, Spanish, Basic Math, Legal Basics, and more. (Full Disclosure: I am the Writing and Publishing instructor.)
Past this basic level of academic education is a college education. While the most effective way to offer advanced college-level programs in prisons is to partner with local colleges and universities who are willing to send in teachers [5], this rarely happens because of funding and staffing concerns. Hence, the prisoners’ best bet, in terms of advanced academic education, is to enroll in college correspondence courses. These are courses from legitimate colleges (e.g. I’m enrolled with Ohio University) which are delivered in a correspondence format. These courses are not free to the prisoner. The prisoner must find a way to pay for the courses up-front (e.g. through their own means or through family members or other organizations). College correspondence courses usually cost several hundred dollars apiece.

Vocational Training

Vocational training, on the other hand, offers more opportunities in the prison setting. Much of what is offered will depend upon the local prison’s programming. Here at FCI-Petersburg, we have the option to learn Computer-Aided Design, Carpentry, and a number of other vocations via “live-work” employments (e.g. plumbing, electricity, landscaping). All of these are free to the prisoner-participants.
Outside of the prison setting, the prisoner can usually enroll in vocational correspondence education. These include legal studies, mediation, religious studies, and much more. All costs and fees are the responsibility of the individual prisoner and usually run from several hundred dollars per course to several thousand per program of study. Vocational training via correspondence is almost exclusively less expensive than correspondence academic education.

Numbers and Costs

The United States has the largest prison population – by far – of any country in the world. With an incarcerated population of 2.3 million and growing steadily every year, our nation, which represents 5% of the world’s population, houses 25% of the incarcerated population of the entire world [6]. This equals 1 in every 100 American adults in prison and 1 in every 31 American adults in prison or on probation or parole [7].
According to the Pew report, “Between 1973 and 2009, the nation’s prison population grew by 705 percent…” [8]. In the last two decades alone, “State spending on corrections quadrupled…” [9]. This alarming growth translates into spending $30.1 billion each year to build more prison facilities to house the bulging prison populace [10]. Another study notes that over the past two decades, state and federal spending on corrections increased 305% to a total of about $52 billion each year [11]. While these numbers fluctuate slightly based upon their methodology and time-frame, any of them should be considered a complete failure in American corrections.
Furthermore, it costs $2,000 to $3,782 to provide a college education to an incarcerated student, compared to $32,000 to $40,000 per year to incarcerate the same individual. This shows that it costs ten times less to prevent crime through education than to imprison offenders [12][13]. While these numbers are astronomical, another study found “One million dollars spent on correctional education prevents about 600 crimes, while that same money invested in incarceration prevents 350 crimes. Correctional education is almost twice as cost-effective as a crime control policy” [14]. If only the American public would open their minds, they would see that educating prisoners is in their fiscal best interest.

Reductions in Recidivism

As of March of 2011, the Pew Center on the States reported that the three-year recidivism rate for released prisoners, on average, is 43.3% [15]. In another highly-regarded study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the recidivism rate was reported to be 51.8% per three-year period following release [16]. This means that 43.3%-51.8% of prisoners, on a national scale, will be rearrested and re-incarcerated within three years of release. This is in direct contrast with those who received an education while behind bars [17][18][19][20][21][22].
Prisoners that attain an AA degree recidivate at a rate of 13.7%, while those with a Bachelor’s degree recidivate at a rate of 5.6% and those with a Master’s degree recidivate at a rate of 0% [23]! With such monumental reductions in recidivism – through comparatively inexpensive means – college-level education becomes the common sense answer to the cost of corrections and our nation’s astronomical recidivism rate.

Personal Development

Perhaps the strongest argument for educating prisoners is in the change that may occur in prisoners who receive an education. To those afforded the opportunity to further their education, it “may be the first glimmer of hope that [they] can escape the cycles of poverty and violence that have dominated their lives” [24]. Pursuing an education can also undo some of the damage accrued during their stay in prison; it can awaken senses numbed and release the creativity that is both therapeutic and rehabilitative [25].
My personal experience, being a federal prisoner and a researcher, is that by obtaining an education my world has expanded geometrically. My mind is no longer limited by a lack of knowledge. And even my goals and ideals have modified. I perceive my formal education, most of which has taken place inside prison, as a form of re-socialization or even anticipatory socialization. Education molded me into the man that I am today. And although I still reside in federal prison, I believe I have been enlightened to the point where I am no longer a slave to the criminal mindset.
With good skills and education – solid vocational training at the very least or, even better, an advanced degree – released -prisoners can overcome a prison record. In fact – and this is the good news – 75% of college-educated ex-prisoners are able to surmount the stigma of their criminal record to find stable employment [26]. This is a big step in the direction of getting out of prison and staying out. It is also a step towards making amends to society through law-abiding citizenship, productive work, and paying taxes.


