Prison education across the U.S.

November 4, 2021

DegreeChoices Staff

More than 60% of all incarcerated individuals are fully illiterate. According to the Department of Justice, illiteracy and crime are closely related and “the link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” Not coincidentally, over 70% of people incarcerated in U.S. prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level. 

In addition, when looking at the total number of people incarcerated in the United States, researchers have found that  68% did not receive a high school diploma and 32% of unemployed incarcerated individuals scored below Level 2 on the PIAAC  (Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies) literacy scale. 

The Federal Bureau of Prisons require all inmates who cannot read and write to attend one of their literacy programs for a minimum of 240 hours. Beyond that, prisoners who don’t have a high school diploma are required to participate in a General Educational Development (GED) course.  

The GED is considered the official alternative to the high school diploma. The curriculum differs from regular high school, covering 4 subject areas: mathematical reasoning, reasoning through language arts, social studies, and science. Critics of the program believe it does not offer the same breadth of study as regular high school.   

There is also an option for prisoners to complete regular high school via mail correspondence, but they are required to pay for it themselves. According to the NCES, 21% of adult prisoners complete a high school diploma or GED whilst incarcerated, making them eligible to move into post-secondary education. 

Further, providing incarcerated individuals with an education has shown to be effective in:

  • reducing an individual’s chances of returning to prison by 43% when compared with someone who did not receive an education while incarcerated
  • improving an individual’s chances of obtaining employment after release by 13% over someone who did not participate in correctional education

Supporting this, separate research has shown that someone who is incarcerated has a 16% chance of returning to prison if they receive literacy help. Without literacy help, this rises to 70%. 

Regardless of the fact that prison education is clearly beneficial for the prison population and wider society, many prison education programs experienced significant budget cuts. States with large prison populations had cut prison education funding by 10%, on average. On top of this, further research has shown that states with medium-sized populations slashed education budgets by an average of 20%.

The introduction of the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative helped fund additional programs in 2016, although access to postsecondary education in prisons remained limited because the scheme served a maximum of 12,000 prisoners annually. Since, the program has enrolled 22,000 participants and 130 colleges in the scheme, although only 7,000 individuals have earned credentials. Due to this, many of the 2.1 million people who are currently incarcerated in the U.S. are denied access to education. 

69% of our respondents told us that they agreed having access to education helped them secure work and 75% agreed it helped their mental health.

 

To find out how people who have been in prison feel about this situation, we conducted a survey of 100 people who have recently been incarcerated. Surprisingly, they told us that they were generally happy with the education opportunities presented to them. Overall, 74% of our respondents told us that they disagreed with the statement “I had no access to educational programs/education whilst incarcerated.”

As well as being offered an education, many of our respondents told us that they were actively encouraged to take part in these programs. More than 60% of respondents disagreed with the statement “I was not encouraged to participate in educational programs whilst incarcerated.”

It’s also clear that access to educational programs provided several benefits for the students. For example, 69% of our respondents told us that they agreed having access to education helped them secure work and 75% agreed it helped their mental health. 

Respondents also told us that much more needs to be done to improve the education programs provided to those currently in prison. The majority of respondents told us they would have engaged more with the programs if the choice was greater (76%), if the programs were linked to work opportunities (75%), and if the quality of these programs was higher (68%). 

With their thoughts in mind, we took a detailed look at the programs and opportunities for education available to people incarcerated in the U.S. 

Using the latest data, we analyzed the states that offer the highest number of prison education programs, the institutions offering the highest number of programs, and the most popular degrees and certificates. Here are our findings.

States with the most prison education programs

Across the U.S., there’s a huge disparity in the number of education programs available to people who are incarcerated. The 5 states with the highest number of prison education programs are:

  1. North Carolina – 45
  2. California – 34
  3. New York – 19
  4. Wisconsin – 18 
  5. Texas – 15

Although these 5 states offer a large number of programs, 43 out of the 51 states provide fewer than 10 programs. Delaware, Kentucky, and Montana all currently fail to offer a single program, meaning that almost 33,500 people do not receive any form of education while incarcerated. This is a surprising failure of resource allocation. Studies show that 40 U.S. states spend more money keeping a person imprisoned than they do educating an elementary/secondary school student. 

