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From the
Classroom to
the Community
Exploring the Role of Education
during Incarceration and Reentry

Diana Brazzell
Anna Crayton
Debbie A. Mukamal
Amy L. Solomon
Nicole Lindahl

Justice Policy Center

Copyright © 2009. The Urban Institute. Permission is granted for reproduction of this document,
with attribution to the Urban Institute.
The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization that
examines the social, economic, and governance problems facing the nation. The views
expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its
trustees, or its funders.
This project was supported by Grant No. 2008-MU-MU-K002 awarded by the Bureau of Justice
Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the Office of Justice Programs,
which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office
of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, and the Office for Victims of Crime. Points of
view or opinions in this document are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of the United States Department of Justice.

Contents

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

V

INTRODUCTION: EDUCATION, INCARCERATION, AND REENTRY

1

THE CURRENT LANDSCAPE OF EDUCATION DURING INCARCERATION AND REENTRY

6

RESEARCH ON THE EFFECTIVENESS OF CORRECTIONAL EDUCATION

16

EDUCATION BEHIND THE WALLS: CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES

24

FROM CLASSROOM TO COMMUNITY: EDUCATION AND REENTRY

36

CONCLUSION

41

REFERENCES

44

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

49

iii

Acknowledgments

T

he authors would like to thank the many individuals
and organizations that made this report possible.

First, we would like to thank Jeremy Travis, the president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, for
serving as the facilitator of the Reentry Roundtable on Education, which serves as the basis for this
report. We would also like to thank the Roundtable participants whose thoughtful discussion over the
course of the meeting shaped the content of the report. We owe a special thanks to the following individuals who prepared discussion papers and presentations that framed the meeting and greatly influenced this monograph: Christopher Mumola, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics;
Theodore M. Shaw, Columbia University School of Law; Bruce Western, Harvard University; Gerry Gaes,
Florida State University; Aik Boon Ng, Singapore Prison Service; Doris MacKenzie, University of
Maryland; Cindy Borden and Penny Richardson, Northstar Correctional Education Services; Peter
Leone and Michael Wilson, University of Maryland; Michael P. Krezmien, University of Texas; Rosa Cho
and John Tyler, Brown University; Jeanne Contardo, Business-Higher Education Forum; Michelle
Tolbert, MPR Associates; and Suzanne Neusteter, John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
We would also like to thank Gwynne Cunningham, Virginia Department of Correctional Education; Jody
Lewen, Prison University Project; and Anne Charles, Transforming Lives Network, Correctional Education
Association, for facilitating access to incarcerated students. These students’ input on the Roundtable
papers was extremely valuable and offered a critical perspective to the Roundtable discussion, and we
thank them for their contributions.
We are also grateful to Gerry Gaes; John Linton, U.S. Department of Education; Stefan LoBuglio,
Montgomery County Department of Correction and Rehabilitation; and Doris MacKenzie, who provided

v

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

critical feedback on various drafts of the report. Finally, we thank our funders and project partners, the Achelis and Bodman Foundations; the Bureau of Justice Assistance
and the National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice; the Office of
Vocational and Adult Education, U.S. Department of Education; the late Louis Reese III
and his wife Susan Reese; and Jim Grenon. Without their support, this document would
not have been possible. Lou Reese’s vision, commitment to correctional education, and
energy inspired us to undertake this project. We are indebted to him and hope that this
report appropriately honors his memory.

vi

Introduction
Education, Incarceration, and Reentry

T

he United States now has both the highest incarceration rate and the largest total number of people

behind bars of any country in the world: 2.3 million. For the first time in U.S. history,
more than one in every 100 adults is currently incarcerated in jail or prison (The Pew
Charitable Trusts 2008). The impact of this level of incarceration is acutely concentrated within particular communities, classes, and racial groups. In 2005, the national
incarceration rate for whites was 412 per 100,000, compared with 2,290 per 100,000
for blacks and 742 per 100,000 for Hispanics (Mauer and King 2007). Recent studies
demonstrate that young black men, particularly those without college educations, are
the population most affected by incarceration (The Pew Charitable Trusts 2008;
Western 2006).
Nearly 95 percent of the nation’s incarcerated population will eventually be released
and will return home to communities across the country (Travis 2005). This year alone,
more than 700,000 people will leave state and federal prison (West and Sabol 2008)
and more than 9 million individuals will cycle in and out of local jails (Solomon et al.
2008). When they are released, many of these individuals will return to some of the
most impoverished neighborhoods in the country (La Vigne, Cowan, and Brazzell
2006; Lynch and Sabol 2001). They will confront serious challenges as they struggle to
reconnect with their families and neighbors and become productive members of

1

FROM THE CLASSROOM TO THE COMMUNITY

Inmates would like to have the
same educational opportunities
as people on the streets.
Exercising our minds with healthy
educational opportunities and
preparing ourselves to transition
back into society is . . . important

society. The likelihood of these individuals returning to criminal activity is high: within three years of release, 68 percent
of people released from state and federal prison are rearrested and over half return to prison (Langan and Levin
2002). Identifying effective strategies for reintegrating the
thousands of men and women who return home from prison
and jail each year is critical not only for them, but also for the
health and stability of their families and the safety and wellbeing of their communities. Given the potential impact on
public safety, community well-being, and criminal justice
budgets, prisoner reintegration should be an important priority for national, state, and local governments.

for everyone.
While there has been increasing discussion about the intersection of prisoner reentry and issues of workforce developINCARCERATED
ment, housing, health, and public safety, insufficient attention
IN VIRGINIA
has been paid to the role that in-prison and post-prison education can play in facilitating successful reentry. Education has
been widely recognized as a pathway to assimilation and
economic mobility for immigrant and other disadvantaged populations throughout
U.S. history (Isaacs, Sawhill, and Haskins 2008). For people involved in the criminal justice system, education offers a path to increased employment, reduced recidivism, and
improved quality of life (Gaes 2008).

— FRANK, A STUDENT

Access to education is particularly important given current economic trends. Economists
predict that the labor market will tighten in the next decade and that labor market
inequality, particularly among unskilled workers, will continue to grow if the demands
for skilled labor are not met (Holzer and Nightingale 2007). An ever-increasing share of
jobs in the U.S. economy requires postsecondary preparation, and college-educated
workers earn 26 to 36 percent more than individuals who have not attended college
(Decker et al. 1997). If properly designed and implemented, education programs in
correctional facilities and communities can provide individuals involved in the criminal justice system with the academic instruction, vocational training, and cognitive and
life skills they need to succeed in today’s economy.
Despite its potential for changing lives, high-quality education is not readily accessible to many people involved in the justice system. Adults returning from prison and
jail and those on community supervision are still overwhelmingly undereducated compared with the general population, with lower levels of formal educational attainment
and poorer performance on tests of basic literacy (Crayton and Neusteter 2008).
Fortunately, opportunities to address the educational needs of criminal justice populations may expand as policymakers increasingly recognize the limitations of the
nation’s narrow approach to crime and public safety issues. The passage of the federal
Second Chance Act in April 2008, for example, indicates a remarkable shift in the political will to address the challenges facing currently and formerly incarcerated individu-

2

INTRODUCTION

als and encourage their potential to contribute to society.1
Instead of threatening community safety and draining economic resources, formerly incarcerated people with educational preparation and other supports can provide for themselves and their families and contribute to the economic and
social well-being of their communities.

The whole enterprise of
correctional education—the
teachers, the volunteers, the
classrooms, the books, the
computers—helps humanize
correctional facilities and plays a

The Reentry Roundtable
on Education
Recognizing the pressing need to explore the issues surrounding education, incarceration, and reentry, the Prisoner
Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and
the Urban Institute hosted the Reentry Roundtable on
Education on March 31 and April 1, 2008, at John Jay College
of Criminal Justice in New York City. The two-day meeting
examined the current state of education during incarceration
and reentry and identified promising programmatic and policy directions. Twenty-nine individuals participated in the
Roundtable, along with more than 100 observers. As a starting point for the discussion, seven papers were commissioned on various topics related to the intersection of education, incarceration, and reentry. A list of the papers and
the meeting participants can be found in the text boxes on
pages 4 and 5. The Roundtable also benefited from the input
of several incarcerated students with whom the papers were
shared before the event. The students provided comments,
suggestions for discussion, and questions that were shared
with the Roundtable participants during the sessions. Comments from the incarcerated students as well as the Roundtable attendees are included throughout this monograph.

key role in relieving inmate stress
and frustration by focusing
incarcerated individuals on
positive and constructive activities
and relationships. Students benefit
directly from these programs by
improving their skills and
knowledge, and staff—particularly
correctional officers—benefit from
working with individuals who are
more cooperative and better
adjusted to their circumstances.
More than that, educational
programs help elevate the mission
and professionalism of corrections

Monograph Roadmap
The Reentry Roundtable on Education provided a valuable
opportunity to assess the state of knowledge and practice and
identify promising new approaches, issues of concern, and
opportunities for collaboration and innovation. This monograph synthesizes the findings of the Roundtable papers and
Erik Eckholm, “U.S. Shifting Prison Focus to Re-entry Into Society,” New
York Times, April 8, 2008.

