The GED and Corrections
Kenneth W. Mentor
University of North Carolina Wilmington
The General Educational Development (GED) Exam assesses skills and general knowledge that are acquired through a four-year high school education. The exam changes periodically, most recently in January 2002, in an effort to keep up with knowledge and skills needed in our society. The exam covers math, science, social studies, reading, and writing. All of the test items are multiple choice except for a section in the writing exam that requires GED candidates to write an essay. The complete exam takes just under eight hours to complete and is typically broken down into several sections that can be taken over time.
Research that assesses the value of the GED examines employment and the likelihood of continuing with formal education after earning the GED. Scholars have also examined whether the GED is equivalent to a high school diploma. Past research indicates that employees with a GED are not the labor market equivalents of regular high school graduates. Those who leave school with very low skills benefit from obtaining a GED. However, this advantage is lessened for those who have obtained other employment-related skills. The message gained from much of the research is that it is best to remain in school. While the GED has value, it should not be seen as a replacement for four years of high school.
The GED and Corrections
There has been little research examining the impact of obtaining a GED in corrections settings. The majority of studies indicate that earning GED while in prison reduces the likelihood of returning to prison. However, some researchers have criticized the methodology used in studies that focus on recidivism since it may be argued that those who choose, or are chosen, for corrections education programs benefit most from the experience since they have already indicated a willingness to “stay out of trouble.” Arguably, these are the people who will benefit most from any efforts to increase their chances of success. It may be difficult to blame corrections education programs that focus on those most likely to benefit from the program.
Another problem regarding an effort to demonstrate the value of a prison GED, in comparison to a high school diploma or GED earned in a traditional setting, is related to the complexity of factors that surround an individual in the labor market. It is possible that the impact of earning a GED in prison is not great enough to overcome the negative effect incarceration can have on employment opportunities. Employers may be reluctant to hire someone who has served time in prison. In fact, a felony conviction can disqualify an individual for employment in some professions. Given the barriers placed before individuals who seek employment after prison, it may be difficult to demonstrate the impact of a single educational experience.
Although the employment related impacts of the GED earned corrections settings are difficult to assess, research has consistently demonstrated that corrections education can significantly reduce recidivism. A 1987 Bureau of Prisons report found that the more education an inmate received, the lower the rate of recidivism. Inmates who earned college degrees were the least likely to reenter prison. For inmates who had some high school, the rate of recidivism was 54.6 percent. For college graduates the rate dropped to 5.4 percent. Similarly, a Texas Department of Criminal Justice study found that while the state’s overall rate of recidivism was 60 percent, for holders of college associate degrees it was 13.7 percent. The recidivism rate for those with Bachelor’s degrees was 5.6 percent. The rate for those with Master’s degrees was 0 percent. The Changing Minds study, which focused on the benefits of college courses in a women’s prison, calculated that reductions in reincarceration would save approximately $900,000 per 100 student prisoners over a two-year period. If we project these savings to the 600,000 prison releases in a single year, the saving are enormous.
In addition to gains related to recidivism, prison-based education programs provide benefits related to the functioning of prisons. These programs provide incentives to inmates in a setting in which rewards are relatively limited. These classes also provide socialization opportunities with similarly motivated students and educators who serve as positive role models. Educational endeavors also keep students busy and provide intellectual stimulation in an environment that can be difficult to manage when prisoners break rules in search of an activity that breaks the monotony of prison life. Many prisons provide incentives for inmates who participate in corrections education. Opportunities to earn privileges within the facility, increased visitation, and the accumulation or loss of “good time” that can lead to earlier parole, are used to motivate the student while providing incentives for appropriate behavior within the facility.
Prison educators face many challenges. Inmates who choose to enroll in corrections-based courses are not necessarily any different from students who enroll in GED courses in other settings. The range of abilities can include very gifted students, students who face challenges, and students who have various motives for enrolling in the course. However, the educational setting is very different. Challenges faced by corrections educators are compounded by the uniqueness of prison culture and the need for security. Prisons adhere to strict routines that may not be ideal in an educational setting. In addition, inmates are often moved from one facility to another. This movement interrupts, or ends, the individual’s educational programming. These structural issues are accompanied by social factors that can further limit learning opportunities. The student may be very motivated to earn an education but he or she remains in an environment in which conflicting demands may limit the opportunity to act on that motivation. For example, other prisoners may not support the individual’s educational efforts.
Prison administrators may also have varying degrees of support for education – especially if they see education as a threat to the primary functions of security and control. GED courses may be seen as a burden to prison administrators who believe their primary goal is confinement. However, in many cases administrators are required to provide educational opportunities. At least 26 states have mandatory corrections education laws that mandate education for a certain amount of time or until a set level of achievement is reached. Enrollment in correctional education is also required in many states if the inmate is under a certain age, as specified by that state’s compulsory education law. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has also implemented a policy that requires inmates who do not have a high school diploma or a GED to participate in literacy programs for a minimum of 240 hours, or until they obtain their GED.
States typically provide corrections education funding based, in part, on success as measured by the rate of GED completion. In addition to state funding, the federal government provides support to state correctional education through the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA), which became law in 1998. However, funding often fails to keep pace with needs. Legislation over the past 20 years, a time in which the prison population has grown at unprecedented levels, has resulted in significant cuts in corrections education funding. This has resulted in the elimination of many programs. Ironically, the “get tough on crime” mentality resulted in the elimination of many programs that were effective in reducing crime.
Studies consistently indicate that an individual who benefits from education while in prison is less likely to return to prison than someone who has not had the benefits of education while in prison. There is some question as to why corrections-based education leads to lower recidivism. This is a complex process, and difficult to measure, but it appears that the ability to find and hold a job consistently functions to reduce the chance that an individual will commit crime. Individuals who increase their education also increase their opportunities. Individuals who take classes while in prison improve their chances of attaining and keeping employment after release. As a result, they are less likely to commit additional crimes that would lead to their return to prison.
The benefits of earning a GED while in prison are difficult to demonstrate. Individuals may find it difficult to obtain employment after serving time in prison. Potential employers may benefit from education regarding the realities of employing someone who has completed his or her punishment and is attempting to return to a productive life outside prison walls. It may also be time to question the belief that tougher prisons, with limited efforts to educate or otherwise rehabilitate offenders, reduce crime. The “get tough on crime” mentality has resulted in the elimination of many corrections education programs. Individuals in prison are typically burdened with many educational deficiencies. In many cases the lack of skills limited options, resulting in criminal acts. Upon release from prison, with limited education and job experience that is well below the level gained by those outside prison, it is no surprise that many individuals will head down the path that originally led them to prison.
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