The level of disparity is particularly apparent when we look at the comparative successes and failures of certain states. In New York, the number of programs available to incarcerated individuals has improved since the turn of the century. Back in 2000, only 5 colleges provided programs to prisons. Now, 19 prison education programs are offered. 

Not only is access to education improving in New York, but most of those who are enrolled are not returning to prison. Studies show that of the 129 incarcerated individuals who earned a college degree while in prison in New York and were released in 2011, 84% did not return to prison within 3 years

In addition, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office earmarked $7.5 million in forfeiture funds for prison education in 2016. A total of $5 million was distributed to colleges for teaching in prisons, while a further $2.5 million was used to coordinate educational programming and provide support services for the participants upon their release.

Today, 34 out of the state’s 35 prisons offer some form of face-to-face college classes in partnership with state and community colleges.

 

On top of this, the government relaunched Pell grants for incarcerated individuals as a pilot program. 

Programs that run independent of federal government funding like The Last Mile also started providing incarcerated people with training programs that incorporate paid apprenticeships with big businesses such as Slack. As explained by TLM co-founder, Beverly Parenti, “All remote instructors and classroom facilitators are paid staff, either by TLM or the correctional department in each state. All TLM educational programs are tuition free for the students.” 

New York is not the only state that has experienced success over the past decade. We’ve also seen growth in prison education programs in California. In 2014, San Quentin was the only prison in the state that offered in-house instructor-led collegiate classes. Today, 34 out of the state’s 35 prisons offer some form of face-to-face college classes in partnership with state and community colleges.

A number of partners helped with this growth, including the Opportunity Institute and the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. Between 2015 and 2019, these partners helped enroll 6,000 incarcerated students in transferable degree-granting courses.

On top of this, in 2014, the Californian senate passed a bill that allowed community colleges to include face-to-face prison courses as part of their standard budgets. To pay for these classes, the state used a universal tuition fee waiver called the California College Promise Grant. 

Not only is the number of individuals pursuing education in California improving, but so is the performance of those who are taking part. According to a report, “In 2017, incarcerated students in the Cal State LA Communications class earned a class GPA of 3.61, while their campus counterparts achieved a class GPA of 3.25.”

However, not all states have been as successful as New York and California in growing their prison education programs. In a recent report, the Justice Center highlighted the 4 fundamental building blocks necessary to provide postsecondary education to people who are incarcerated. These are: 

  • the use of key federal and state funding streams to support postsecondary education for people while incarcerated and after release
  • offering incarcerated people access to a full range of postsecondary education programs aligned with local labor market trends and employer needs
  • eliminating statutory and/or administrative restrictions that limit access to postsecondary education for individuals who are incarcerated
  • providing incentives, as well as tangible services and support, to promote postsecondary participation and help incarcerated people transition to a crime-free, productive life in the community

The Justice Center found that:

  • less than 1 in 3 states are effectively using funding streams
  • less than half of states provide access to a full range of postsecondary education programs
  • more than 3/4 of states impose restrictions that limit access to postsecondary education 
  • only ¼ of states offer incentives to promote postsecondary participation

Their research has revealed that 10 states have none of these building blocks in place. They are: Pennsylvania, Georgia, Mississippi, Kentucky, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Washington.  

Currently, Kentucky doesn’t offer a single course, while West Virginia and South Dakota both offer 1 each. 

 

The fact that these states all face severe stumbling blocks is reflected in the number of courses offered by each state. Currently, Kentucky doesn’t offer a single course, while West Virginia and South Dakota both offer 1 each. 

In spite of the benefits an education can provide an incarcerated individual and wider society, not a single state met the requirements for all 4 building blocks.

