Kenneth W. Mentor, J.D., Ph.D.
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Corrections Education

Kenneth W. Mentor, J.D., Ph.D.
Department of Sociology and Criminology
University of North Carolina Wilmington

This is a draft of a submission included in the
Encyclopedia of Corrections, edited by Mary Bosworth

Corrections educators provide courses in a variety of subjects and in a range of correctional environments. Educational opportunities are available in prisons, jails, juvenile justice facilities, and various community based settings. These opportunities are often tailored to the needs of students and seek to provide learning experiences that are tailored to the individual. For example, those entering correctional facilities may benefit from literacy, communications, and other subjects that will ease the individual's transition into a corrections setting. Those who are nearing release will benefit from learning experiences that prepare them for the transition into a society that is very different from that found in prison, and most likely vary different from the setting experienced by the individual prior to incarceration. Other courses or learning may be selected based on age, gender, prior education and skills, and other factors.

The U.S. Department of Education defines correctional education as "that part of the total correctional process that focuses on changing the behavior of offenders through planned learning experiences and learning environments. It seeks to develop or enhance knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values of incarcerated youth and adults." Similarly, the U.S. Department of Justice "recognize[s] the importance of education as both an opportunity for inmates to improve their knowledge and skills and as a correctional management tool that encourages inmates to use their time in a constructive manner" (cited in Tolbert, 2002, pg. 15). These definitions illustrate the overlapping goals of correctional education as they refer to improvements in individual skills while acknowledging the importance education plays in efforts to efficiently manage correctional settings.

Prison-based education programs that provide benefits related to the functioning of prisons may provide incentives to inmates in a setting in which rewards are relatively limited. Formal classes and other less structured educational settings offer 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 a search for activity that breaks the monotony of prison life. These programs also provide a "light at the end of the tunnel" that can serve as a stabilizing force for the individual who might otherwise view his or her situation as somewhat hopeless. Many prisons provide incentives for inmates who participate in 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.

Corrections education may also focus on improving individual skills needed to productively function within correctional facilities. These courses include literacy, special education, English as a second language, and other learner specific areas such as learning disabilities. Education in prison and other correctional settings may also include parenting classes, empathy skills, communication and dispute processing, cultural awareness, and other life skills necessary in, and out, of correctional facilities. Other educational opportunities that center on the effective functioning of the institution include library science, tutoring, barbering or hairstyling, auto and small engine repair, cooking, laundry and tailoring, carpentry, building maintenance, and other vocational skills that may lead to employment opportunities upon release.

Education and experiences that are relevant to the efficient functioning of the institution may also result in income to the incarcerated individual. Pay is typically very low, often less than $1.00 per hour. Work within correctional institutions can be controversial as critics argue that prisons provide a large pool of individuals who can be forced to work. While some suggest that prisoners should required to work, given the cost of incarceration, others equate prison labor with slavery.  The controversy surrounding prison labor is also apparent as critics examine the profits of "prison industries" that compete in the marketplace without having to pay wages typical of industries outside of correctional settings.

Controversy is also apparent in the examination of efforts to offer college courses in prison. While college and other post-secondary subjects continue to be offered, offerings are well below that found prior to 1994, when the United States Congress eliminated inmate eligibility for Pell grants for post secondary education. Politicians argued that grants to inmates were provided at the expense of law-abiding students. This flawed argument, coupled with a belief that prison life was too "soft," resulted in the elimination of Pell grants to prisoners. Ironically, the "get tough on crime" mentality eliminated an extremely effective crime reduction tool. In 1990, there were 350 higher education programs for inmates. In 1997, only 8 programs remained. Since there was no source for replacement funds, these programs were forced to abandon efforts to provide college courses in prison. In nearly every case, the individual's education abruptly ended as funds were denied.

Many institutions also offer state mandated basic education courses and tutoring leading to a GED. Many states have mandatory education laws that require correctional educations courses for any inmate who scores below a certain level on a standardized test. 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 states typically provide funding based, in part, on success as measured by the rate of GED completion. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has also implemented a mandatory education policy that required 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.


In 2000, the total number of prisoners in federal or state facilities was almost 1.4 million. The vast majority of these individuals will be released and will be expected to become productive, law abiding, members of society. Nearly 600,000 inmates are released each year, either unconditionally or under conditions of parole. Unfortunately, many of those released will be rearrested and will return to prison. Costs of this cycle of incarceration and reincarceration are very high. Corrections education has the potential to greatly reduce these costs.

Studies indicate that there are a number of benefits associated with education in prison.   For example, one study indicated that those who benefited from correctional education recidivated 29% less often that those who did not have educational opportunities while in the correctional institution. Even small reductions in recidivism can save millions of dollars in costs associated with keeping the recidivist offender in prison for longer periods of time. Additional costs are apparent when we consider that the individual, had he or she not committed another crime, would be working, paying taxes, and making a positive contribution to the economy. When we add the reduction of costs, both financial and emotional, to victims of crime, the benefits are even greater. Finally, the justice system as a whole, including police and courts, saves a great deal of money when the crime rate is reduced.