1

from one of warehousing
individuals to one of preparing
individuals for their futures.
— STEFAN LOBUGLIO,
CHIEF OF PRE-RELEASE AND REENTRY
SERVICES, MONTGOMERY COUNTY
(MARYLAND) DEPARTMENT OF
CORRECTION AND REHABILITATION

3

FROM THE CLASSROOM TO THE COMMUNITY

the discussion generated throughout the sessions. It offers examples of innovative strategies being employed across the country to provide high-quality services, and it aims to
contextualize correctional education within broader trends in the fields of education and
criminal justice. Although the intent is to explore education during both incarceration and
reentry, much of the material in the monograph focuses on correctional education
because research on education for former prisoners in the community is limited.
To begin, the monograph surveys the current landscape of correctional education,
discussing both the educational needs of people involved in the criminal justice system and the programs being provided to meet those needs. It then reviews research
on the effectiveness of correctional education and guiding principles for effective programming, as well as gaps in the research literature. The subsequent section discusses
the issues involved in providing education in correctional settings and identifies some
potential responses to these challenges. The monograph then explores education
during reentry and the connections between educational programs provided during
incarceration and educational and employment opportunities available in the community. The report closes by looking to the future and highlighting key issues and new
directions in research, policy, and practice.

ROUNDTABLE PAPERS
Seven commissioned papers were presented at the Reentry Roundtable on Education and findings from the papers were incorporated into this monograph. The papers are available online
at http://www.urban.org/projects/reentry-roundtable/roundtable10.cfm and at http://www.jjay.
cuny.edu/centersandinstitutes/pri/1932.php.
The Current State of Correctional Education, by Anna Crayton and Suzanne Rebecca Neusteter
The Impact of Prison Education Programs on Post-Release Outcomes, by Gerald G. Gaes
Structure and Components of Successful Educational Programs, by Doris Layton MacKenzie
Understanding and Responding to the Education Needs of Special Populations in Adult
Corrections, by Peter E. Leone, Michael Wilson, and Michael P. Krezmien
The Effective Use of Technology in Correctional Education, by Cindy Borden and Penny
Richardson
Prison-Based Adult Basic Education (ABE) and Post-Release Labor Market Outcomes, by Rosa
Cho and John Tyler
Prison Postsecondary Education: Bridging Learning from Incarceration to the Community,
by Jeanne Contardo and Michelle Tolbert
Video recordings of two Roundtable sessions are also available online, at
http://johnjay.jjay.cuny.edu/reentry/part1 and http://johnjay.jjay.cuny.edu/reentry/part2.
“Bridging Learning from Incarceration to the Community,” presented by Jeanne Contardo
and Michelle Tolbert
“Race, Poverty and Education: Intersections with Incarceration and Reentry,” presented by
Bruce Western and Ted Shaw

4

INTRODUCTION

ROUNDTABLE PARTICIPANTS
Twenty-nine individuals participated in the Roundtable, including policymakers, practitioners,
and researchers representing the criminal justice and education fields.
Steve Aos, Associate Director, Washington State Institute for Public Policy
Jimmy Santiago Baca, Founder, Cedar Tree, Inc.
James T. Barry, President, Mount Marty College
Joe Baumann, Chapter President, California Rehabilitation Center, California Correctional
Peace Officers Association
Theodis Beck, Secretary, North Carolina Department of Correction
Onaje Benjamin, Transition Counselor, Dutchess County Jail Transition Program
Cindy Borden, Cofounder, Northstar Correctional Education Services
Nancy Compton, Principal, Charles A. Jones Skill Center
Jeanne Contardo, Director of Programs, Business-Higher Education Forum
Mindy Feldbaum, Director of Workforce Development Programs, National Institute for Work
and Learning
Brian Fischer, Commissioner, New York State Department of Correctional Services
Gerry Gaes, Visiting Researcher, College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Florida State
University
Kathy Goebel, Program Administrator, Corrections Education, Washington State Board for
Community and Technical Colleges
Jodina Hicks, Vice President of Public Policy and Community Partnerships, Safer
Foundation
J. Scott Johnston, Chief State Supervisor, Division of Parole and Probation, Missouri
Department of Corrections
Cheryl Keenan, Director, Division of Adult Education and Literacy, Office of Vocational and
Adult Education, United States Department of Education
Peter Leone, Professor, Department of Special Education, University of Maryland,
College Park
Jody Lewen, Director, Prison University Project
Stefan LoBuglio, Chief of Pre-Release and Reentry Services, Pre-Release Center, Montgomery
County Department of Correction and Rehabilitation
Doris Mackenzie, Professor of Criminology, University of Maryland, College Park
John Nally, Director of Education, Indiana Department of Correction
Vivian Nixon, Executive Director, College and Community Fellowship
Steve Schwalb, President and CEO, Pioneer Human Services
Steve Steurer, Executive Director, Correctional Education Association
Michelle Tolbert, Associate Director of Adult Education and Literacy, MPR Associates
Jeremy Travis, President, John Jay College of Criminal Justice (Facilitator)
John Tyler, Associate Professor of Education and Public Policy, Brown University
Reginald Wilkinson, President and CEO, Ohio College Access Network
Jeanne Woodford, Chief Adult Probation Officer, San Francisco County Adult Probation
Department
(Note: Individuals are listed with their titles and affiliations at the time of the Roundtable.)

5

The Current Landscape
of Education during
Incarceration and Reentry

P

eople involved in the criminal justice system are significantly less educated than the general population,

as measured by both formal educational attainment and educational performance.
Justice-involved individuals typically have lower literacy levels than the general population and are less likely to have a high school diploma or general educational development (GED) certificate or to have received any postsecondary education. Many prisons and jails offer education programs in an attempt to address these disparities,
although typically only a portion of inmates actually receives programming. Commonly
available correctional education programs include academic instruction at all levels,
special education courses for students with disabilities, and vocational training and life
skills programs that provide concrete skills. This section examines the educational needs
of individuals involved in the criminal justice system, the programs available to meet
those needs, and the funding sources used to finance education for this population.2

2 In their paper for the Roundtable, “The Current State of Correctional Education,” Anna Crayton and
Suzanne Neusteter (2008) thoroughly review much of the information covered in this section.

6

THE CURRENT LANDSCAPE OF EDUCATION DURING INCARCERATION AND REENTRY

TABLE 1

Formal Educational Attainment by Population (percent)
Less than
high school

High school
diploma

GED

Any
postsecondary

General population (2003)

19

26

5

51

Federal prisoners (2004)

26

17

29

27

State prisoners (2004)

37

17

32

14

Jail inmates (2002)

44

26

17

13

State parolees (1999)

51

42

7

State/local probationers (1995)

42

40

18

Population

Sources: For general population, Greenberg, Dunleavy, and Kutner (2007); federal and state prison,
Crayton and Neusteter (2008); jail, James (2004); state parole, Hughes, Wilson, and Beck (2001); and
state and local probation, Bonczar (1997).
Note: Data for state and federal prisoners, jail inmates, and parolees represent educational level at
prison intake. The general population comprises adults age 16 and older.

The Need for Education: Prisoner Profile
The disparities in educational attainment between incarcerated individuals and the
general population are striking (table 1), though the gap has recently been narrowing.
In 1997, 61 percent of state and federal prisoners and 82 percent of the general population had high school diplomas or GEDs (Harlow 2003). By 2003–04, 65 percent of
prisoners had diplomas or GEDs, while the rate among the general population held
steady at 82 percent (Crayton and Neusteter 2008; Greenberg, Dunleavy, and Kutner
2007). The growth in high school or equivalent educational attainment among prisoners has primarily been in GEDs. Between 1997 and 2004, the share of prisoners with
GEDs increased from 28 to 31 percent, while the share with high school diplomas
declined by nearly 5 percentage points (Harlow 2003; Crayton and Neusteter 2008).3
Further, 7 in 10 prisoners who had a GED reported obtaining it while in prison (Crayton
and Neusteter 2008). These statistics suggest that a GED is increasingly the vehicle by
which incarcerated individuals obtain high school credentials, although obtaining a
GED typically provides a different educational experience than attending and graduating from high school.
The largest disparity in educational attainment between prisoners and the general
population has been and continues to be in postsecondary education, with a gap that
is almost twice that of high school/GED attainment. In 2004, 17 percent of state and
federal prisoners had some level of postsecondary education, up from 12 percent in
1997 but still far behind the rate of 51 percent among the general population (Crayton
and Neusteter 2008; Greenberg et al. 2007; Harlow 2003). According to former U.S.

These statistics do not include individuals who had gone beyond their high school attainment to obtain
postsecondary education.

