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Why Should We Care About Education in Prison?

By Emily Ma | Inquiry Essay

Under a darkened sky, raindrops drew trails across my skin and onto the concrete pavement as I walked towards the entrance of a large building resembling a school. The words Montgomery County Correctional Facility (MCCF) were emblazoned across the face of the building. As part of my honors seminar assignment, my class visited this facility to physically see what we were learning about in class. I was quite surprised about the tour; this facility looked nothing like what I had expected --- dull, gray cells and dirty walls and floors. Inside, I walked along wide, clean hallways. To my right, fifteen young men in green uniforms were escorted one-by-one out of a room. It was the end of class. To my left, I noticed that through the window a class in session. Vivid posters displaying words of encouragement littered the classroom walls. One student raised his hand and muttered words I could not comprehend, but the instructor nodded his head approvingly with a smile. One of the management leaders, Mr. Henry, explained that the facility put a great deal of emphasis on education and other rehabilitation programs. These programs helped inmates get their minds off criminal behavior and do something productive while serving their sentences. My classmate who was skeptical about the incorporation of education immediately expressed his sentiments: “But I thought these inmates were being punished for their crimes, not given the priority to receive education while some other people in the world have no access to education.” Even today, people share different perspectives about education in prison, leading to arguments about whether it is something that should be enforced or disregarded. Besides the debate about these programs’ practicality, the money and resources needed for these prisoners to receive an education also creates conflict amongst different social and political groups. Thus, it is important to consider the issue of implementing academic and vocational education in prison.

Just like many of the inmates in the Montgomery County Correctional Facility, many prisoners have little or no educational background. According to a study in 1997 by Caroline Wolf Harlow, around 41% of State and Federal prison inmates have not finished high school or its equivalent. Additionally, passing the GED (General Educational Development) test was the highest level of education attained for about 25% of State prison inmates and 20% of Federal inmates. Over 9 in 10 State prisons and all Federal prisons provided educational programs for their inmates. Basic education includes classes teaching basic skills such as arithmetic and reading. Secondary education programs consist of the most common courses that aim to prepare for the GED. Vocational training, which is present in 56% of State prisons and 94% of Federal prisons, helps people to learn specific skills required for a job. About 33% of State and Federal prison inmates participated in vocational training in order to learn certain job skills, and around 25% of prison inmates took high school level classes (Harlow 1-4).

 Various studies conducted on Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs, also known as vocational programs, in different prisons came up with conflicting conclusions. This signified that it is not really clear whether these programs are actually beneficial. The Prison Education Research Project (PERP) involved in a study reported that the programs lowered the rate of recidivism and saw a trend in better post release employment patterns. Additionally, there were fewer arrests following their release as opposed to the inmates who did not participate in CTE programs. A study by Saylor and Gaes reported that the prisoners who received this education while still incarcerated broke fewer rules, were more likely to complete their stays in halfway houses, and were more likely to have their paroles revoked. Also, they showed a better chance of being employed (Ward 193-194).

However, some studies that researched on the effects of the same CTE programs showed opposite results: education had little to no effect on the recidivism rates of educated prisoners. From the 1967 Martinson Report, which is one of the very few studies conducted, the researchers only found a correlation between CTE and a lower recidivism rate when a person found a job that was related to his or her area of training. Skill-based training that was offered in prisons did not prepare the prisoners for the skills needed outside of prison. Another study in 1997 saw that inmates who graduated from CTE programs in Oklahoma actually had recidivated earlier than those who did not participate in these education programs (Ward 195). Thus, inmates may still be prone to returning back to prison, even if educated. 

