The psychological benefits of adult education in correctional settings

May 13, 2021

Caralyn Dreyer

According to data from the National Institution of Corrections, in 2018 the total number of offenders in prisons was 25,705 and for jails, the number was 17,528. These correctional settings include state and federal facilities. Additionally, the average number of parolees nationwide was 15,338.

Among the programs and services provided in these settings are education programs. The focus of the programs is intended to be rehabilitative in preparation for inmates to reenter society and their communities. Some inmates will return home to family and loved ones, while others essentially start over and need to find a place to live and a way to make money.

With public safety a top priority, it is important from a community and societal perspective that those who were formerly incarcerated refrain from reoffending. This means that there needs to be resources or services in jails or prisons that can teach skills related to job, education and prosocial behavior.

In 2016, only 35% of state-run prisons offered college courses. This can be attributed to insufficient funding, the removal of Pell grants, and political interests in prison reform. Currently, prison reform is a popular topic leading to debates on whether adult education in correctional settings helps offenders reintegrate into the community and reduces the risk for reoffending.

History of college education in correctional settings

Let’s begin by reviewing the history of education programs in correctional facilities. As noted by Kallman (2020):

  • College courses were the most popular after the creation of the Pell grant in 1972.
  • By 1976, Pell grants were officially used and increased the availability of college courses in correctional settings.
  • The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was introduced in 1994, partly due to the getting tough on crime mentality.
  • Pell grants became unavailable to inmates which led to a decline in college education programs.

Under President Obama, the 2016 Second Chance Pell Grant Experimental Sites Initiative helped with the creation of 22 education programs. But the number of correction facilities with college courses available has continued to decline since this time. A move towards positive change may be achieved through advocacy and policy changes.

Types of education in correctional settings

The education available in correctional settings can include GED programs, trade or skills training or vocational programs, and college courses. The Alliance for Higher Education in Prison considers the following criteria for higher education programs:

  • Postsecondary education
  • Formal affiliation with a college or university
  • Meeting the requirement of having a high school degree or GED

It is important for incarcerated individuals to learn skills to positively socialize with others, develop effective decision-making skills, and abide by rules and laws. Consider the case of an offender with poor social skills and minimal rehabilitation who is expected to return to the community. Obstacles they can face include finding a job and a place to live, readjusting to life outside of prison, and social challenges.

Process of re-entry

An offender returning to society after being released from prison goes through a process of reintegration that generally involves finding housing and obtaining employment. This is a major challenge for formerly incarcerated individuals. For instance, a felony on their record could result in being exempt from getting certain jobs or securing housing.

Another challenge is the stigma or label placed on those who were incarcerated by others in the community. Additionally, the individual places a stigma on themselves. There is shame attached to the stigma and a fear of never being accepted by society. Despite the challenges, there are benefits to offenders participating in education programs.

Benefits of offender participation in education programs

Research shows that inmates who participate in college programs are more likely to continue their education upon release, handle conflict with verbal skills instead of violence, and have more options for employment — than inmates who did not participate. (Kallman, 2020; Bender, 2018; Davis et al., 2013).

There are psychological and social benefits attributed to education programs in correctional settings. One benefit is that inmates learn positive ways to socialize, such as tutoring each other. Also, there is a positive impact on the amount of self-belief an individual has; it is easier to believe they can change their life or behavior in a positive way (Powers, 2020).

Factors such as having a support system of friends or family increases the chances of adult education having a positive impact on offender reintegration. Brock (2017) cites the positive social skills learned through education programs that allow inmates to foster positive relationships. This is something that helps keep the individual accountable for their choices and moving in a positive direction.

Relationship between education and employment

Employment is defined based on elements like starting a job after being released, the amount of time between release and obtaining a job, if the job is part-time, and so on. In one study, data was collected from parole officers, former inmates, and administrative records to examine the relationship between employment and education. Here are the key results for inmates from the meta-analyses:

  • Inmates who received correctional education had higher rates of employment.
  • The chances of obtaining a job post-release were 13% higher for individuals who participated in correctional education. (Rory et al., 2020).

The relationship between education and employment can be analyzed by adopting the desistance theory. The focus of this theory is on the need for offenders to develop identities that allow them to positively change their lives. It is important for them to recognize embarking on a crime-free lifestyle is a process, and that they must be engaged in the process.

The participation of the inmates is paramount to reaping the benefits of education. Another important aspect is the role of those teaching the courses, the instructors. It is not only enough for the instructor to have knowledge and experience with the subject they teach. Instructors need to have additional skills. As such, they receive training about working with offenders. Due to the diversity of backgrounds of the inmates— e.g., past traumas such as being abused as a child, a history of substance abuse and use, intellectual disabilities—professionals and staff need to have relevant education and training.

Reducing recidivism

Another benefit associated with education in correctional settings is the risk reduction of the offender recidivating. Recidivism is also referred to as reoffending; this applies to offenses committed while incarcerated or after being released.

Consider a scenario where someone is released from prison with a long criminal history. If you add to this a lack of education or job skills, the possibility of reoffending is not surprising. According to one study that looked at recidivism rates between 1991 and 2013 in 33 states, one-third of ex-inmates returned to prison. This speaks to the realization that recidivism is likely and a continuous obstacle to address.

Offenders who have completed prison education are more likely to find employment and exhibit prosocial behavior with others post-release, as compared to released offenders who did not participate in a prison education program. Better social connections can lead to decreased isolation, and a reduction in criminal behavior.

