Kenneth W. Mentor
University of North Carolina Wilmington
Although prison populations have grown at unprecedented levels over the last 30 years, legislation has resulted in significant cuts in correctional education funding. The debate over correctional education often focuses on the fairness of providing benefits for prisoners. On one side, opponents ask “why should prisoners get a free education? I have to pay for school and I am a law abiding citizen.” The other side of the debate reminds us that “these people are eventually going to get out. Don’t you want them to have skills that can help them stay out of trouble?”
While evidence supports those who argue for the importance of correctional education, crime related legislation is often influenced by the “get tough on crime” mentality. Ironically, this perspective has resulted in the elimination of many programs that were effective in reducing crime. Although much of the debate has focused on funding for college programs, funding cuts have harmed all education efforts. A broader examination of contemporary correctional education illustrates the range of programs offered in correctional institutions. The benefits of these programs extend to prisoners, correctional institutions, and society as a whole.
The U.S. Department of Education defines correctional education as “that part of the total correctional process that focuses on changing the behavior of offenders through planned learning experiences and learning environments. It seeks to develop or enhance knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values of incarcerated youth and adults.”[i] The U.S. Department of Justice “recognize[s] the importance of education as both an opportunity for inmates to improve their knowledge and skills and as a correctional management tool that encourages inmates to use their time in a constructive manner.”[ii]
Eighty-four percent of all state and federal adult correctional facilities have some form of educational programming.[iii] Correctional educators provide courses in subjects including literacy, special education, English as a second language, and basic education courses leading to a General Equivalency Degree (GED). Programs also offer access to college courses, often as part of a degree program. Most programs focus on the development of basic academic skills, typically along with the completion of a high school diploma or equivalent.[iv] A 2004 survey indicates that 40 states offer adult basic education and GED instruction. Vocational programs were available in 69 percent of state institutions with all states reporting some vocational programs. Post-secondary education was available in 60% of these institutions.[v]
According to a UNESCO study based on data from over 60 countries, many of the 10 million prisoners worldwide have dropped out of school.[vi] In developing countries the large majority have never seen the inside of a classroom. Prisoners’ educational level is low throughout the world, in most cases below the national average. According to this study, while most countries claim that education is available to all inmates, the reality is quite different. The reasons are multiple – insufficient funding, lack of teachers, security problems, over-population and inmates’ own lack of interest. The UNESCO study emphasizes that education for all is a universal right and restriction of one’s freedom does not suspend that right. The authors call for more investment by governments, international organizations and NGOs, so that prisons become places of continuous and informal learning, rather than schools of crime.
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Correctional education may also focus on improving individual skills needed to productively function within correctional facilities. These courses include literacy, special education, and other learner specific areas. Courses may also include parenting, empathy skills, communication and dispute processing, cultural awareness, and other life skills necessary in, and out, of correctional facilities. Educational opportunities that center on the effective functioning of the institution include library science, barbering or hairstyling, auto and small engine repair, cooking, laundry and tailoring, carpentry, building maintenance, and other vocational skills that may lead to employment opportunities upon release.
In addition to advantages associated with the effective functioning of correctional institutions, prison education programs are among the best tools for reducing recidivism. Individuals who have taken courses while in prison improve their chances of attaining and keeping employment after release and are less likely to commit additional crimes. Individuals who completed college courses in prison also found, and kept, better jobs. These factors work together to reduce recidivism – those with more education find stable employment, which makes them less likely to commit crime.[vii]
The more education an inmate receives, 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%. For college graduates the rate dropped to 5.4%.[viii] A Texas Department of Criminal Justice study found that while the state’s overall rate of recidivism was 60%. The rate dropped to 13.7%, for those with associate degrees. The recidivism rate for those with Bachelor’s degrees was 5.6 percent.[ix] The Changing Minds[x] study found that only 7.7% of the inmates who took college courses returned to prison after release, while 29.9% of those who did not participate in the college program were reincarcerated. Research demonstrates that crime prevention is more cost-effective than building prisons and that of all crime prevention methods; education is the most cost-effective.[xi] Those who benefited from correctional education recidivated 29% less often than those who did not have educational opportunities while in the correctional institution.[xii] Even small reductions in recidivism can save millions of dollars in costs associated with keeping the recidivist in prison. Additional costs are apparent when we consider that the law abiding individual will be working, paying taxes, and making a positive contribution to the economy. When we add the reduction of costs, both financial and emotional, to victims of crime, the benefits are even greater. Finally, stresses on the justice system are lowered when the crime rate is reduced.
