Programs in Prison
W. Mentor, J.D., Ph.D.
Department of Sociology and Criminology
University of North Carolina Wilmington
is a draft of a submission included in the
Encyclopedia of Corrections, edited by Mary Bosworth
General Educational Development (GED) Exam assesses skills and
general knowledge that are acquired through a four-year high
school education. The exam changes periodically, most recently
in January 2002, in an effort to keep up with knowledge and
skills needed in our society. The exam covers math, science,
social studies, reading, and writing. All of the test items are
multiple choice except for a section in the writing exam that
requires GED candidates to write an essay. The complete exam
takes just under eight hours to complete and is typically broken
down into several sections that can be taken over time.
that assesses the value of the GED examines employment and the
likelihood of continuing with formal education after earning the
GED. In many cases the research addresses the question of
whether the GED is equivalent to a high school diploma. Past
research indicates that employees with a GED are not the labor
market equivalents of regular high school graduates. Dropouts
who leave school with very low skills benefit from obtaining a
GED. However, this advantage is lessened for dropouts with more
employment related skills. The message gained from much of the
research is that it is best to remain in school. While the GED
has value, it should not be seen as a replacement for four years
of high school.
GED and Corrections
has been little research examining the impact of obtaining a GED
in corrections settings. As with most research regarding prison
education, recidivism is an important variable. The majority of
studies indicate that earning GED while in prison reduces the
likelihood of returning to prison. Some researchers have
criticized the methodology used in studies that focus on
recidivism. A primary concern is that inmates who engage in
education programs are less likely to recidivate that other
prisoners, regardless of their educational experiences. While
selection bias issues are possible, it may also be argued that
those who chose, or are chosen, for corrections education
programs benefit most from the experience since they have
already indicated a willingness to "stay out of trouble."
Arguably, these are the people who will benefit most from any
efforts to increase their chances of success. It may be
difficult to blame corrections education programs that focus on
those most likely to benefit from the program.
problem regarding an effort to demonstrate the value of a prison
GED, in comparison to a high school diploma or GED earned in a
traditional setting, is related to the complexity of factors
that are active as an individual enters the labor market. It is
possible that the impact of earning a GED in prison is not great
enough to overcome the negative impact incarceration can have on
employment opportunities. Employers may be reluctant to hire
someone who has served time in prison. In fact, a felony
conviction can disqualify an individual for employment in some
professions. Given the barriers placed before individuals who
seek employment after prison, it may be difficult to demonstrate
the impact of a single educational experience.
the employment related impacts of the GED earned corrections
settings are difficult to assess, research has consistently
demonstrated that corrections education can significantly reduce
recidivism. 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. The Changing Minds study,
which focused on the benefits of college courses in a women's
prison, calculated that reductions 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.
addition to gains related to recidivism, prison-based education
programs 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 provide
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 search of an activity that breaks
the monotony of prison life. Many prisons provide incentives for
inmates who participate in corrections 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.
educators face many challenges. Inmates who choose to enroll in
corrections-based courses are not necessarily any different from
students who enroll in GED courses in other settings. The range
of abilities can include very gifted students, students who face
challenges, and students who have various motives for enrolling
in the course. However, the educational setting is very
different. Challenges faced by corrections educators are
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. The student may be very motivated to
earn an education but he or she remains in an environment in
which conflicting demands may limit the opportunity to act on
that motivation. For example, other prisoners may not support
the individual's educational efforts.
administrators may also have varying degrees of support for
education Ð especially if they see education as a threat to the
primary functions of security and control. GED courses may be
seen as a burden to prison administrators who believe their
primary goal is confinement. However, in many cases
administrators are required to provide educational
opportunities. 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 Federal Bureau of Prisons has also
implemented a policy that requires 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.
typically provide corrections education funding based, in part,
on success as measured by the rate of GED completion. 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 often fails to keep pace with needs.
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.
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 education while in
prison. There is some question as to why corrections-based
education leads to lower recidivism. This is a complex process,
and difficult to measure, but it appears that the ability to
find and hold a job consistently functions to reduce the chance
that an individual will commit crime. Individuals who increase
their education also increase their opportunities. Individuals
who take classes 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.
benefits of earning a GED while in prison are difficult to
demonstrate. Individuals may find it difficult to obtain
employment after serving time in prison. Potential employers may
benefit from education regarding the realities of employing
someone who has completed his or her punishment and is
attempting to return to a productive life outside prison walls.
It may also be time to question the belief that tougher prisons,
with limited efforts to educate or otherwise rehabilitate
offenders, reduce crime. The "get tough on crime" mentality has
resulted in the elimination of many corrections education
programs. Individuals in prison are typically burdened with many
educational deficiencies. In many cases the lack of skills
limited options, resulting in criminal acts. Upon release from
prison, with limited education and job experience that is well
below the level gained by those outside prison, it is no
surprise that many individuals will head down the path that
originally led them to prison.
and Suggested Readings
M, Moke, P.and Rountree, P. (1997). "Crime and Rehabilitation:
Correctional Education as an Agent of Change - A Research Note,"
Justice Quarterly, 14(1).
of Justice Statistics (2002). "Key crime and justice facts at a
M., et.al. (2001) Changing Minds: The Impact of College in a
Maximum Security Prison.
The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. http://www.gc.cuny.edu/folio/index.htm.
J. and Fritsch, E. (1993). Prison Education and Offender
Behavior: A Review of the Scientific Literature.
Huntsville, TX: Texas Department of Criminal Justice,
P.W., Model, K.E., Rydell, C.P. and Chiesa, J. (1996). Diverting
children from a life of crime: Measuring costs and benefits. Santa
Monica, CA: Rand.
K. O.; Harlow, C.; O'Connor, P.; and Campbell, A. (1994). Literacy
Behind Prison Walls.
Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.
M. (1995). "Prison Education Program Participation and
Recidivism: A Test of the Normalization Hypothesis,"
Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Prisons.
S. (2001). "Time to reframe politics and practices in
correctional education." In J. Comings, B. garner and C. Smith
(Eds.), Annual Review of Adult Learning and Literacy,
Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
R. J., Willett, J. B., & Boudett, K. P. (1999). Do male
dropouts benefit from obtaining a GED, postsecondary education,
and training? Evaluation Review, 23, 475-504.
S., Smith, L., Tracy, A. (2001). "Three State Recidivism Study".
Prepared for the Office of Correctional Education, US Department
of Education. Lanham, MD: Correctional Education Association.
M. (2002). "State Correctional Education Programs."
Washington, D.C.: National Institute for
Department of Education, Office of Correctional Education
(1994). "The Impact of Correctional Education on Recidivism
1988-1994," Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.