Relationship between education and reducing recidivism

The quality of the program and how the instructor presents the information are important considerations. This is in relation to evaluating the effectiveness of education programs in general. It makes sense that quality is important to learning because it is something important to those who are not incarcerated. In a 2019 study by Cai et al., that looked at participation in prison-based education programs, the following was reported:

  • One reason for participating was to increases the offender’s chances of being employed after release
  • Most offenders participated to improve themselves
  • 19% did not participate due to not meeting required qualifications, such as having a GED or high school diploma
  • Close to 20% reported that the quality of programs was poor and that this was what guided their decision to not participate
  • Other barriers to participation included a long waiting list, not wanting to quit volunteering or job assignments

From a holistic perspective, researchers suggest that education is important to creating a prosocial atmosphere in correctional settings. This is important to breaking up the monotonous prison routine, decreasing the amount of time offenders are isolated, and learning how to socialize in a productive and positive way (Harnish, 2020).

How does psychology fit in?

Psychologists working in correctional settings are responsible for conducting assessments to determine mental health status or the presence of a substance or alcohol issue. Assessment results are used to determine what type of treatment or intervention is required.

The environment and structure of a corrections facility are rigid, scheduled, lonely, and hard to adjust to. Part of the psychological assessment process is to identify the needs, physical and mental, of offenders. This has been a controversial topic, as some view prisons and jails as not being favorable to rehabilitation. Others argue that with the use of tools like assessments, it is possible to provide specific treatment or intervention options within the prison environment.

Risk, needs, and responsivity

Further, the introduction the Risk Needs Responsivity (RNR) model —which focuses on behavioral causes and looks at the related psychological, social and situational factors related to an individual’s history of criminal behavior – the information can be used to develop and implement a treatment plan.

The main principles of RNR:

  • Risk relates to predicting criminal behavior and needing to align the offender’s level of intervention with their level of risk. For instance, if an offender is at medium risk for criminal behavior, then the level of intervention would be at medium
  • Needs are dynamic factors which change over time and have a high association with criminal behavior; for instance, substance abuse
  • Responsivity means that interventions or treatments should be consistent with learning style and ability. Other offender characteristics such as age, race, personality, etc., are also considered

Benefits of using the RNR model:

  • Helps to improve the quality of life for inmates while they are incarcerated and when they are released
  • Contributions to evidence-based methods are used when it comes to creating and implementing educational programs and other treatment and intervention methods

The main goal of models like the RNR is for offenders to receive individualized intervention and treatment. It is challenging to do this in the context of a corrections facility. Issues with budget and staffing cuts and, more recently, the outbreak of COVID19 have added to this challenge. However, it is hard to ignore a tool that has the utility to work towards rehabilitation and reduce recidivism.

Conclusion

You might be asking yourself what all of this means? To start, change cannot occur without knowing what needs to be changed. In this case, greater access to college and higher education courses in adult corrections settings is needed – especially as it has been shown to reduce recidivism rates. Offenders, family members, and the community should be aware of the resources and services available to assist inmates with the re-entry process. It is just as important to have support while the individual is incarcerated and when they return to society. For example, in California the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC) is an organization that helps formerly incarcerated individuals by providing:

  • Reentry assistance with obtaining jobs, housing, and education
  • A network of support during the reintegration process
  • Advocacy for policy changes to help with recidivism reduction

Inmates due to be released need to be aware of community services and resources that may be available to them, for example, housing, assistance with applying for jobs. This is where the interests of the community come into the picture.

Advocacy, awareness, and social change are key to working together toward a solution. There is no single entity able to address the issue of offender re-entry. It takes professionals from various agencies, different disciplines, and the help and understanding the issues faced by formerly incarcerated individuals by the community. The stigma of those who were formerly incarcerated can only be changed with education and accurate information. Someone’s past does not have to be an indication of where their future is headed.

There is no question that the process of successful reentry, reduction of recidivism and the benefits of education programs do not have a one-size-fits-all solution. However, if there is even a little progress made and offenders can improve their future, then it is a step in the right direction.

Bender, K. (2018). Education opportunities in prison are key to reducing crime. Center for American Progress.

Bierie, D. M., & Mann, R. E. (2017). The history and future of prison psychology. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 23(4), 478.

Brock, K. (2017). Four: Reducing Recidivism through Education. Wagadu: A Journal of Transnational Women’s and Gender Studies.

Cai, J., Ruhil, A. V., & Gut, D. M. (2019). Prison-based education: Programs, participation, and proficiency in literacy/numeracy. Washington, DC: Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies Gateway.

Harnish, J. A. (2020). Brockway Correctional Education: A Case Study of Resident Experiences in Reentry (Doctoral dissertation, Miami University).

Herring, T. (2020). The Effectiveness of State Laws Regarding Prisoner Reentry.

James, N. (2018). Risk and needs assessment in the federal prison system. Congressional Research Service, 10.

Jiggetts, A. (2019). The Criminal (In) Justice System of Virginia: A Critical Reflection and Analysis. Student Publications.

Kallman, M. E. (2020). Living More Through Knowing More”: College Education in Prison Classrooms. Adult Education Quarterly, 70(4), 321-339.

McNeill, F., Farall, S., Lightowler, C., and Maruna, S. (2012). How and why people stop offending: Discovering desistance. Insight 15.

Reutter, S. S. (2018). Reentry Education and Program Development: Philosophical Approaches of Senior Administrators to Reduce Recidivism Rates in Correctional Institutions (Doctoral dissertation, Drake University).

Royer, C.E., Castro, E.L., Cortes-López, E., Gould, M.R., & Lerman, A.E. (2020). The landscape of higher education in prison 2018-2019. Alliance for Higher Education in Prison.

Szifris, K., Fox, C., Bradbury, A. (2018). A realist model of prison education, growth, and desistance: A new theory. Journal of Prison Education and Reentry, Vol.5(1), 41-62

The United States Department of Justice. National Institute of Corrections. 2018 National Averages.

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