3

7

FROM THE CLASSROOM TO THE COMMUNITY

Department of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, “90 percent of the fastestgrowing jobs require postsecondary education or training” (Spellings 2007). As GED
completion rates among prisoners continue to rise and a college degree becomes
increasingly essential in the U.S. job market, the case for providing postsecondary
educational opportunities to prisoners becomes more compelling.
Data on educational attainment among jail inmates and individuals on probation and
parole are much more limited and less recent. Like state and federal prisoners, these
populations are significantly less educated than the general U.S. population (table 1). Jail
inmates, state parolees, and people on state or local probation are also less likely to have
completed high school than state and federal prisoners (although the figures for jail
inmates, parolees, and probationers are less recent and may have changed). Historical
data indicate that, as with state and federal prisoners, education levels have increased
among jail inmates and state parolees over the past several years (historical data are not
available for people on probation).4 These gains were primarily in the share of individuals receiving a high school diploma or GED; unlike state and federal prisoners, jail
inmates and state parolees did not see increased rates of postsecondary education.
Incarcerated individuals lag behind the general population not only in formal educational attainment, but also in educational performance and abilities. According to the
National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), people who are incarcerated have lower
literacy rates than those who are not. The NAAL attempts to measure individuals’ abilities to “us[e] printed and written information to function in society, to achieve [their]
goals, and to develop [their] knowledge and potential,” and it assesses literacy in three
areas: prose, document, and quantitative (Greenberg et al. 2007). State and federal prisoners score significantly lower than the general population in all three domains, although
prisoner scores did improve between 1992 and 2003. Some of the most interesting findings from the 2003 NAAL are the trends within racial groups. Unlike white prisoners, black
and Hispanic adult prisoners had better literacy scores in some areas than black and
Hispanic adults in the general population (see figure 1 for an example). This is an interesting and unexpected finding, but it has not yet been confirmed by other studies.5
Another important facet of the educational profile of the incarcerated population is
the high prevalence of learning disabilities, emotional and behavioral disorders, and
mental illness. These issues frequently go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed and untreated
or improperly treated, which is part of the reason many incarcerated individuals have
had difficulty succeeding in the public education system in the past. Unfortunately the
same problem often occurs within correctional facilities, as evidenced by the lack of

4 James (2004) documents educational attainment among jail inmates in 1996 and 2002. Hughes and colleagues (2001) address attainment among people on state parole in 1990 and 1999.
5 There are some methodological issues with the NAAL study that make interpreting these fa
indings difficult. Individuals who are not literate in English or who have cognitive or mental disabilities that prevent them
from being tested are not included in the NAAL sample. It is possible that illiteracy and disability rates—
and thus the rate of exclusion from the study—among the incarcerated population differ from rates among
the general population.

8

THE CURRENT LANDSCAPE OF EDUCATION DURING INCARCERATION AND REENTRY

FIGURE 1. PERCENTAGE OF INDIVIDUALS SCORING AT BELOW-BASIC LEVEL IN
PROSE LITERACY, BY INCARCERATION STATUS AND RACE, 2003
45
Prison
General population

35

24
15
11

9

Black

Hispanic

13

7

White

Other

Source: 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (Greenberg et al. 2007).

reliable data on the number and types of disabilities among inmates. Most correctional systems do not maintain data on special needs individuals, and often the numbers they have are grossly underestimated owing to low diagnosis rates (Leone,
Wilson, and Krezmien 2008). The only existing national figures come from selfreported data from inmate surveys. In the 2003 NAAL survey, 17 percent of incarcerated individuals reported being diagnosed with some type of learning disability, compared with 6 percent of the general population (Greenberg et al. 2007). According to
Harlow (2003), 40 percent of state prisoners report having a disability of some type,
including 10 percent who report having a learning disability. Both these studies, however, are based on self-reported diagnoses and may not be accurate.
In a more rigorous study, Krezmien and colleagues assess more than 500 boys in a
juvenile facility and find that 45 percent have a disability (Krezmien, Mulcahy, and
Leone 2008). Of those with a disability, 44 percent have an emotional disturbance and
26 percent have a learning disability. While none of the studies just described provide
a definitive answer regarding disability rates among the nation’s incarcerated population, they indicate a high prevalence of learning disabilities and other special needs
and suggest that more accurate data are needed.

Access to Education during Incarceration
and Reentry
The statistics outlined in the previous section clearly indicate a need for educational
services among the incarcerated population. Several types of programs exist to meet

9

FROM THE CLASSROOM TO THE COMMUNITY

this need, including academic instruction from the most basic levels to the more
advanced, as well as practically oriented trainings such as vocational and life skills. The
array of programs typically included under the umbrella of correctional education6 can
be categorized as follows:
Ⅲ Adult Basic Education (ABE): Basic skills training in arithmetic, reading, writing,
and, when needed, English as a second language (ESL).
Ⅲ Adult Secondary Education: Instruction to complete high school or prepare for a
certificate of high school equivalency, usually the GED.
Ⅲ Postsecondary Education: Advanced, college-level instruction that in some cases
may provide college credit.
Ⅲ Special Education: Educational training designed for individuals who have learning
disabilities or other special needs.
Ⅲ Vocational Education: Training in general employment skills as well as skills for
specific jobs and/or industries.
Ⅲ Life Skills Education: Programs that focus on providing individuals with the skills
needed to function successfully in everyday life, in areas such as goal-setting and
decisionmaking, obtaining and maintaining a job, financial management, communication and interpersonal relationships, stress and anger management, and
conflict resolution (Crayton and Neusteter 2008).
Most (84 percent) state prisons offer some type of correctional education program, and
nearly all (98 percent) federal prisons offer a full range of programs (table 2). (Note that,
even in the facilities that offer programming, only a portion of inmates are receiving
these services.) In state prisons, adult basic and secondary education and life skills programs are the most common offerings, followed by vocational training. Postsecondary
offerings are less common, as are special education programs. Between 2000 and 2005,
the percentage of state prisons offering programming shrank in every category except
postsecondary and life skills programs, which expanded (Stephan 2008; Stephan and
Karberg 2003).
Compared with state and federal prisons, far fewer local jails offer educational programming, likely because of limited resources and the difficulty of providing programming
to individuals in custody for short and unpredictable periods. In 1999, 60 percent of local
jails offered some type of educational programming. As in state prisons, the most common offerings were adult basic and secondary education and life skills programs. Special
education was less common, and postsecondary and vocational programs were rare.
Although the statistics outlined here document the prevalence of different types of
programming, they tell us nothing about what the programs actually look like on the
ground. Program curricula and methods, staffing and quality of instruction, participa-

For the purposes of this report, programs that attempt to improve individuals’ thinking skills using cognitive behavioral methods are not considered correctional education but instead fall under the domain of
counseling and treatment.

6

10

THE CURRENT LANDSCAPE OF EDUCATION DURING INCARCERATION AND REENTRY

TABLE 2

Availability of Correctional Education Programs by Type
% of facilities offering programs
Federal prisons
(2005)

State prisons
(2005)

Local jails
(1999)

Any correctional education program

98

84

60

Adult basic education

98

66

25

Adult secondary education

98

76

55

Postsecondary education

98

32

3

Special education

98

33

11

Vocational training

98

50

6

Life skills

98

77

21

Sources: For federal and state prisons, Stephan (2008); for jails, Stephan (2001).
Note: The statistics for “Any correctional education program” include some types of programs not listed
in this table, such as ESL and study release, and do not include life skills programs.

tion and completion rates, and other components vary widely from program to program and facility to facility. For example, some correctional education programs meet
once a week while others meet five days a week for six to eight hours a day.
Unfortunately, little national data are available beyond the number of programs
offered by facilities within each category of programming.
Though the vast majority of state and federal prisons and a significant number of jails
offer some type of educational programs, only a limited share of inmates in these facilities receive programming. As of 2004, the share of state and federal prisoners who
received programming during their current incarceration was highest—between 20
and 30 percent—for adult secondary education and vocational and life skills training
(table 3). (Note that the categories of programming are not mutually exclusive; for
example, an inmate student may be engaged in both adult secondary education and
vocational training.) Interestingly, although adult basic education is offered in most
prisons and some jails, few inmates (less than 2 percent) receive these services. The
NAAL literacy scores outlined in the previous section suggest that a greater share of
inmates may need basic education than are receiving it.
The share of state prisoners receiving educational programming during their current
incarceration decreased slightly between 1997 and 2004, with the largest drops occurring in vocational training (a decrease of 5 percentage points) and adult secondary education (a decrease of 4 percentage points) (Crayton and Neusteter 2008; Harlow 2003).7
During this time, the prison population expanded so rapidly that although participation
rates fell, the actual number of inmates receiving educational programming may have
7

Historical data on participation in life skills programs are not available.