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.

Similarly, the Changing Minds study found that only 7.7% of the inmates who took college courses at Bedford Hills returned to prison after release, while 29.9% of the inmates who did not participate in the college program were reincarcerated. The study calculates that this reduction 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 savings are enormous.

The Three State Recidivism Study (Stuart, Smith, and Tracy, 2001) examined the impact of prison education while controlling for the effects of socio-economic factors, criminal behavior, family life, educational experiences, and work history. This study found that inmates who participated in education programs while incarcerated showed lower rates of recidivism after three years. Measures of recidivism, re-arrest, re-conviction and re-incarceration were significantly lower in each of the three states. Employment data demonstrated that during each of the three years after release wages reported to the state labor departments were higher for the education participants than non-participants.

Each of these studies clearly demonstrates the value of correctional education. Recidivism is lowered, saving millions of dollars that would be spent to keep recidivists in prison. Job opportunities and earning potential is increased for individuals released from prison. This increases the chance that the individual will be able to sustain efforts to rejoin society. When we consider the high cost of imprisonment, the increasing prison population, and the increasing number of individuals released from prison at the end of their sentences, education programs provide a cost effective opportunity to reduce crime and the costs of crime.


Prison educators face many challenges that are shared by educators in other settings. Inmates who choose to enroll in corrections-based courses are not necessarily any different from the typical student. As in any class, the range of abilities can include very gifted students, students who face challenges, and students who have various motives for enrolling in the course.

The correctional educator's challenge is 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. For example, other prisoners may not support the individual's educational efforts. Although the student may be very motivated to earn an education, he or she remains in an environment in which conflicting demands may limit the opportunity to act on that motivation. In addition, prison administrators may also have varying degrees of support for education - especially if they see education as a threat to the primary functions of security and control.

Since correctional education programs offer courses in a variety of areas, institutions often rely on a range of funding sources. Some sources will provide general funds while others will provide funding for specific programs. As discussed above, Congress placed significant restrictions on corrections-based college courses with the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. This Act eliminated Pell Grants for prisoners with devastating effects. As a result of the elimination of Pell Grants for prisoners, nearly every prison-based college program was eliminated. Since this funding often provided the foundation for other educational programs, the elimination of these programs had a ripple effect in correctional facilities. The funding problems were exacerbated with the passing of the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA), which became law in 1998. Funding continues to fall short of need and the AEFLA has not improved this situation. The AEFLA continues to provide funding but altered the formula for state funding. Prior to 1998, states were required to spend at least 10 percent of AEFLA funds on educational programming in correctional institutions. The law now requires that they spend no more than 10 percent. Similar limitations were placed on funding as the Perkins Vocational and Technical Act was amended in 1998 to require that no more that one percent of federal funding for vocational and technical education programs be spent in state institutions, including correctional institutions.

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. In the 1990's we began to see a dollar-for-dollar tradeoff between corrections and education spending. New York, for example, steadily increased its Department of Corrections budget by 76 percent to $761 million while decreasing funding to university systems by 28 percent, to $615 million. Research by the RAND Corporation demonstrates that crime prevention is more cost-effective than building prisons and that of all crime prevention methods; education is the most cost-effective. However, states were committing an increasing percentage of their budgets to fund longer prison terms and increased prison construction.


Studies 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 Adult Basic Education while in prison. There is some question as to why corrections-based education leads to lower recidivism. Many of the benefits of education are difficult to measure. As such, it may be difficult to show a clear relationship between educational opportunity and recidivism. However, an intervening factor, the ability to find and hold a job, appears to clearly demonstrate the benefits of corrections-based Adult Basic Education. Individuals who take courses 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. Individuals who benefited from college courses in prison also found better jobs and held these jobs for longer periods of time. It is clear that these factors work together to reduce recidivism - those with more education find stable employment, which makes them less likely to commit crime.

The vast majority of incarcerated individuals will eventually be released. The imprisonment binge over the last 20 years has created a situation where we are beginning to see prison releases at unprecedented levels. Due to strict sentencing guidelines, these prisoners have often served long terms and are released only when their terms have been completely served. As a result, many are released unconditionally, without parole or other post-release supervision. Each of these individuals will be expected to begin leading a productive, law abiding life outside prison walls. It is clear that access to a quality education increases the individual's chance of success.

Correctional educators continue to work with their students while facing constant scrutiny and pessimism from the public and from certain legislators who question the value of their work and the merits of providing educational opportunities for those who have committed serious crimes. Due to various controversies surrounding corrections education most prisoners do not participate in prison education programs. The rate of participation has dropped over the last decade during a time in which crime control efforts became increasing punitive. Given the unprecedented prison population, and the equally unprecedented rate of release, corrections education has the potential to save millions of dollars while improving the lives and opportunities of individuals who have served their time and have successfully paid their debt to society.


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Steurer, 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.

Tolbert, M. (2002). "State Correctional Education Programs." Washington, D.C.: National Institute for Literacy.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Correctional Education (1994). "The Impact of Correctional Education on Recidivism 1988-1994," Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

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