Prison Education Essay

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Prison education is any type of education that has inmates of prisons or jails for students. This includes high school or its equivalency, vocational and academic courses of study, undergraduate, graduate, continuing, certificate, and degree programs. Prison education means different things to different people. The reformer may see it as a means of improving prison conditions. The prison staff may see it as a way to keep prisoners occupied. Educators may see it as remedy for past injustices and researchers may see it as a way to reduce recidivism. Prisoners themselves may see it as a way to pass the time. Taxpayers may see it as a privilege for undeserving students.

Despite the differing attitudes, opinions, and purposes that surround this issue, criminal recidivism (the tendency to relapse into criminal behavior) rates indicate that prison alone is not a deterrent to crime. Society in general, and inmates in particular, need ways to understand, address, treat, and ultimately prevent recurrent criminal behavior. Education is one such method. This entry looks at the history of prison education, debates over its effectiveness, and its current status.

Historical Background

In the 200-year history of prisons in the United States, some type of prison education has always existed. Education has played a role in the social mission of the prison throughout its history, and its role has been shaped and changed in the systemic conflict between security, punishment, and treatment.

The Pennsylvania System

The first prison in the United States was run by Quakers in Philadelphia in 1791. They felt that solitude and the Bible would rehabilitate better than public humiliation or corporal punishment. The rehabilitative ideal affirms that the primary purpose of prison is to effect changes in the characters, attitudes, and behavior of convicted offenders, so as to strengthen the social defense against unwanted behavior, but also to contribute to the welfare and satisfactions of offenders. Education, predominantly religious in content, was seen as an integral part of this ideal and was incorporated in 1798. Quaker rehabilitation-based prisons became known as the Pennsylvania system. Later, in the 1820s, a competing system lacking an educational component, known as the Auburn system, was developed in New York State.

Alternative Systems

In the Pennsylvania system, prisoners were totally isolated except for nightly visits from a chaplain. This chaplain would provide reading lessons to facilitate the reading of the Bible. In the Auburn system, men labored together all day in total silence. The latter’s founders believed that prisoners needed to be treated severely, producing terror and suffering, and they doubted that the prisoners were reform able. By the 1840s, the Pennsylvania system was losing popularity and the Auburn system was adopted by most states.

Toward the end of the 1800s, a different view of criminality emerged, spearheaded by Zebulon Brockway. He felt that some of the blame for a criminal’s behavior fell to society, stemming from environmental influences and poverty. Therefore, he believed that education could provide a regeneration of the individual as well as the individual’s successful reintegration into society. This began the Reformatory era and the first ventures into postsecondary corrections education.

Higher Education

The first higher education courses in prisons were correspondence courses from Columbia University. In the 1920s, other, primarily land-grant colleges, began offering courses in prison, including studies in agriculture, real estate, salesmanship, and remedial level academic courses. College-level studies were given at Sing Sing prison by Columbia University beginning in 1923.

The state of California had the most extensive prison education programs in the country. In 1928, San Quentin prison reported that there were 438 prisoners enrolled in University of California courses. Midwestern inmates took extension courses from colleges and state education agencies. Southern states offered little to no education with the exception of a few, isolated literacy programs. After World War II, due to the GI Bill, adult higher education grew quickly. State colleges and universities increasingly developed continuing education divisions and community colleges. Prison higher education benefited from this growth.

The first degree program in prison was initiated in 1953 by the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale at the Menard State Prison. Inmates were funded by state aid and university grants. Lack of funding was a persistent problem with prison higher education and its growth slowed in the 1950s. By 1965, only twelve postsecondary college education (PSCE) programs were operating on a regular basis.

Pell Grants

Perhaps the single most important event in the development of PSCE occurred in 1965 with the passage of Title IV of the Higher Education Act, which included Pell Grants that were available to prisoners, to pay for higher education. The 1960s and 1970s experienced growth in PSCE unlike any other time in history. Funds were available from public sources, private sources, federal, state and local government, and foundations, although very few received funding from their parent organizations (colleges and universities, etc.). Rehabilitation was a top priority for prisons, which were renamed correctional institutions. The types of education programs attended typically included adult basic education, high school, GED preparation, life skills, vocational training, and postsecondary education. In 1968, there were college programs in thirteen states, and by 1970, there were college programs in thirty-three states. PSCE grew from 182 programs in 1973, to 350 programs in 1982. In 1981, at least 28,000 prisoners were participating in higher education.

