Inequalities in Education for Incarcerated Individuals

by Jesse Kapstad

What You Can Do

  1. Learn more about prison education at Cornell:
  2. Read further on the benefits of education in prisons:
  3. Learn more about the recently lifted ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated individuals

Victor Hugo once said: “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.” Societies with high percentages of educated individuals have lower levels of poverty, healthier living, and more equality. Education has a large effect on reducing crime and recidivism rates, as well as in acting as a key to a variety of jobs and socioeconomic mobility [1]. Unfortunately, nearly 41% of incarcerated individuals do not have a high school diploma―a rate more than double that of the general population―and they often run into barriers when searching for jobs because of their lack of formal education [2].

The issue of inequalities in education for incarcerated individuals stems from the fact that many prisons do not provide an education that prepares them with the skills needed to succeed in the workplace. While the majority of prisons offer and even require GED courses for those who do not have a high school diploma, these courses often only focus on the fundamentals of reading, writing, and arithmetic [3]. By cutting out basic high school requirements like biology, algebra, history, and social sciences, and instead focusing only on passing GED exams, these prison education classes set those enrolled in them up for failure. GEDs earned in prison often do not lead to the same level of educational advancement that those earned outside of prison do. Less than 10% of people that earned a GED in prison go on to take college classes, and less than 1% complete their college degree. Comparatively, over 40% of people who earned a GED outside of prison go on to some college, and 4.8% receive their degree [4]. 

The cutting of educational budgets within prisons acts as a powerful force preventing incarcerated individuals from supplying their toolbox with the life skills they need to acquire a stable job. A lack of funding is oftentimes the reason why these education programs are unsuccessful. Funding is a major part of the quality of education that incarcerated individuals receive. However, schools and prisons often lose financial support when officials have to adjust budgets. For example, the recession in 2008 led to a decrease in the educational budgets of state prisons by 6% between 2009 and 2012 [1]. Funding limitations distorts the value of a GED obtained in prison, until it no longer represents the preparedness for advancement that it is intended to. 

The disparity in the level of education for incarcerated individuals also divides along racial and ethnic lines. Incarcerated minorities are disproportionately more likely to not have completed formal education compared to incarcerated white people. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, “About 44% of Black state prison inmates and 53% of Hispanic inmates had not graduated from high school or received a GED compared to 27% of whites in state prisons” [6]. This stems from a multitude of issues negatively affecting communities of color, such as the school-to-prison pipeline, which is the system of punitive actions in schools that draw students into the criminal justice system early on. Black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students, increasing the likelihood that a youth will end up incarcerated and unable to complete their high school diploma [9]. Research shows that this disruption of education has long-lasting effects, often preventing incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals from completing their studies as well as from finding jobs [4]. As a result, this creates a need for prisons to focus on providing quality education to those most negatively affected.

Education has a vastly positive impact on crime by drastically lowering the rate of recidivism. More than 75% of individuals released from prison are rearrested within five years [5]. However, this number is 43% lower among those who participated in education programs offered in prison. A strong correlation of decreased rearrests follows the level of education. For those who pursue secondary education and obtain an associate degree, the recidivism rate drops to 14%. That number further drops to 5.6% for those who obtain a bachelor’s degree [5]. While over 9 in every 10 prisons around the country offer some type of education program, less than a quarter of individuals actually participate in a high school diploma or GED course. Moreover, the Bureau of Justice Statistics noted a 4% decline in GED course usage during the time of their study, conducted between 1991 and 1997, indicating an increasingly failing system despite yielding positive results [6].

In addition to its role in curbing recidivism and reducing crime, education in prisons also acts as a form of preparation for necessary life skills. Many incarcerated individuals have unstable home lives or struggle in professional social situations because they have little exposure to them. In response, prison education systems have the ability to improve social navigation and self-sufficiency through classes on healthy living, financial management, and interpersonal relationships. Furthermore, this development can counteract the effects of “prisonization,” the process in which people who are incarcerated assimilate to a prison lifestyle and criminal values [7]. Prisons with substantial budgets are able to offer classes that help incarcerated individuals overcome discrimination and pursue careers. These can range from GED programs that improve literacy to Associate and Baccalaureate degrees. Additionally, some prisons offer vocational program training in areas like carpentry, auto repair, and plumbing. In terms of future employment, education helps to balance out the negative associations of conviction. It displays this by demonstrating an individual’s commitment to progress and a new lifestyle, which is something that employers look favorably upon.

Incarcerated individuals are in a disadvantaged situation because the number of available jobs that do not require a high school diploma is shrinking. As society advances in the percentage of the population that has completed secondary education, incarcerated individuals get left behind because of inadequate GED programs. Moreover, the gap between those with a bachelor’s degree and those without continues to widen. Estimates of the increased income from a bachelor’s degree compared to just a high school diploma place it at $1,000,000 on average in lifetime earnings. This means that those enrolled in a prison GED program that does not prepare them for college classes are statistically less likely to earn as much income over the course of their lives than a college graduate. Not only do barriers to education present a reduction in income, but they are also linked to job instability [8]. Due to deficient resources at their disposal to complete a GED that prepares them for college, incarcerated individuals are unable to bridge this gap. This creates a self-reinforcing cycle that ties into high recidivism rates.

Fortunately, society is making efforts towards expanding education access and quality in prisons. Recently, Congress lifted the ban on awarding Pell Grants to people in prison, which the 1994 Crime Bill initially put in place. Lifting this ban gives promise to many incarcerated individuals seeking a way to break out of the system to pursue higher education. Allowing people in prison to receive Pell Grants gives them a greater opportunity to pursue skills and formal education that will assist them in preparing for a steady job and combatting discrimination they face because of their past jail time. This, in turn, makes it easier for incarcerated individuals to demonstrate to employers their dedication to a new focus in life. While a supporter of the ban might argue that it is unfair for people with a criminal record to receive federal monetary support while others with no record do not, the benefits to society greatly outweigh this. Along with lowering rates of crime, poverty, and recidivism, expanding educational access for incarcerated individuals also saves taxpayer dollars. A study found that taxpayers saved about four dollars in re-incarceration costs for every dollar invested in prison education [5]. However, this effort just scratches the surface; far too many prison education programs are underfunded and underutilized. Smarter investments in prison education are necessary in order to maximize the rehabilitative and preventative aspects of the system.