Education has always been a part of the correctional system in the United States. Since education is a key element in the focus on “corrections,” correctional education has made important contributions to the prison reform movement. Our emphasis is on contemporary correctional education, beginning in 1965, when Congress passed Title IV of the Higher Education Act. This Act permitted inmates, and other low income students, to apply for Pell grants to be used for college courses. Major themes of contemporary correctional education include an increase in post secondary programs and the expansion of federal influence.[xiii] In 1965, only 12 post-secondary correctional education programs were operating in the United States. Based in part on the availability of federal funding, there were 350 programs with approximately 27,000 inmates in 1982. This represented almost 9% of the total prison population at the time, receiving some form of post-secondary education.[xiv]
Although the cost was relatively low, the idea of providing Pell grants to prisoners was somewhat controversial and many argued for the elimination of these grants. Politicians suggested that grants to inmates were provided at the expense of law-abiding students. This argument was coupled with a belief that prison life was too “soft.” In response to this debate, Congress placed significant restrictions on corrections-based college programs with the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.[xv] This Act eliminated Pell Grants for prisoners – with devastating effects. In 1990, there were 350 higher education programs for inmates.[xvi] By 1997, only eight programs remained.[xvii] The “get tough on crime” mentality had eliminated an effective crime reduction tool.
In the 1993-94 school year over 25,000 students in correctional facilities were recipients of Pell grants. Although Pell grants were not the only source of revenue for these programs, the grants provided a predictable flow of money that was relied upon for the continued functioning of these programs. Since correctional education programs offer courses in a variety of areas, institutions often rely on a range of funding sources. In addition to private and state funding, the federal government provides support to state correctional education through the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act.[xviii] However, funding has not kept pace with need. With no assurances of replacement funds, most correctional education programs have been forced to abandon efforts to provide college courses in prison.
In the 1990’s we also began to see a dollar-for-dollar tradeoff between corrections and education spending. New York, for example, steadily increased its Department of Corrections budget by 76 percent to $761 million. During the same period, the state decreased funding to university systems by 28 percent, to $615 million.[xix] Much of the increase in corrections spending was the result of longer prison terms and the need for increased prison construction. The costs of policies that rely on longer periods of incarceration are placing limits on educational opportunities in correctional institutions, as well as educational institutions throughout the nation.
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At least 26 states have mandatory correctional 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 required in many states if the inmate is under a certain age. These educational efforts are often directed toward the completion of a high school diploma or equivalency, and states typically provide funding based on success as measured by the rate of GED completion. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has also implemented a mandatory education 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. In spite of controversies regarding funding, and policy responses associated with these debates, correction policies continue to define education as a core responsibility.
As the result of the imprisonment binge over the last 25 years, we are beginning to see prison releases at unprecedented levels. Due to strict sentencing guidelines, these prisoners have often served long mandatory terms and are released only when their terms have been completely served. Many are released unconditionally, without parole or other post-release supervision. Each of these individuals will be expected to begin leading a productive, law abiding life outside prison walls. Access to a quality education can increase their chance of success. The vast majority of incarcerated individuals will eventually be released. Society has the potential to save billions of dollars annually through the funding of prison academic programs that prepare individuals for a productive return to society. Even if an individual does recidivate, for each year they are not in prison prior to reincarceration, we continue to save money by not housing individuals for that time period.[xx]
Correctional educators continue to face scrutiny and pessimism from those who question the value of their work and the merits of providing educational opportunities to those who have committed serious crimes. Due to these controversies, many prisoners do not have the opportunity to participate in prison education programs. Given the unprecedented prison population, and the equally unprecedented rate of release, correctional education has the potential to save millions of dollars while improving the lives and opportunities of individuals who have served their time and have successfully paid their debt to society.
