The Current State of Education in Prisons: An attempt at a synopsis (Final paper, Part III)

Here’s another attempt at summarizing an incredibly nuanced issue – education in the prison system. I tackle the problem of generalization in my first sentence, and I hope that I maintain that cautiousness throughout this brief synopsis.  I have highlighted some of my main inquiries throughout the section.

The final questions resulting from this investigation include: why aren’t more prisoners interested in educational opportunities?  What can the system do to entice them? What part does education play in rehabilitation? (Is “rehabilitation” even the right word to use?) What other factors affect recidivism and can education play a part in mitigating those factors?

The Current State of Education in Prisons

Like the public school system in the United States, the prison education system is diverse – not only in student population, but in facility offerings. There are a variety of educational programs offered and curriculums employed, so it is impossible to ascertain a complete understanding of the current state of education in our prisons. In 2000, 89% of federal, state, & private correctional facilities provided education programs of some sort (Coley & Barton, 2006). There is a noted difference between vocational training offered in state prisons (56%) and federal prisons (94%) (Greenberg, Dunleavy, & Kutner, 2007, p.50). To illustrate the range of programs, one ex-inmate, Alan Mobley (2003), described the educational opportunities available at the different federal facilities he was transferred to during his sentence. At the first facility, the local community college offered associate’s degree classes; the next had no college courses, but he was able to take a single correspondence course; and the last facility in Denver offered a full array of college courses. It was here that he was able to earn both his bachelor’s in economics and his master’s in sociology (p.217). Yet, while Mobley was ready to begin a postsecondary degree while in prison, only 43 percent of inmates in 2003 had a high school diploma or GED (Greenberg et al., 2007, p.48). In addition to differences among facilities, every state provides different incentives (or not) for participating in educational programs, including early release. Indiana’s adult basic education and GED courses are voluntary (Coley & Barton, 2006, p.17).

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, participation in correctional education programs (including basic education, GED/high school, college courses, and vocational) has declined in both state and federal prisons from 1997 to 2004 (Crayton & Neusteter, 2008). It is not clear whether this is due to an increasing population attempting to utilize a static number of programs, or if it is a decrease in inmate interest. Both explanations may have resulted from another factor – a lack of resources due to the limited money available to facilities for educational programs, particularly post-secondary ones. According to Coley and Barton (2006), “before 1998, the federal government required states to spend no less than 10 percent of their Basic State Grant for Adult Education in state institutions, including correctional institutions; the law now requires them to spend no more than 10 percent” (emphasis in text, p.17). Other slashes in funding for prison education resulted from the Clinton administration’s “tough on crime” policies of the 1990s, including cutting Pell grant funding to the incarcerated, which caused the majority of post-secondary education programs in prisons to dissolve (Coley & Barton, 2006, p.17). The National Assessment of Adult Literacy survey of prisoners (2007) can provide further insight. Their survey, completed by 1,200 prisoners, showed that only 10% of the inmates were currently enrolled in vocational training – programs “designed to prepare prison inmates for work after their release from prison” (p.50), and only 14 percent were on a waiting list for that training. 

Though funding has been sparse, studies have shown a correlation between participating in educational programs and reduced recidivism. According to an oft-cited rigorous research study from Steurer and Smith (2003), that utilized a quasi-experimental design (a random sample was not possible) analysis of three states’ educational programs, this correlation exists. The study also showed that for every year of the study’s post-release follow-up the wages of educational program participants were higher than their non-participant cohort counterparts (p.14). In other words, in addition to returning to prison at a lower rate, educational program participants were also more likely to gain higher paying jobs at reentry into society. Vacca (2004) performed a brief review of the literature detailing studies that demonstrated this same correlation.

Looking specifically at the costs incurred by prisons, Drake, Aos, & Miller (2009) performed a cost-benefit analysis of all programs offered by the state of Washington. The study found that both vocational education and general education (basic education or postsecondary) programs had significant cost savings per inmate (p.184). If education is successful in reducing recidivism, which in turn can decrease costs and prevent the building of more prisons, why is it not the highlight of recent reform measures?

Thus, we need to consider the nature of the education programs, as well as additional factors that contribute to recidivism rates. While educational programs have been shown to decrease recidivism rates, they are not completely alleviating the problem of recidivism that leads to increasing prison populations. For example, while one study showed that only 25% of inmates returned to prison after receiving vocational training in prison as opposed to the 77% general prison population’s recidivism rate, there are still a quarter of participants returning to prison (Vacca, 2004, p.298).  What about these prisoners who go through education programs and still recidivate? What about those who are not compelled to participate in education programs or who drop out of prison education programs?

Through my research of the literature, I sought to consider the inmates’ point of view on educational programs in prisons as a way to inform how programs could be improved. As ex-inmate, now assistant professor of criminal justice, Charles M. Terry (2003) states: “most statistical and theoretical research presented and quoted in journals, books, and classes has little to do with the real-life situations of human beings” (p.110). The following pages will seek to incorporate the real-life situations of those in prison education programs.


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