Prison education is a controversial topic. On one side of the issue are the feelings of the American public, feelings which question why a prisoner should receive an education while they have to pay for their kids’ education and their own. On the other side is hard scientific evidence. It is a proven fact that education reduces recidivism. This has been thoroughly cited throughout this paper. In the end, the American people will have to make a decision: continue to pay for the increasing number of prisoners through more taxes and reduced funding for other social institutions or educate the nation’s prisoners to reduce recidivism rates.
1-Gerald G. Gaes, “The Impact of Prison Education Programs on Post-Release Outcomes,” Reentry Roundtable on Education (2008)
2-Brazzell, Crayton, Lindahl, Mukamal, and Solomon, “From the Classroom to the Community: Exploring the Role of Education During Incarceration and Re-entry,” The Urban Institute, Justice Policy Center, John Jay College of Criminal Justice (2009)
3-Gaes, op. cit.
4-In New Mexico, the corrections department reported that 10% scored at or below the third-grade level, 32% tested at or below the sixth-grade levels in reading and math, only 50% had a high-school diploma, and fewer than 20 prisoners (.003%) had some college-level education [Gerald G. Gaes, “The Impact of Prison Education Programs on Post-Release Outcomes,” Reentry Roundtable on Education (2008)].
5-W. Erisman and J. B. Contardo, “Learning to Reduce Recidivism: A 50-State Analysis of Postsecondary Correctional Education Policy,” The Institute for Higher Education Policy (2005)
6-“The Effect of Prison Education Programs on Recidivism,” The Journal of Correctional Education (Dec 2010) pp. 316-334
7-Pew Center on the States, “State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons,” The Pew Charitable Trusts (April 2011) p. 1
8-Pew Center on the States, “Prison Count 2010: State Population Declines for the First Time in 38 Years,” The Pew Charitable Trusts (April 2010) p. 5
9-Pew Center on the States (April 2011) p. 1, op. cit.
10-J. Garmon, “Higher Education for Prisoners Will Lower Rates for Taxpayers,” Black Issues in Higher Education (Jan. 17, 2002)
11-National Association of State Budget Officers, “2009 State Expenditure Report,” National Association of State Budget Officers (December 2010)
12-K. Mentor, JD, Ph.D., “College Courses in Prison,” draft of submission to the Encyclopedia of Corrections, M. Bosworth, Ed.
13-Erisman and Contardo, op. cit.
14-Audrey Bozos and Jessica Hausman, “Correctional Education as a Crime Control Program,” UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research, Department of Policy Studies (March 2004) p. 2
15-Pew Center on the States (April 2011) p. 2, op. cit.
16-Patrick A. Langan and David J. Levin, “Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994,” U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (2002)
17-“The Effect of Prison Education Programs on Recidivism,” op. cit.
18-L.O. Burke and J.E. Vivian, “The Effect of College Programming on Recidivism Rates at the Hampden County House of Correction: A 5-Year Study,” Journal of Correctional Education, Vol. 52, No. 5 (2001) pp. 160-162
19-Harer, M.D., “Recidivism Among Federal Prisoners Released in 1987,” Journal of Correctional Education, Vol. 46, No. 3 (1995) pp. 98-128
20-E.R. Haulard, “Adult Education: A Must for Our Incarcerated Population,” Journal of Correctional Education, Vol. 52, No. 4 (2001) pp. 157-159
21-F.J. Porporino and D. Robinson, “Can Educating Adult Offenders Counteract Recidivism?” Correctional Services of Canada, Research Branch (1992)
22-T.A. Ryan, “Literacy Training and Reintegration of Offenders,” Journal of Correctional Education, Vol. 3, No. 1 (1991) pp. 1-13
23-“The Effect of Prison Education Programs on Recidivism,” op. cit.
24-Erisman and Contardo, op. cit.
25-J. Piche, “Barriers to Knowledge Inside: Education in Prisons and Education on Prisons,” Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, Vol. 17, No. 1 (2008) p. 10
26-Erisman and Contardo, op. cit.