11

FROM THE CLASSROOM TO THE COMMUNITY

TABLE 3

Involvement in Correctional Education Programs by Type
% of inmates who received programming since
admission to prison, by facility type
Federal prisons
(2004)

State prisons
(2004)

Local jails
(1996)

2

2

1

Adult secondary education

21

19

9

Postsecondary education

10

7

1

Special education

–

–

–

Vocational training

31

27

5

Life skills

29

24

–

Adult basic education

Sources: For federal and state prisons, Crayton and Neusteter (2008); for jails, Harlow (2003).

increased. The reason for stagnant or declining participation rates is unclear, but what
is clear is that inmate engagement in educational programming has not grown alongside the expanding prison population.
In a number of jurisdictions, participation in certain types of educational programming is
mandatory for inmates who have not reached a specified level of achievement. In 1982,
the Federal Bureau of Prisons adopted the first policy mandating participation in educational programming for inmates below a certain level (McGlone 2002). After this change,
participation rates increased significantly.8 As of 2007, 16 state systems required GED
attainment, and a 2002 study found that 12 states required completion of the equivalent
of 6th grade (Corrections Compendium 2008; McGlone 2002).
The discussion thus far has centered on education inside correctional facilities, primarily
because little data are available on the involvement of formerly incarcerated individuals
in educational programs in the community. Recent findings from the Urban Institute’s
Returning Home study of 740 men released from prison in Illinois, Texas, and Ohio shed
some light on participation in programming in the community (Visher, Debus, and
Yahner 2008). Six percent of respondents reported participating in an adult basic education or GED program and 11 percent participated in a vocational training program at any
time in the first eight months after release. The low participation rates may be due to a
lack of available programs or a lack of awareness about program opportunities on the
part of potential participants (in addition, some individuals may not need these particular programs, for example, if they already have a GED). Less than 20 percent of respondents reported knowing of available adult basic education or GED programs and vocational training programs in their communities. On the other hand, low rates of

Stefan LoBuglio, Chief of Pre-Release and Reentry Services, Montgomery County (Maryland) Department
of Correction and Rehabilitation, e-mail communication with the authors, April 2, 2009.
8

12

THE CURRENT LANDSCAPE OF EDUCATION DURING INCARCERATION AND REENTRY

participation may also result from the many competing
demands faced by former prisoners, from earning income to
fulfilling supervision requirements, which may take precedence over obtaining education. A 2006 survey of incarcerated men also suggests that access to programming may be
an issue. The survey found that while over 90 percent of
respondents reported they would like to attend a technical
school or college after release if given the opportunity, less
than 40 percent actually had plans to do so (Hanneken and
Dannerbeck 2007).

Funding for Correctional Education
Funding for correctional education comes from several
sources and varies from system to system. At the state level,
funding may come from general fund appropriations to state
departments of corrections, labor, or education, or special
revenue sources such as “inmate welfare” funds or prison
industry profits. States can also access various sources of federal funding to be used for education in state prisons and in
some cases jails. Federal funding sources include

A BRIEF HISTORY OF CORRECTIONAL
EDUCATION
Education has had a consistent presence in correctional facilities over the
past 200 years, though the form it has
taken and the rationale behind its provision have changed over time. In
1798, education was introduced in the
nation’s first correctional facility—the
Walnut Street Jail—in the context of
religious instruction intended to help
individuals repent for their crimes and
develop spiritually and morally. The
late 1800s marked the rise of the reformatory era, and educational offerings
expanded beyond religious instruction
to emphasize literacy and communication skills, as well as the inclusion of
secular courses such as astronomy,
geography, and history. Education was
further entrenched within correctional
institutions with the introduction of
indeterminate sentences, which
required evidence of self-improvement
as a condition of release. Through the
1970s, often considered the “golden
age” for rehabilitative programs, educational instruction proliferated, eventually including high school courses
and GED preparation, vocational training in specific trades, life skills programs, academic higher education,
and study release.

Ⅲ funding for adult basic and secondary education, English
literacy classes, and special education under Title II of
the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), one of the largest
federal sources of financial support for correctional
education;
Ⅲ money for vocational and technical training through the
Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology
Education Act;
Ⅲ grants for academic and vocational postsecondary education through the Workplace and Community Transition
Training for Incarcerated Individuals State grant;
Sources: Coley and Barton (2006); Crayton
Ⅲ funding geared toward juveniles and incarcerated youth
and Neusteter (2008); Gehring (1997);
(up to age 21 in some cases) such as the Title I State
MacKenzie (2008).
Agency Neglected and Delinquent Program under the
Elementary and Secondary Education Act; and
Ⅲ funds for educating youth (up to age 21) with disabilities from The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Crayton and Neusteter
2008; Tolbert 2002).
Private organizations and individuals have also been known to contribute funding,
resources, and volunteer time to support the provision of correctional education programs (Corrections Compendium 2008; Crayton and Neusteter 2008).

13

FROM THE CLASSROOM TO THE COMMUNITY

Differences in accounting among states and the range of funding streams used to pay
for programs make it difficult to quantify state expenditures on correctional education
(Klein et al. 2004). In a recent study of all state systems, state corrections agencies
reported budgeting an average of $12 million annually for correctional education programs (this may not include correctional education funds managed by other agencies
such as departments of education). The figure varied widely depending on the size of
the system, from around $500,000 in some small state systems to over $67 million a
year in Texas (Corrections Compendium 2008). An informal survey by the authors of
seven state jurisdictions and one large urban jail found that these systems were typically spending approximately 1 to 3 percent of their corrections budgets on education. The jurisdictions reported a number of funding sources including general fund
or state legislature monies, legislative member items, state departments of labor and
education, federal grants, inmate welfare funds, and private or nonprofit sources.
As states face increased budget pressures, the amount spent on correctional education may drop, and there is less federal funding available than in the past to fill the
gap. The trend in recent years has generally been toward reduced federal spending
on education for incarcerated populations (see text box on the next page). For example, the Adult Basic Education Act previously required that at least 10 percent of its
allocated funds be used for correctional education; the Workforce Investment Act that
replaced it in 1998 states that now a maximum of 10 percent of the funds can be used
for this purpose.
Perhaps the most widely discussed reductions in federal funding have been in postsecondary education, specifically the 1994 elimination of access to Pell Grants for students incarcerated in state and federal prisons.9 Up to that point, Pell Grants had been
the primary source of funding for higher education programs in correctional facilities.
In the year following the ban, the number of incarcerated individuals receiving postsecondary education dropped 44 percent (Tewksbury, Ericson, and Taylor 2000).
Some states responded by developing new funding streams or offering loan programs
to fill the gap (Crayton and Neusteter 2008). A recent national assessment by Erisman
and Contardo (2005) finds that the percentage of incarcerated individuals enrolled in
postsecondary education has returned to pre-1994 levels. However, a much larger
share of these students is now enrolled in vocational rather than academic courses.

9

14

Pell Grants were not eliminated for people in jails or treatment centers (Erisman and Contardo 2005).

THE CURRENT LANDSCAPE OF EDUCATION DURING INCARCERATION AND REENTRY

TRENDS IN FEDERAL FUNDING FOR CORRECTIONAL EDUCATION
Ⅲ In 1964, Title II B under the Economic Opportunity Act authorized the first federally funded
adult basic education program through the Adult Basic Education Act (ABEA). The Adult
Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA), Title II of the Workforce Investment Act (WIA),
replaced the ABEA in 1998 and remains one of the largest sources of federal funding for correctional education. While ABEA required that a minimum of 10 percent of appropriated
funds be used for correctional education, WIA changed this to a maximum of 10 percent.
Because of the statutory language, in actuality only 8.25 percent of the total appropriation
may be allocated to correctional education. In 2004, $30 million in WIA funding was allocated
for programs in correctional facilities.
Ⅲ The Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Education Act is another source of
federal funding for correctional education programming. Before 1998, the Perkins Act
required states to use a minimum of 1 percent of the funds toward correctional education
programs. However, in 1998 the Perkins Act was amended and states can now spend no
more than 1 percent of funds on correctional education.
Ⅲ Federal funding streams are also available to states to fund postsecondary educational programs in correctional institutions. One such program is the Workplace and Community
Transition Training for Incarcerated Youth Offenders State grant, now the Workplace and
Community Transition Training for Incarcerated Individuals State grant. Once reserved for
individuals age 25 and younger who were within five years of release, these funds have now
been extended to include incarcerated individuals up to the age of 35 who are within seven
years of release. Despite this expansion of eligibility, funding for the program was cut by
25 percent between 2008 and 2009.
Sources: Crayton and Neusteter (2008); Spangenberg (2004); Tolbert (2002); and John Linton, Director of the Office
of Correctional Education, U.S. Department of Education, e-mail communication with the authors, April 3, 2009.

15

Research on the Effectiveness
of Correctional Education

R

esearch indicates that correctional education can
reduce recidivism and increase employment after

release from prison. Theory and anecdotal evidence suggest that education may also
improve in-prison behavior and promote positive reentry outcomes beyond recidivism
and employment. Education promotes rehabilitation in several ways, through tangible
benefits such as formal certifications and concrete skills, as well as intangible gains like
improved decisionmaking abilities and pro-social values. This section examines existing theory and research on the impact of correctional education on inmate students.
It also explores principles of successful correctional and adult education programs that
may help guide the development of correctional education program models.

