Adult Continuing Education in Prison

Adult Continuing Education in Prison

The following unedited or draft essay by Kenneth Mentor was published in the Encyclopedia of Crime & Punishment (Sage, 2002).

Corrections educators provide courses in a variety of subjects including literacy, special education, English as a second language, vocational, college, parenting, and general educational development courses leading to a GED. 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.” Similarly, 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.” (cited in Tolbert, 2002, pg. 15)


Studies indicate that there are a number of benefits associated with education in prison. For example, one study indicated that those who benefited from correctional education recidivated 29% less often that those who did not have educational opportunities while in the correctional institution. Even small reductions in recidivism can save millions of dollars in costs associated with keeping the recidivist offender in prison for longer periods of time. Additional costs are apparent when we consider that the individual, had he or she not committed another crime, would 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, the justice system as a whole, including police and courts, saves a great deal of money when the crime rate is reduced.

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. Similarly, the Changing Minds study found that only 7.7% of the inmates who took college courses at Bedford Hills returned to prison after release, while 29.9% of the inmates who did not participate in the college program were reincarcerated. The study calculates that this reduction 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 benefits related to recidivism, prison-based education programs also 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 offer 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 a search for activity that breaks the monotony of prison life. These programs also provide a “light at the end of the tunnel” that can serve as a stabilizing force for the individual who might otherwise view his or her situation as somewhat hopeless. Many prisons provide incentives for inmates who participate in adult basic 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 the typical student. As in any class, the range of abilities can include very gifted students, students who face challenges, and students who have various motives for enrolling in the course. The educator’s challenge is 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. For example, other prisoners may not support the individual’s educational efforts. Although the student may be very motivated to earn an education, he or she remains in an environment in which conflicting demands may limit the opportunity to act on that motivation. In addition, 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.

Adult basic education programs rely on a range of funding sources. Since these programs offer courses in a variety of areas, the institutions may need to rely on a range of funding sources. Some sources will provide general funds while others will provide funding for specific programs. Many states have mandatory education laws that require correctional educations courses for any inmate who scores below a certain level on a standardized test. 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 states typically provide funding based, in part, on success as measured by the rate of GED completion. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has also implemented a mandatory education policy that required 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 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 is not keeping pace with need and the AEFLA has not improved this situation. The AEFLA continues to provide funding but altered the formula for state funding. Prior to 1998, states were required to spend at least 10 percent of AEFLA funds on educational programming in correctional institutions. The law now requires that they spend no more than 10 percent. Similar limitations were placed on funding as the Perkins Vocational and Technical Act was amended in 1998 to require that no more that one percent of federal funding for vocational and technical education programs be spent in state institutions, including correctional institutions. Congress placed even more significant restrictions on corrections-based college courses with the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. This Act eliminated Pell Grants for prisoners with devastating effects. In 1990, there were 350 higher education programs for inmates. In 1997, there were 8.

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. In the 1990’s we 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 while decreasing funding to university systems by 28 percent, to $615 million. Research by the RAND Corporation demonstrates that crime prevention is more cost-effective than building prisons and that of all crime prevention methods; education is the most cost-effective. However, states were committing an increasing percentage of their budgets to fund longer prison terms and increased prison construction.


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 Adult Basic Education while in prison. There is some question as to why corrections-based education leads to lower recidivism. Many of the benefits of education are difficult to measure. As such, it may be difficult to show a clear relationship between educational opportunity and recidivism. However, an intervening factor, the ability to find and hold a job, appears to clearly demonstrate the benefits of corrections-based Adult Basic Education. Individuals who take courses 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. Individuals who benefited from college courses in prison also found better jobs and held these jobs for longer periods of time. It is clear that these factors work together to reduce recidivism – those with more education find stable employment which makes them less likely to commit crime.

The vast majority of incarcerated individuals will eventually be released. The imprisonment binge over the last 20 years has created a situation where we are beginning to see prison releases at unprecedented levels. Due to strict sentencing guidelines, these prisoners have often served long terms and are released only when their terms have been completely served. As a result, 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. It is clear that access to a quality education increases the individual’s chance of success.


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