Despite criticism, prison education continued and many researchers attempted to prove its efficacy by studying programs and with small-scale syntheses of prior research. Many of these had vague or mixed findings, however, most found somewhat positive connections (i.e., negative correlations, etc.) between PSCE and recidivism. One study showed that inmates with at least two years of college have a 10 percent rearrest rate, compared to a national re-arrest rate of approximately 60 percent.

In 1992, Pell Grants for PSCE were reauthorized with assurances that the Pell Grant was to be used to supplement rather than supplant state funding. In 1994, forty-three states provided associate’s degrees and thirty-one states offered bachelor’s degrees. Nine states offered master’s degrees and three offered doctorates. By 1994, more than 60,000 prisoners appeared to be involved in college-level course work. This growth ended in September of 1994.

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, became public law 103–322 on September 20, 1994. Section 20411 of this act amends the Higher Education Act of 1965 to prohibit awards of Pell Grants to any individual incarcerated in a federal or state penal institution. Once federal aid for prison education was eliminated, state aid was also cut. In 1990, there were 350 higher education programs for inmates. In 1997, there were 8. If prisons are offering any education at all, it is increasingly likely to be computer-based distance learning or housed in programs directly controlled by state departments of corrections.

Pros And Cons

A debate surrounds what types of education are best for inmates. Current trends are away from traditional college courses held in prison, and moving toward an education component specifically designed for prisoners. Since a traditional college education includes problem-solving and critical thinking skills, a more global worldview, and an understanding of society, it is a matter of debate that programs that focus on literacy, mathematics, occupational factors, good behaviors, attitudes, and discipline, only (for example), enough to enable an inmate to make qualitative changes and achieve legitimate success in life.

The argument for educating prisoners goes beyond the notion of criminals’ perceived worthiness or, more likely, unworthiness, of such an effort. Examining the constructs of crime and punishment further complicates the issue. Freud believed that the reason governments forbid wrongdoing is not their desire to abolish it but their desire to monopolize it. Michel Foucault felt that society deliberately created the notion of crime in order to justify law enforcement that was available in case it was needed to suppress political dissent. The concept of crime was also used to funnel aggressive members of society’s lower class away from revolution against the dominant social structure.

Rehabilitation demands the constant search for the sources of criminality, which inevitably leads to discussions of how certain social contexts place youth at risk. The fact that the predominance of prisoners come from low socioeconomic families and communities, typically have had less education, both in terms of years completed and the quality of instruction and resources available, is no coincidence. It is a fact that, nationwide, over 70 percent of all people entering state correctional facilities have not completed high school, lending credibility to the assertion that education and criminal behavior are negatively correlated.


The tough-on-crime stance of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries makes it highly unlikely that a rebirth of the rehabilitation movement will be easily rekindled though legislation or government programs. Despite two decades of decline in correctional treatment, the rehabilitative ideal has shown amazing tenacity.

Although a return to the pre-1994 funding of PSCE would improve and expand its role and impact enormously, it is doubtful that this will occur. Alternative funding is in place in some areas and some grants are available for those inmates under twenty-six years old. Most mission statements of higher education institutions include some kind of commitment to the community. Educational partnerships with correctional institutions are worth consideration and investigation in line with that mission.


  1. Allen, F. A. (1981). The decline of the rehabilitative ideal. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  2. Center on Crime, Communities and Culture. (1997, September). Education as crime prevention (Research brief). New York: Open Society Institute.
  3. Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. London: Penguin Books.
  4. Frolander-Ulf, M., & Yates, M. (2001, July/August). Teaching in prison. Monthly Review, 114–127.
  5. Reuss, A. (1999). Prison(er) education. The Howard Journal, 38(2), 113–127.
  6. Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, P.L. 103-322, 108 Stat. 1796 (1994).
  7. Welsh, M. F. (2002). The effects of the elimination of Pell Grant eligibility for state prison inmates. Journal of Correctional Education, 53(4), 154–158.
  8. Williford, M. (1994). Higher education in prison: A contradiction in terms? Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.

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