Theoretical Foundations: The Purpose
of Education During Incarceration and Reentry
There are several pathways by which education can improve outcomes for individuals
both in prison and after release. Education improves decisionmaking skills and promotes pro-social thinking, thereby improving in-prison behavior and facilitating
adjustment to prison. It keeps inmate students engaged and active, avoiding idleness
and opportunities for misbehavior. Education also increases human capital, improving
general cognitive functioning while providing specific skills. After release, these gains

16

RESEARCH ON THE EFFECTIVENESS OF CORRECTIONAL EDUCATION

can help people obtain and maintain employment and
avoid engaging in criminal activity. Education can also help
former prisoners build pro-social identities after release and
become better family and community members. In addition
to these positive outcomes, many people view education as
an inherent right, a process that is valuable in and of itself,
and an important component of a full and enjoyable life.

Education in the prison setting
provides far more than a degree
and lower recidivism rates . . .
Through its transformational
powers, it provides for a sociali-

Education can improve in-prison behavior and promote
reentry success by changing students’ thinking patterns,
attitudes, and behaviors. Research indicates that deficits in
social cognition (understanding social interactions and the
behavior of others), executive cognitive functioning (the
ability to plan and implement goal-directed behavior),
problem-solving abilities, and self-efficacy are all cognitive
issues associated with criminal and antisocial behavior
(Andrews and Bonta 2003; Foglia 2000; Giancola 2000;
MacKenzie 2008). By enhancing cognitive abilities and decisionmaking skills, education can help formerly incarcerated
people avoid criminal activity and engage in positive behavior. Many scholars believe that education can also increase
pro-social attitudes and moral reasoning, improve selfesteem and self-efficacy, and help individuals develop a
pro-social identity (Batiuk, Moke, and Rountree 1997; Fine
et al. 2001; Harer 1995; Winterfield et al. forthcoming).
These positive developments can serve as a direct counterweight to “prisonization,” the process whereby people who
are incarcerated become acculturated to the negative values of prison subculture (Harer 1995).

zation and self-actualization
process that no other treatment
program can offer. It allows
offenders to better understand
their own self-worth and potential,
and most often has offenders
reaching out to their own children
to encourage them to continue
their education.
— BRIAN FISCHER, COMMISSIONER,
NEW YORK STATE DEPARTMENT
OF CORRECTIONAL SERVICES

By expanding students’ general abilities and providing specific skills, education can
make it easier for returning prisoners to find stable, well-paying jobs. In addition, education has a signaling effect to employers, serving as a formal indicator of an individual’s abilities and achievement (Gaes 2008). Formal educational attainment can combat the negative signaling effect of incarceration, whereby conviction and incarceration
send a negative message to employers about an individual’s character and abilities
(Western 2007). The receipt of a GED, college degree, or vocational certificate is thus
valuable not only for the skills and abilities developed in the course of receiving such
certification but also for the certification itself. Education’s effect on employment is particularly important because employment has been demonstrated to reduce recidivism
among former prisoners (Harer 1994; Sampson and Laub 1997; Uggen 2000). Level of
compensation also influences reentry outcomes, as those making higher wages are less
likely to recidivate (Bernstein and Houston 2000; Grogger 1998; Visher et al. 2008). In
addition to lowering recidivism rates, employment helps former prisoners support their
families and pay child support and other debts.

17

FROM THE CLASSROOM TO THE COMMUNITY

In all likelihood, education affects incarcerated students in a number of ways, and disentangling all these pathways is challenging. Yet considering the mechanisms by
which education may affect in-prison and reentry outcomes is valuable because it can
help guide research on the effectiveness of correctional education. It can also influence the development of education programs, since a program’s purpose and design
are likely to vary depending on the outcomes the program is attempting to influence.
For example, policymakers and correctional administrators concerned only with
employability and economic outcomes might focus their programming on providing
specific vocational skills. While valuable, such programming might miss the benefits
that a liberal arts or other, more generalized curriculum could provide in improved
cognitive functioning. All these programming decisions are complicated by the fact
that incarcerated students have a range of needs, and programs that are successful
for certain students may not be for others.

The Impact of Correctional Education
on Student Outcomes
Research on the effectiveness of correctional education primarily focuses on two sets
of outcomes: (1) recidivism, in terms of reoffending, rearrest, or reincarceration, and
(2) employment-related measures such as labor market participation and wages (Gaes
2008). A handful of mostly qualitative studies have also explored the effect of correctional education on in-prison behavior and adjustment (see for example Fine et al.
2001 and Winterfield et al. forthcoming). Research examining reentry outcomes
beyond employment and recidivism, such as pro-social attitudes, cognitive functioning, family relationships, and civic engagement, could provide a much fuller picture
of the impact of correctional education. Unfortunately, the field lacks well-designed
studies that address these outcomes. Also missing are evaluations of the impact of
adult education provided in the community on outcomes for former prisoners, since
many evaluations of these types of programs do not distinguish people with incarceration histories from other participants.
Although the field has not produced a clear understanding of the impact of correctional education on a full range of in-prison and post-release outcomes, there is
fairly extensive research on the impact on recidivism and employment, which
are often the outcomes of greatest concern to policymakers, criminal justice officials, and the public. Taken together, numerous studies suggest that correctional
education can reduce recidivism and increase employment levels and wages. These
positive effects have been found for a range of types of programming, including vocational training and adult basic, secondary, and postsecondary education
(Gaes 2008).
In a review of the research literature for his Roundtable paper “The Impact of Prison
Educational Programs on Post-Release Outcomes,” Gerald Gaes (2008) finds that
most meta-analyses and systematic reviews of research on the impact of correctional

18

RESEARCH ON THE EFFECTIVENESS OF CORRECTIONAL EDUCATION

THE FINANCIAL BENEFITS OF CORRECTIONAL EDUCATION
$1,182
in vocational training

can save

$6,806
in future criminal justice costs

$962
in academic education

can save

$5,306
in future criminal justice costs

Source: Aos, Miller, and Drake (2006).

education indicate that it reduces recidivism and improves employment outcomes.10
The true size of this effect is still unknown, however; across four meta-analyses identified by Gaes, reductions in recidivism ranged from 7 percent to 46 percent. Gaes concludes his review by stating that, despite the methodological issues present in several
studies, “the takeaway message is that correctional education does promote successful prisoner reentry.” Like Gaes, most researchers who conducted the meta-analyses
and systematic reviews discussed in his paper concluded that there was enough evidence from well-designed studies to state that correctional education produces positive outcomes in terms of recidivism and employment. Some researchers, however,
felt that there were too many methodological issues to draw definitive conclusions
about the impact of correctional education; many of these methodological issues are
discussed in greater detail later in this section.
Though we cannot state with certainty the magnitude of the impact of correctional
education, a cost-benefit analysis by Aos, Miller, and Drake (2006) suggests that even
a 7 to 9 percent reduction in recidivism can result in significant cost savings for taxpayers. Looking simply at the cost of programming versus the cost of incarceration, Aos
and his coauthors report that $1,182 per prisoner invested in vocational training can
save $6,806 in future criminal justice costs, and $962 per prisoner invested in academic
education (adult basic, secondary, and postsecondary) can save $5,306 in criminal justice costs. If one considers the social benefits of avoiding victimization and the economic benefits from increasing the number of legally employed, taxpaying citizens,
the savings are even greater.

The meta-analyses reviewed by Gaes are from Aos, Miller, and Drake (2006); Chappell (2004); Wilson,
Gallagher, and MacKenzie (2000); and Ronald E. Wells, “Education as Prison Reform: A Meta-Analysis,”
unpublished dissertation, Louisiana State University, 2000. The systematic reviews and research summaries
Gaes discusses include Cecil et al. (2000); Gerber and Fritsch (1995); Hrabowski and Robbi (2002); Jancic
(1998); Jensen and Reed (2006); Taylor (1992); and Vacca (2004). Gaes also reviews individual studies and
highlights the strongest evaluations in the field.
10

19

FROM THE CLASSROOM TO THE COMMUNITY

Principles of Effective Practice
The existing body of research has not advanced far enough to identify evidence-based
best practices that are specific to education for criminal justice populations. Most evaluations of correctional education programs do not provide the information on program
characteristics—such as curricula, dosage, and staffing—that is necessary to determine
best practices (MacKenzie 2008). However, scholars have identified some general principles of effective practice in correctional programming more broadly (not specific to
education) and adult education in the community (not specific to corrections) that may
provide us with an indication of what works in correctional education.

