Correctional education is a broad term that applies to the many learning opportunities that can be made available to people who are incarcerated. This might include everything from parenting education to vocational training to college and graduate-level courses. These all have one thing in common: they provide residents of correctional settings opportunities to improve themselves personally and professionally, and they offer hope for life after—or during sustained—incarceration. Individuals with mental and substance use disorders often face challenges to educational attainment across their lifespan. Providing opportunities for meaningful education programs during incarceration can shift their trajectory and provide a pathway away from further justice involvement.

Options in Prison and Jail Education Programs

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) administers educational programming for residents at federal prisons. This programming provides opportunities for residents to gain literacy and marketable skills focused on helping them obtain employment after release. All institutions under the authority of the BOP offer literacy, English as a second language (ESL), parenting, and wellness classes; adult continuing education; and often GED classes and vocational and technical training programs, which are specific to the general labor market and labor demands. The BOP also ensures access to institution libraries and legal research materials. State prisons and county jails, on the other hand, offer a wider variety of programming with great variation across institutions and states.

College-level classes and programs may be provided in partnership with local educational institutions. For instance, Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts, about 30 minutes outside of Boston, works with two nearby county jails (Essex County Correctional Facility and Middlesex House of Correction) to provide learning and career development opportunities for students who are incarcerated.

“We aim to address the challenges of short-term incarceration,” said Brittnie Aiello, co-director of the program, in a press release. “County jails are local, and many people are released nearby. These demographics make us well-positioned to offer reentry support and to mobilize local networks in this effort.” The college offers 4-credit, credentialed introductory and general/liberal arts courses in condensed 8-week sessions to account for the sometimes-fast turnaround of residents in the county jails. In 2021, Merrimack College added “The Bridge Program” to its offerings, which aims to bridge the gap between in-jail education and the pursuit of a degree. The program provides career and education counseling and college-level classes to students who were formerly incarcerated. Many other colleges and universities nationwide offer similar programs. Well-known prison education programs include Hudson Link, Alabama Arts & Education in Prison Project, and the Education Justice Project.

Vocational and career training programs often focus on helping people who are incarcerated gain valuable work skills that they can use to gain employment upon release. Popular programs include trades, such as construction, automotive, or welding, along with basic office skills such as Microsoft Office certification.

Funding for Prison and Jail Education Programs

Funding and financial aid for prison education and vocational and career training are covered through various means, including within the institution’s budget or through grant funding. The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act greatly reduced college learning opportunities for incarcerated people when it banned them from receiving federal Pell Grants (federally funded financial aid). In prison, as elsewhere, college courses can be costly. Many residents in jails or prisons are extremely low-income or no-income, meaning that the absence of financial support prohibits them from taking college courses even if they were available. Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) data show that before the 1994 Act, about 34 percent of people in federal and state prisons had taken a college course during incarceration. By 2004, that number had dropped to 17 percent.

In December 2020, Congress lifted the ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated students. The FAFSA Simplification Act, scheduled to take effect by July 1, 2023, will allow all people who are incarcerated, regardless of conviction or sentence length, to apply for federal Pell Grants to fund higher education. In anticipation of the re-availability of Pell Grants, the RAND Corporation published a guide, What Corrections Officials Need to Know to Partner with Colleges to Implement College Programs in Prison, to help correctional officials implement college programming within their prisons. Additionally, in March 2022, the U.S. Department of Labor announced the availability of $55 million in grant funding to provide pre-release training and employment services for people who are incarcerated in state correctional facilities or county or local jails. Many other local and federal grant programs also exist.

Trauma’s Role in Correctional Education

A key to successful engagement and completion of correctional educational programs, from basic education classes to college-level courses, is the understanding and acknowledgment of the role trauma plays in the daily lives of people who are incarcerated.

Author and educator Em Daniels has developed a trauma-responsive educational practice for correctional (and non-correctional) educators.[1] This practice involves a culturally balanced approach to teaching that recognizes the systemic and historical context for trauma for many people who are incarcerated. The practice incorporates the many non-medical ways people have managed trauma for generations. This includes making space for things like creativity and movement, strengthening the sense of community in the classroom, and respecting and honoring each person’s individuality and humanity.

Because trauma can significantly impact people’s abilities to learn and retain knowledge, Daniels notes the importance of helping students settle their bodies and nervous system so they can access the prefrontal cortex of their brains and begin to integrate learning. This can be especially important in correctional settings, says Daniels, where “the amygdala is on high alert almost 24/7.” However, they note, “In my experience, a classroom in prison can be a place where people feel safe and can settle themselves.”

This trauma practice extends beyond working with students’ trauma to ensuring educators are addressing their own trauma, as well. “We have to do our own work before we can credibly ask other people to do work on themselves,” they say. “We have to tend to our own trauma, so we don’t replicate harm or cause damage to the people we teach, especially people in correctional settings.”

The Value: Increased Opportunities and Reduced Recidivism

Access to education can have a dramatic effect on post-release outcomes for people who are incarcerated. More than 75 percent of people who were formerly incarcerated have a high school diploma, GED, or less, according to the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI). And those who were formerly incarcerated are eight times less likely to complete college than the general public. This contributes to the 27 percent unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated individuals found by PPI, including the fact that: “those with low levels of formal education face even higher unemployment rates.”

As such, one of the key benefits of correctional education is that individuals re-enter society with marketable skills, training (i.e., vocation or technical), and knowledge to gain employment. The Vera Institute found that participants in college-in-prison programs are 48 percent less likely to return to prison than those who don’t participate in any correctional education program. The higher the level of education achieved (e.g., associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degree), the greater the reduction in recidivism. The Washington State Institute for Public Policy found a net return of $21,867 for every $1,149 invested in basic or post-secondary correctional education (roughly $19 returned for every $1 invested). Vocational education in prison also demonstrated a return on the investment—about $13 for every $1 invested. Prisons see the benefits of education even after individuals are released; the RAND Corporation found that for every $1 invested in prison education, there is a savings of $4 to $5 in incarceration costs during the first 3 years post-release.

Education provides benefits even for those with long-term or life sentences. Research shows a reduction in violence and disciplinary issues among people who are incarcerated enrolled in educational programs. According to Northwestern University’s Prison Education Program, a survey of people incarcerated in Indiana found that those who were enrolled in classes committed 75 percent fewer violations while incarcerated than those who weren’t.

And research shows that people who are incarcerated want opportunities to learn. Data from the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) Survey of Incarcerated Adults (2017) found that 70 percent of incarcerated people who were currently not taking an academic class said they wanted to participate in one. While 43 percent of respondents said that post-incarceration career opportunities were a reason for furthering their education, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) said “self-improvement” was an important reason for participating in job training while incarcerated. “The opportunity to learn in prison gives incarcerated individuals autonomy and choice,” says Daniels—experiences that can be in short order in prison and jail.

Education and training programs are beneficial to multiple stakeholders in the justice continuum. They save money, increase employment opportunities, and provide personally fulfilling activities for people who are incarcerated.

[1] Daniels, Em. Building a Trauma-Responsive Educational Practice: Lessons from a Corrections Classroom. New York, NY: Routledge, 2022.

Like what you’ve read? Sign up to receive the monthly GAINS eNews!