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Prison Education

Most people don’t think of education when they think of prison. This article discusses the benefits and education options available to prison inmates. Read for more on educational opportunities in federal prison and innovations in prison education.

Prison is, of course, most closely associated in most people’s minds with punishment and restrictions and loss of rights. But one other activity that goes on in many prisons and is worth some reflection is prison education. According to the Bureau of Justice report “Education and Correctional Populations” of January 2003, over 90% of state prisons and 100% of Federal prisons provide educational programs for the inmates who reside their. To learn more about prison education, follow along in this article.

What Role does Prison Education Play?

Education of prisoners is implicit in the Bureau of Prison’s mission statement which reads: “The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) protects society by confining offenders in the controlled environments of prisons and community-based facilities that are safe, humane, cost-efficient, and appropriately secure, and that provide work and other self-improvement opportunities to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens.” One element of the “self-improvement opportunities” is education.

Overview of Prison Education

The Bureau of Justice report discusses four different types of incarceration facilities: state prisons, Federal prisons, private prisons, and local jails. Each of these types had multiple types of prison education programs, with Federal prisons offering the most (100%) and local jails the fewest (60.3%).

Of the ones that offered some type of prison education, all of them offered at least some programs that fit the following descriptions: special education, study release programs, vocational training, secondary education, basic adult education, and college courses. In all cases, secondary education was the opportunity most frequently provided to inmates.

This is particularly important because, as the report notes, the population of correctional facilities has completed less education than the general population. While 18% of the general population has not graduated from high school, this percentage is 27% for Federal prison inmates, 31% for those on probation, 40% for state prison inmates, and 47% for those held in local jails.

In the most recent year of data available in the report, over 50% of both state and Federal prison inmates participated in prison education programs. In state prisons, prisoner who began their most recent incarceration without having previously attained a high school diploma were most likely to attend prison education classes.

Federal Prison Education Opportunities

Since the Federal prisons, unlike state and local prisons, are standardized, it is easier to speak in general terms about their educational offerings. Federal prisons offer the following educational opportunities to inmates:

  • adult continuing education
  • English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction
  • General Education Development (GED) certification
  • literacy classes
  • parenting classes
  • wellness education

Six thousand and eighty-nine Federal prison inmates received GEDs in 2007, more than a five hundred increase from 2006. As 2007 drew to a close, 100% of inmates due for release in 6-7 months either had a  GED or had obtained a GED during their incarceration (77%) or were currently enrolled in a GED program or on an enrollment waiting list (23%).

Innovations in Prison Education

In 2002, a high school just for students who had recently been released from juvenile jails and prisons opened in New York City. This public high school is called Community Prep. In 2003, the first charter school inside a prison was opened in San Francisco. It is called Five Keys Charter School. The University Without Walls academic program of Skidmore College has been made available to inmates at Great Meadow Correctional Facility in New York State for a number of years. All three of these programs provided specialized programs for those who are or have been prisoners.

Outcomes of Prison Education

A review of the literature from 1990 reported in an article from the Journal of Correctional Education showed that those inmates who have attended prison education programs are less likely to return to prison after being released than those who have not taken advantage of such programs. Being able to read and write and education in social skills were three elements of prison education that were found to have a particularly strong effect. Receiving vocational training and completing a college degree have also been found to have strong positive effects.


U.S. Department of Justice: Office of Justice Programs: Bureau of Justice Statistics: Educational and Correctional Populations -

Bnet Business Network: “Educated Prisoners Are Less Likely to Return to Prison,” Journal of Correctional Education, December, 2004. -
Federal Bureau of Prisons: State of the Bureau 2007-

Bnet Business Network: “Prison and Education,” Radical Teacher, Winter, 2004. -