THE IMPORTANCE OF PROGRAM DOSAGE
In their paper for the Roundtable,
“Prison-Based Adult Basic Education
(ABE) and Post-Release Labor Market
Outcomes,” Rosa Cho and John Tyler
(2008) emphasize the importance of
program dosage. They find that individuals who participate in adult basic
education have better employment
outcomes than comparable nonparticipants, but only if they receive a
certain minimum amount of programming. In addition, students experience better outcomes if there is little
or no interruption in their program
participation. These findings suggest
that both quantity and continuity of
programming are important factors in
program effectiveness.

In her Roundtable paper “Structure and Components of
Successful Educational Programs,” Doris MacKenzie outlines
best practices in programming for incarcerated populations
(MacKenzie 2008). After conducting several systematic reviews
of evaluations of correctional programs, MacKenzie has drawn
some conclusions about what types of programs are most
effective in reducing recidivism. She finds the following:

Ⅲ The most effective programs emphasize individual rehabilitation through skills building, cognitive development,
and behavioral change. By their very nature, many correctional education programs fit squarely within this
framework. MacKenzie emphasizes that individual-level
cognitive and behavioral change must be achieved
before other activities can be of value.
Ⅲ Multimodal programs that address multiple needs are
highly effective, which suggests that, for many individuals, correctional education may need to occur in tandem
with substance abuse treatment, cognitive-behavioral
therapy, job preparation, and other activities. MacKenzie
highlights program models, such as Vermont’s Workforce
Development Program and Texas’s Project RIO, in which
life skills, academic, and vocational education are
embedded within multifaceted programs. Unfortunately,
the evaluations of these types of programs often examine the program as a whole without attempting to determine the role of individual elements such as education.
Ⅲ Programs need to be implemented with integrity, meaning the program model is
based on a clear theoretical framework, the program elements and methods are
grounded in research, and programming is provided by qualified, trained staff
following standardized protocols. MacKenzie emphasizes that proper dosage is
also important, and even effective programming may fail if it is not provided consistently or for a long enough period of time. (For more on the importance of
program dosage, see the text box above.)

20

RESEARCH ON THE EFFECTIVENESS OF CORRECTIONAL EDUCATION

While the principles outlined above apply to correctional programming in general and
are not specific to education, they may help guide the development of correctional
education programs. In the same way, existing research on adult education in the
community may inform education programs for adults who are incarcerated. In a
review of the field, John Comings, Lisa Soricone, and Maricel Santos (2006) draw on
professional wisdom and empirical evidence to identify critical principles for adult
education. They discuss a number of principles in their paper, including several that
are relevant to correctional education:
Ⅲ Programs should have clearly defined recruitment and hiring processes for
instructors and policies that identify what constitutes qualified program staff.
Instructional staff should have access to professional development opportunities
and support services.
Ⅲ Programs should have comprehensive student recruitment and orientation components. Before participation, staff should assess the goals, skill level, and needs of
each student and develop an individual learning plan based on these assessments.
Ⅲ Programs should be provided in environments supportive of learning in which
students feel physically safe and comfortable. Programs should use materials and
activities that have been designed especially for adult learners and are “relevant
and meaningful to students’ life contexts.” In addition to print materials, programs should use computers and individual tutoring.
Ⅲ Programs should have appropriate staff-to-student ratios and avoid mixing different skill levels in the classroom.
Ⅲ Programs should have well-defined roles within their communities, governing
bodies composed of community stakeholders, and open lines of communication
with important local agencies. Additionally, strong management systems should
incorporate data collection and evaluation processes to ensure program effectiveness and accountability.
The principles outlined above are not specific to correctional education, though they
may offer valuable insight into how best to educate incarcerated adults. Clearly, there
is still a great deal to learn about what works in correctional education, as well as how
successful programs operate and what program models are most effective for different types of students.

Limitations in Existing Research
The body of research on educational programs for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people is somewhat limited in both scope and rigor. Although several valuable
studies exist, many others are plagued by methodological issues that make their findings unreliable. The most significant methodological concerns and research gaps in
the field are listed below.11
The material in this section comes from the authors’ examination of the research literature as well as from
Gaes (2008) and MacKenzie (2008).

11

21

FROM THE CLASSROOM TO THE COMMUNITY

Creating Matched Comparison Groups
Ⅲ Very few studies use random-assignment evaluation designs, though this is not
surprising given the difficulty of implementing such evaluations in real-world
settings.
Ⅲ Participation in most programs is voluntary and some studies fail to account for
potential selection bias, in terms of factors such as intrinsic motivation and positive attitudes that might set participants apart from nonparticipants. Some of the
stronger studies attempt to address selection bias by modeling the selection
process and creating carefully matched comparison groups.
Ⅲ Few studies control for the pre-treatment education and ability levels of participants and nonparticipants, in part because these data are rarely readily
available.

Accurately Specifying the Treatment
Ⅲ The existing research fails to answer questions about what types of programming
are effective for different types of participants. Very few studies explore program
characteristics such as instructional methods, dosage, and staff qualifications,
which can vary significantly across programs.
Ⅲ In evaluations of multimodal programming, it is difficult to parse out the role
education may have played in influencing outcomes from the effect of other
services and programs.
Ⅲ Programs may not be implemented with fidelity to the theoretical program
model: participation may be interrupted, dosage may be insufficient, or classroom activities may not follow specified curricula.

Defining and Measuring Relevant Outcomes
Ⅲ The vast majority of studies conceptualize treatment as participation and/or
completion of programming, without examining intermediate outcomes that
could indicate how programs actually affect thinking and behavior. Relevant
intermediate outcomes might include literacy gains, development of concrete
skills, improved cognitive abilities, and reduced criminal thinking.
Ⅲ As in other studies that use recidivism as an outcome measure, there are diverse
opinions about how to best define recidivism (rearrest, reincarceration, etc.) and
the period over which to track recidivism.

Examining a Range of Programs and Participants
Ⅲ Like many studies in the criminal justice field, few evaluations of correctional education include significant samples of women.
Ⅲ Most evaluations focus on in-prison programming; research on education for former prisoners in the community is virtually nonexistent. Many studies of adult education programs in the community do not distinguish participants with incarceration histories from other participants.

22

RESEARCH ON THE EFFECTIVENESS OF CORRECTIONAL EDUCATION

Ⅲ Although mandatory participation requirements are common and often increase
participation rates, few studies examine whether individuals whose participation
in education is required have different experiences and outcomes than individuals
who volunteer to participate.
Addressing these methodological issues requires more rigorous studies that incorporate a broader range of data. To facilitate better research, programs and correctional
systems should make an effort to collect more extensive data on both participants and
program activities. Researchers also need to expand their theoretical frameworks to
examine the effect of different types of program activities and program characteristics and explore a range of intermediate and long-term outcomes.

23

Education Behind the Walls
Challenges and Opportunities

C

orrectional facilities present unique challenges for
the provision of educational services. Educators

are tasked with instructing adults with a wide range of cognitive abilities and previous
educational experiences, including many who have consistently been unsuccessful in
the broader public education system. Instructors must educate these individuals in
the face of limited funding, space, and resources; interruptions to program continuity; and institutional security concerns that significantly constrain programming.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is that correctional facilities are, first and foremost,
institutions of control and security, not classrooms or schools. Despite these challenges, education can flourish within the prison walls with the support of correctional
administrators and a willingness on the part of correctional educators to teach within
and around the constraints. In fact, education can contribute to the correctional mission of secure facilities and safe communities by improving inmate behavior on the
inside and promoting success after release. The form that successful correctional education programs take varies significantly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction in terms of
structure, staffing, teaching methodologies, program delivery, materials and technology, and other components. Yet the best programs often have several features in
common: proper assessment and placement of students, well-trained teachers
24

EDUCATION BEHIND THE WALLS

equipped with the right tools, strategic use of appropriate technology,
and effective incentive structures. This section discusses both the challenges and opportunities involved in providing education behind the
prison or jail walls.

The Challenges of Providing Education
in a Correctional Setting
The correctional environment presents many challenges for the provision of educational services. The most common include the following:
A diverse population with a wide range of cognitive abilities and previous educational experiences. The education
levels of incarcerated people vary significantly, from almost
total illiteracy to some level of high school education or even
postsecondary experience. In addition, formal educational
attainment is not always a reliable indicator of skills; an individual may have reached or even completed high school yet be
reading at a 6th grade level. Incarcerated students with a full
range of formal and actual skill levels can sometimes end up
in the same classroom together, depending on the size of the
facility, the types of programs offered, and the eligibility
requirements for different programs. In addition to the range
of educational levels among inmate students, a significant
share has learning disabilities, emotional or behavioral problems, and/or mental health issues that complicate their social
and educational needs. Unfortunately, learning disabilities
and mental health issues are often undiagnosed, misdiagnosed, or improperly treated. Other groups that present special educational needs are students with limited English language skills and juveniles, who make up approximately 1
percent of state and federal prison and local jail populations
(Hartney 2006; for more on educating incarcerated juveniles,
see the text box on page 26).
Limited funding, materials, space, and other resources. As
with education programs in the community, many correctional
education systems face serious funding and resource limitations. Consistent, dedicated funding streams for correctional
education are often lacking, as funding may come from multiple sources and may be one item among many in a facility’s

PUTTING EDUCATION FIRST:
LESSONS FROM SINGAPORE
In 1999, Singapore launched the Kaki
Bukit Centre, a “prison school” where
up to 280 inmates participating in
correctional education are housed.
Centralizing students and programs in
one facility improves efficiency while
also creating a supportive environment that is conducive to learning.
As Aik Boon Ng of the Singapore
Prison Service explained at the
Roundtable, the Centre represents a
paradigm shift, in that the institution
is first a school, then a prison. Safety
and security are still top concerns,
although these are balanced with the
needs of the school environment.
The Centre is jointly run by civilian
teachers, uniformed corrections officers, and social workers. According
to Singapore’s Education Minister
Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the program has “developed a group of
inmates, a group of students, who
have confidence and talents and are
determined to go far” (Singapore
Prison Service n.d.).