Besides the conflicting results of these studies about the possible benefits of inmate education, another problem that arises from educating these prisoners is: how can we afford to provide these programs in prisons? According to the article “Push to Expand Book-Learning Behind Bars,” funding and staffing for educational programs could not keep up with the significant increase in prison populations throughout the 1990s. An inmate population today of around 160,000 would have about 600 teachers in the prison education system. However, 15 years ago, an inmate population of 30,000 would have had 800 teachers. In 1994, many inmates were restricted from receiving the Pell grant to pursue college degrees because of the high costs (Van Slambrouk 3). In Maryland, the cost to keep one prisoner behind bars is around $20,000. Additionally, the Maryland Department of Education allocates between $11 million and $12 million for inmate education programs each year (Stockwell M08). These numbers vary from state to state. Nonetheless, the staggering amount of money needed to support education programs in addition to the cost of keeping a person in jail strongly suggests why it is a struggle to afford these programs.

When regarding the issue of education in prison, one must also keep in mind the multiple perspectives on how education in prison is viewed. Some people oppose education in prison, while others strongly support it. The meaning of success for the incarcerated may be defined differently by prisoners versus prison teachers or researchers. In general and in accordance to many studies, “success” means lower rates of recidivism, lower parole revocation patterns, and an improvement in institutional disciplinary records (Ward 193). One particular ex-prisoner, Tim Terry, was part of the Palmetto prison’s GED program and earned his diploma. After his release, he organized four different programs in South Carolina because he was motivated to help other prisoners to get a new start. His way of “success” was starting a new life and helping other ex-prisoners to go on that same path (Barnett 3A). On the other hand, the meaning of success may be different for prison instructors. Robert Gordon, a prison teacher in Washington State, believed that success lies in the actual knowledge of the incarcerated. Since educational programs were being eliminated after he taught at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, there were many inmates who would have received an education but could not. Thus, inmates were lacking “marketable skills, confidence, and an expanded sense of possibilities” that they could have acquired while receiving education (Gordon 9).  Personal accounts of the effects of educational programs in prison give a deeper perspective of how one can utilize the skills and knowledge learned in many ways.

In contrast to the perspectives of Gordon and Terry, some people, such as the student in my honors class, believe that prisoners are locked up for only one reason: to be punished for a crime they committed. Ted Deeds, an officer of the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, stated, “We should not be spending more money for touchy-feely programs when we don’t have enough money right now for actual brick and mortar prisons and bed space” (qtd. in Barnett 3A). He believes money should be spent first on creating more space in prisons to prevent overcrowding rather than be spent on “accessories.” Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson from Texas argues, “Prisons exist for the protection of society, not the comfort and convenience of criminals” (Katel 296). In other words, she believes prison should be a place for punishment and not a place for criminals to have the opportunity to be educated.

Ultimately, are these education programs worth funding for and keeping? After all, it all comes down to morality: Should we solely lock up prisoners to punish them for their criminal behavior? Or should we give these prisoners the opportunity to be educated which may positively and significantly change the course of their futures?


Barnett, Ron. “Incarcerated Getting Education; Programs Aim to Prepare Inmates for Life Outside and Keep Them From Coming Back.” USA Today 25 September 2008: 3A. LexisNexis Academic News. Web. 27 March 2010.

Gordon, Robert Ellis. “My Life as a Prison Teacher.” Christian Science Monitor 12 March 2001: 9. LexisNexis Academic News. Web. 31 March 2010.

Harlow, Caroline Wolf. Education and Correctional Populations. Washington: U.S. Dept. of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, January 2003. Web. 28 March 2010. <>

Katel, Peter. “Prison Reform.” CQ Researcher 6 April 2007: 295-297.Web. 28 March 2010. <>

Linton, John. “United States Department of Education Update.” Journal of Correctional Education 60.2 (June 2009): 92-95. Academic Search Premier. Web. 28 March 2010.

Stockwell, Jamie. “Study Finds Value in Educating Prison Inmates.” Washington Post 16 November 2000: M08. LexisNexis Academic News. Web. 27 March 2010.

Van Slambrouck, Paul. “Push to Expand Book-Learning Behind Bars.” Christian Science Monitor 15 September 2000: 3. LexisNexis Academic News. Web. 27 March 2010.

Ward, Shakoor A. “Career and Technical Education in United States Prisons: What Have We Learned?” Journal of Correctional Education 60.3 (September 2009): 191-200. Academic Search Premier. Web. 27 March 2010.