Institutions offering the most prison education programs

Research from the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison has revealed large variations in  the number of degrees and certificates offered by each education provider. For example, while Ashland University in Ohio offers 55 qualifications, Denison University in the same state offers just 1.  

The 10 institutions that currently offer the highest number of degrees and certificates are: 

  • Ashland University (Ohio) – 55
  • Lee College (Texas) – 45
  • Central Arizona College (Arizona) – 30
  • Texas A&M – Central Texas (Texas) – 30
  • Raritan Valley Community College (New Jersey) – 30
  • Alvin Community College (Texas) – 25
  • Central Georgia Technical College (Georgia) – 23
  • South Piedmont Community College (North Carolina) – 22
  • Bakersfield College – Delano Campus (California) – 20
  • Jackson College (Michigan) – 18

Interestingly, 3 of these top 10 institutions are based in Texas, and combined they offer 100 degrees and courses. By contrast, although Ashland University offers 55 degrees and certificates, it’s the only institution in Ohio that offers more than 2 certificates, and the only institution in the state that offers any degree programs. 

As of 2020, 130 providers were operating in 42 states and the District of Columbia. Prior to the 2020 expansion, only 63 colleges taught in 26 states.

 

In the coming years, it’s hoped that the number of colleges offering a college education to incarcerated individuals will increase. This is because in July 2021, the U.S. Department of Education announced that it would be expanding the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative. Higher education institutions can already apply to be considered for the 2022-23 academic year and it is anticipated that the number of colleges and universities providing higher education under Second Chance Pell will soon reach 200.

This would represent a considerable rise. As of 2020, 130 providers were operating in 42 states and the District of Columbia. Prior to the 2020 expansion, only 63 colleges taught in 26 states.

Most popular certificate programs

Vocational certificate programs are geared towards the practical training of skills. These practical programs are ideal for rehabilitating incarcerated individuals and preparing them to return to society. By learning a new skill while undertaking a certificate program, students can potentially find a way to earn a living when their period of incarceration ends.

Certificate programs help incarcerated individuals learn how to positively socialize with others, develop their effective decision-making skills, and abide by rules and laws. Due to this, it’s clear that certificate programs provide a number of psychological and social benefits. 

The 3 most popular certificate programs in U.S. prisons are:

retail sales

20

business management

19

business administration

18

In addition to this, several practical certificate programs also featured in the list of the most popular certificates. They included welding (13), masonry (11), and carpentry (9).

Most popular degree programs

In addition to providing a noticeable benefit to society, prison degree programs benefit those who are incarcerated by creating greater opportunities for employment, improving skill sets for economic mobility, and promoting stronger decision-making skills.

The 3 most popular degree programs in U.S. prisons are:

general studies

77

liberal arts

65

business administration

27

Studying for a college degree while incarcerated can change someone’s life.  Speaking about the education he gained while in prison, Ethan Miller, a formerly incarcerated graduate of Iowa Central Community College’s Second Chance Pell Program, told the Vera Institute of Justice: 

“Taking college courses in prison and working toward my degree in supply chain management offered me a sense of hope for the future and was so essential to getting me through my time in prison. Education changed my life: It allowed me to return home with new ideas and goals for how I can contribute to my community.”

If these programs are extended, linked to employment opportunities, and the quality of the courses is improved further, everyone will benefit.

 

In summary, providing an education to incarcerated individuals reduces the likelihood of recidivism. Plus, those who explore the education programs available enjoy greater social mobility after their period of incarceration ends.

Our survey found that although previously incarcerated individuals were generally happy with the education options that were available to them during their incarceration. Yet, we note that there is a high degree of disparity between the opportunities available at the state and institution level. 

Due to this, more must be done to provide people in prison with a choice of educational pathways; particularly in states where only a limited number of programs are available. If these programs are extended, linked to employment opportunities, and the quality of the courses is improved further, everyone will benefit.

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