25

FROM THE CLASSROOM TO THE COMMUNITY

general programming budget. Over the past several years, funding for correctional
education generally has not increased as rapidly as the size of the incarcerated population. Education programs are often the first to go during budget cuts, either because
they are viewed by correctional administrators as nonessential or because legally
required services such as medical care and sanitary living conditions must be given priority. Limited funding restricts the availability of classroom materials; equipment for
vocational programs; computers, Internet access, and other technology; and even the
availability of sufficient numbers of well-trained instructors. In fact, a number of correctional education programs are operated and staffed by nonprofit organizations or volunteers. Space concerns are also an issue: because many correctional facilities were not
designed with programming in mind, classroom space can be limited and cramped.
Classrooms may have to be shared with other programs, and space for computers or
specialized equipment for vocational training can be scarce.

EDUCATING INCARCERATED JUVENILES
Although people under the age of 18 make up only 1 percent of the population of adult correctional facilities (Hartney 2006), they have distinct educational needs that require significant
attention. In most states, correctional agencies are legally required to provide educational services to minors, including appropriate services for those with disabilities. Many incarcerated
young people have a recent history of negative experiences with the public school system, and
a significant share has learning disabilities, emotional or behavioral disturbances, or mental
health issues. Obtaining prior school records for young inmate students can help illuminate their
previous educational experiences and inform the provision of appropriate educational services.
Correctional education for juveniles often looks different than programming for adult inmates,
as the goal for a young person is typically to earn a high school diploma and/or return to school
in the community, as opposed to obtaining a GED. For this reason, programs for youth are more
likely to use a curriculum that corresponds with one used in local schools. Some correctional
agencies partner with local school districts or develop their own internal school systems to educate the juveniles in their custody.
Incarcerated youth need reentry preparation and case management to ensure a smooth transition back to school after release. Such planning is especially important for juveniles who are
cycling in and out of the school and criminal justice systems. Communication between corrections and school districts is critical for ensuring successful transitions from the justice system
back into the school system.
For more on educating incarcerated juveniles, see the Roundtable paper “Understanding and
Responding to the Education Needs of Special Populations in Adult Corrections” (Leone et al.
2008).

26

EDUCATION BEHIND THE WALLS

Interruptions to program continuity, including short stays, frequent transfers, and
restrictions on inmate movement. Research has demonstrated that dosage is a significant factor influencing program effectiveness, and that continuous participation in programming for a specified period is often essential to success (Cho and Tyler 2008). Yet
the needs of the correctional system frequently take precedence over the need for program continuity. Facility lockdowns or restrictions on the movement of certain inmates
can interrupt participation. Based on systemwide needs, inmates may be transferred to
another facility with little advance notice, and the new facility may or may not offer comparable educational programming. Inconsistent funding streams and teacher vacancies
can also interrupt program continuity. Short stays are a significant issue as well, particularly for local jails. Jails typically lag behind state and federal prisons in offering educational services, in large part because of the difficulty of providing programs to a population that changes from day to day and is only incarcerated for a short time.
Institutional security concerns. Correctional administrators have a responsibility to
ensure their facilities are safe and secure, which often means restricting inmates’
access to various items and to other inmates. Things that may seem simple in community classrooms, such as offering Internet access or providing students with certain
equipment or materials, may be nearly impossible in correctional facilities. Even ensuring that outside instructors and volunteers are able to enter and exit the facility quickly
and easily can be challenging. Bringing inmate students of different security classifications together in the same classroom may be difficult, and those on segregated
security classifications may require one-on-one instruction or some form of computerized programming.
Most of the constraints outlined above result from the fact that a correctional facility
is not, first and foremost, a school or a classroom. The vast majority of correctional
administrators prioritize a safe and secure facility above all else, with good reason. The
challenge for correctional educators is to work within and around the resulting constraints, but also to demonstrate to administrators that educational programming can
actually promote institutional security rather than threaten it. Programming occupies
and engages students who might otherwise be idle, and education can improve decisionmaking skills and promote pro-social behavior. Many of the correctional administrators who participated in the Roundtable emphasized that, by improving in-prison
behavior and promoting adjustment to prison, education programs can play a critical
role in maintaining security and order within correctional facilities.

27

FROM THE CLASSROOM TO THE COMMUNITY

INSTITUTIONAL MODELS FOR DELIVERING CORRECTIONAL EDUCATION
Every state correctional system has a different institutional structure for delivering educational
services. Many correctional education programs are managed by the state department of corrections, although the degree of centralized supervision varies. In many cases, the department
of corrections provides funding to facilities for education but leaves the design and management of the programs up to each facility. On the other hand, some systems have a central education director within the department who has significant administrative, personnel, and budgetary authority over educational programs.
Some states have gone further and established independent school systems or educational
agencies that have a significant amount of authority and independence from the department
of corrections. Texas, for example, created the Windham School District (WSD) to provide educational opportunities to the state’s incarcerated population. WSD offers a wide range of academic and vocational programs in Texas correctional facilities, as well as postsecondary opportunities through the Division of Continuing Education. Currently over 80 schools exist within the
Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). However, the WSD functions as a separate entity
from the TDCJ, with its own school board, budget, and staff.
Other state correctional systems contract out the responsibility for inmate education to outside
entities such as community colleges. All correctional facilities in North Carolina, for example,
have educational services provided by the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS).
The local community colleges provide programs from adult basic education through associate’s
degrees. All degree- and credit-bearing courses are located on site at the correctional facilities
and credits can be transferred to community colleges and four-year institutions after release.
Sources: Contardo and Tolbert (2008); Stephen Steurer, Executive Director of the Correctional Education Association,
e-mail communication with the authors, March 31, 2009; and Windham School District web site, http://www.
windhamschooldistrict.org/, accessed March 31, 2009.

Building Blocks for Program Success
The constraints and challenges of providing educational programming in a correctional setting only complicate the already difficult task of educating adults who have
often been unsuccessful in the public education system for many years. Researchers
in the field have yet to determine how incarcerated adults best learn, resulting in wide
variation in program models across jurisdictions. Programs vary significantly in terms
of curricula, instructional methods, quality of instruction, use of technology and other
materials, staffing, program delivery, dosage, participation incentives, participation
and completion rates, management and organizational structures, and other components. Because little data exist on many of these elements, describing an ideal or even
a typical correctional education program is difficult. However, the Roundtable
explored some components of effective correctional education in detail, including
proper student assessment and placement, well-trained teachers, appropriate use of

28

EDUCATION BEHIND THE WALLS

technology, and effective incentive structures, all of which are
discussed below. While these elements are also components
of successful adult education in the community, here we have
attempted to explore the dynamics of each within the correctional environment.

Assessment and Program Placement
The educational programming an incarcerated student
receives should be tailored to the educational needs and
objectives of that student, as well as the correctional system. If
the goal is vocational training and employability, programming
will look very different than if the objective is GED attainment
or a general liberal arts education aimed at expanding cognitive abilities. (Participation in different types of programming is
not mutually exclusive, however: an incarcerated student can
participate in vocational training while also attending academic
courses.) Systems need to accurately screen and assess
inmates, ideally at intake, and have guidelines for placing them
in education and other programs that suit their needs.
Whenever possible, programming should also be genderresponsive, culturally competent, and otherwise appropriate to
students’ past social and educational experiences.
Proper screening, assessment, and placement can also help
ensure continuity of participation. The determination of what
programming is appropriate for an incarcerated student
should consider that person’s anticipated incarceration length
and the types of facilities in which he or she is expected to stay
during the incarceration. In North Carolina, for example, a
prison’s educational offerings are determined by the minimum length of stay in the facility. All facilities offer some type
of programming, but a matrix is used to ensure that programs
are only provided at facilities where inmates will be able to finish them (Contardo and Tolbert 2008). Standardizing course
curricula across facilities is another strategy for promoting program continuity and completion. If courses are standardized,
incarcerated students may be able to pick up where they left
off once they transfer to a new facility.
Assessment also helps identify and properly place individuals
with learning disabilities, physical disabilities, emotional or
behavioral disorders, mental health issues, or other special
needs. These individuals often have difficulty succeeding in

THE EDUCATIONAL ASSESSMENT PROCESS
The educational assessment process
should cover three primary areas:
Academic
Ⅲ Educational background
Ⅲ Literacy and basic skills
Ⅲ Content-area knowledge (for more
advanced students)
Ⅲ English language abilities
Occupational
Ⅲ Employment history
Ⅲ Occupational interests and
aptitudes
Ⅲ Job-specific vocational skills and
certifications
Ⅲ Basic, non-specific job skills (customer service, teamwork, handling
money, etc.)
Special Needs
Ⅲ Learning disabilities
Ⅲ Developmental disabilities and
intellectual capability level
Ⅲ Physical disabilities (vision, hearing,
speech, etc.)
Ⅲ Emotional and behavioral disorders
and other mental health issues
Educational assessment may occur
in conjunction with other screening
activities at intake or classification, or
when an inmate expresses interest in
educational programming. A wide
range of adult assessment tools is
available, and correctional education
systems should ensure that the tools
they use are well-recognized in the
broader education community.
Information about specific academic
assessment tools designed for use
with adults is available at http://www.
nrsweb.org/nrswork/database/
default.aspx.