Batiuk, M., Moke, P. and Rountree, P. (1997). “Crime and Rehabilitation: Correctional Education as an Agent of Change – A Research Note,” Justice Quarterly, 14(1).
Fine, M., et.al. (2001) Changing Minds: The Impact of College in a Maximum Security Prison. The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. http://www.changingminds.ws/
Gerber, J. and Fritsch, E. (1993). Prison Education and Offender Behavior: A Review of the Scientific Literature. Huntsville, TX: Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Institutional Division.
Haigler, K. O., Harlow, C., O’Connor, P., and Campbell, A. (1994). Literacy Behind Prison Walls. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=94102
Harer, M. (1995). Prison Education Program Participation and Recidivism: A Test of the Normalization Hypothesis. Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Page, J, (2004). “Eliminating the enemy: The import of denying prisoners access to higher education in Clinton’s America.” Punishment & Society, Vol. 6(4).
Steurer, S., Smith, L., and Tracy, A. (2001). Three State Recidivism Study. Prepared for the Office of Correctional Education, US Department of Education. Lanham, MD: Correctional Education Association.
Tewksbury, R. and Stengel, K.M. (2006). “Assessing Correctional Education Programs: The Students’ Perspective.” Journal of Correctional Education, Vol. 57(1).
U.S. Department of Education, Office of Correctional Education (1994). “The Impact of Correctional Education on Recidivism 1988-1994,” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
[i] U.S. Department of Education, Office of Correctional Education (1994). “The Impact of Correctional Education on Recidivism 1988-1994,” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
[ii] Tolbert, M. (2002). State Correctional Education Programs. Washington, D.C.: National Institute for Literacy.
[iii] Wilson, D.B., Gallagher, C.A., and Coggeshall, M.B. (1999). “A quantitative review and description of correctional-based education, vocation, and work programs.” Correctional Management Quarterly, 3(1).
[iv] Foley, R.M., and Gao. J. (2004). Correctional education: Characteristics of academic programs
serving incarcerated adults, Journal of Correctional Education, 55(1).
[vi] Maeyer, Marc de (2005). “Liberation through education: prisoners are among the most excluded from education, according to a UNESCO study.” Education Today, No. 14.
[vii] Batiuk, M., Moke, P. and Rountree, P. (1997). “Crime and Rehabilitation: Correctional Education as an Agent of Change – A Research Note,” Justice Quarterly, 14(1).
[viii] Harer, M. (1987). Recidivism Among Federal Prisoners Released in 1987. Washington DC: Federal Bureau of Prisons.
[ix] Gerber, J. and Fritsch, E. (1993). Prison Education and Offender Behavior: A Review of the Scientific Literature. Huntsville, TX: Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Institutional Division.
[xi] Greenwood, P.W., Model, K.E., Rydell, C.P. and Chiesa, J. (1996). Diverting children from a life of crime: Measuring costs and benefits. Santa Monica, CA: Rand.
[xii] Steurer, S., Smith, L., and Tracy, A. (2001). Three State Recidivism Study. Prepared for the Office of Correctional Education, US Department of Education. Lanham, MD: Correctional Education Association.
[xiv] Wolford, B. I., and Littlefield, J. F., (1985). “Correctional Post-Secondary Education: The Expanding Role of Community Colleges.” Community/Junior College Quarterly of Research and Practice; 9(3)
[xv] Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. H.R.3355 (1994). http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c103:H.R.3355.ENR:
[xvii] Center on Crime, Communities, & Culture. (1997). “Education as crime prevention: Providing education to prisoners.” Research Brief (2). New York: Occasional Paper Series.
[xix] Gangi, R., Schiraldi, V., and Ziedenberg, J. (1998). New York State of Mind: Higher Education v.s Prison Funding in the Empire State, 1988-1998. Washington, DC: The Justice Policy Institute.
[xx] Taylor, J.M, (1992). “Post-secondary correctional education: An evaluation of effectiveness and efficiency,” Journal of Correctional Education, 43(3).