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FROM THE CLASSROOM TO THE COMMUNITY

a regular classroom and may need specialized programming provided by expert
instructors.12 Federal law and various legal decisions require that correctional facilities
make “reasonable accommodations” to provide disabled individuals with access to
the same types of educational services as other inmates.13 It can be challenging to provide specialized and individualized services, but correctional agencies have some
autonomy in determining how to best meet the needs of disabled students. Special
needs individuals typically enter the justice system with lower educational attainment
than non-disabled individuals (Harlow 2003), and their educational needs and objectives may differ from those of other students. For example, the most valuable goal for
someone with a severe learning disability may not be a postsecondary degree or even
a GED. Assessment and proper placement will help address these issues and ensure
that all individuals are receiving adequate and appropriate educational services.
Assessment is essential not only for placing students into programming, but also for
measuring their progress and supporting release planning. Ongoing student assessment can measure the effectiveness of a facility’s programs and hold both students and
instructors accountable. Assessment shortly before release
can provide individuals with information about their current
ability level and help them make appropriate educational
If a prison classroom offers
plans for after their release. Pre-release assessment also proinept . . . staff and/or curriculum,
vides valuable information about the educational level of the
recently released population in a community, including those
it inherits the hostility generated
on probation and parole. Unfortunately, educational assessment at the time of release is rare, as is the transfer of instituby the entire prison experience.
tional educational records to programs at other facilities or in
However, if it shines with
the community.

competency and concern, it shines

Well-Trained and Well-Supported Teachers

brighter than its community
counterpart could possibly shine.
. . . Most prisoners are desperately
in need of deserving heroes. Rarely
have I seen a prison instructor fully

The success of any educational system ultimately rests on having well-trained, engaged teachers who are equipped with
the tools needed to educate their students. Many correctional systems require their teaching staff to be formally
trained and certified. The Correctional Education Association
(CEA), an organization that accredits adult and juvenile correctional education systems across the country, has standards

exploit his/her capacity to
permanently redirect a life, but the
capacity is there nonetheless.
— JUDY, A STUDENT
INCARCERATED IN

30

VIRGINIA

More information on educating incarcerated students with disabilities is
available in the Roundtable paper “Understanding and Responding to the
Education Needs of Special Populations in Adult Corrections” (Leone et al.
2008).
13
Key legislation governing educational access for people with disabilities, including incarcerated individuals, includes the Americans with
Disabilities Act (1990), Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act
(1973), and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2004) (Leone
et al. 2008).
12

EDUCATION BEHIND THE WALLS

that require instructors to be certified as public school teachers at a minimum.14 Even
certified teachers may need additional training, however, to prepare them to address
the learning needs of incarcerated adults. Incarcerated students have a wide range of
ability levels and educational backgrounds, and many have had poor experiences with
education in the past. The CEA and other organizations offer courses that provide specific training on teaching correctional populations.15 Correctional educators may also
need preparation for working with students who have learning disabilities or other special needs, given the high prevalence of these issues among the incarcerated population. Systems can hire special education teachers who have received rigorous, specialized training, or they can train general educators in how to modify and adapt instruction
for special populations. Even non-disabled students can benefit when their instructors
have training in teaching to different learning styles and ability levels.
Finding talented, well-trained teachers interested in working in correctional facilities can be difficult. Prisons are often
located far from urban areas or other places with large numbers
of potential instructors. The share of correctional employees
devoted to education has declined over the past several
years. In 1990, 4.1 percent of state and federal prison employees were classified as educational staff; by 2005 that number
had dropped to 2.6 percent (Klein et al. 2004; Stephan 2008).16
Government or private initiatives might increase the pool of
potential correctional educators by training teachers and providing incentives for them to work in corrections. Roundtable
participant Mindy Feldbaum is currently developing an initiative to train and support a corps of correctional educators,
similar to the Teach for America program (see text box).
In many systems, particularly those with limited resources, certified teachers are supplemented with volunteer instructors
from the community and inmate instructors and tutors.
Although these individuals typically have limited training as
educators, they can offer significant support to trained teachers and enhance the classroom environment. They can be particularly valuable in areas such as literacy where one-on-one
tutoring has been found to be important for learning. A recent
survey of state correctional systems found that some systems
have more inmate tutors than paid teachers, suggesting that

DEVELOPING A POOL
OF CORRECTIONAL EDUCATORS
Roundtable participant Mindy
Feldbaum of the Academy for
Education Development (AED) is pursuing an initiative to develop a new
pool of talented correctional educators. Drawing on the success of the
Teach for America model, the
Correctional Education Teaching
Corps will seek to attract a diverse
group of individuals who will commit
to teaching in a correctional setting.
Before being placed in a correctional
facility, Corps members will participate
in an intensive learning lab to gain the
knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary to become effective educators.
The lab will provide Corps members
with a complete understanding of the
criminal justice system and will prepare
them for the challenges of working in a
correctional environment.

14 Stephen Steurer, Executive Director of the Correctional Education Association, e-mail communication
with the authors, January 15, 2009.
15 For more information on professional development opportunities offered by CEA, visit their web site at
www.ceanational.org.
16
These figures do not reflect the use of outside contractors or partner agencies to provide instruction (such
as instructors from local colleges), because these individuals are typically not counted as correctional staff.
Also, the data do not distinguish between full-time and part-time staff.

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FROM THE CLASSROOM TO THE COMMUNITY

peer-to-peer learning is an important method of instruction in correctional classrooms
(Corrections Compendium 2008). The selective use of volunteers and inmate instructors
can be a valuable tool for expanding program capacity and compounding the return on
salaried instructors, but these individuals will need to receive some degree of training
and may only be able to provide certain types of programming.
Whether they are trained teachers or volunteer instructors, correctional educators
need adequate materials, equipment, instructional tools, and space for conducting
their lessons. Facility design should take program needs into consideration, and correctional administrators must work to ensure that teachers have the tools and
resources they need. Communication between educators and correctional administrators is critical to ensuring that both material and logistical needs are met.

Appropriate Technology
In recent years, promising new computer and communications technologies have
slowly been incorporated into correctional education. Multimedia content and interactive learning opportunities can now be delivered via the Internet, closed/restricted
computer networks, satellite, closed-circuit television, CDs or DVDs, videotapes, or
videoconferencing. Coursework using these technologies ranges from highly structured, prepackaged instruction to self-guided, individualized, and interactive lessons.
Technology holds great promise for addressing many of the challenges of providing
education in a correctional environment, such as institutional security constraints and
inadequate funding and resources.17
The incorporation of new technological applications can enhance correctional education by
Ⅲ providing programs specifically geared toward incarcerated populations;
Ⅲ offering customized instruction that addresses different learning styles and ability
levels, as well as special needs;
Ⅲ delivering simultaneous instruction to large numbers of students in multiple locations, saving money and staff resources;
Ⅲ serving facilities that are too isolated or have too few students to make face-toface programming cost-effective;
Ⅲ providing standardized coursework that is consistent across students and facilities;
Ⅲ serving incarcerated students who, because of their security classification or for
other reasons, cannot be in contact with other inmates;
Ⅲ linking students to courses being offered in the community; and
Ⅲ improving training programs for correctional educators.

17 More information on the use of technology in education for incarcerated populations can be found in the
Roundtable paper “The Effective Use of Technology in Correctional Education” (Borden and Richardson
2008).

32

EDUCATION BEHIND THE WALLS

Technology is more than simply a mechanism for delivering education; using computers, the Internet, and other communications technologies can be a learning experience in and of itself. Since many incarcerated students have limited exposure to
these technologies, any interaction with computers or the Internet can serve as a form
of vocational training. Computers and the Internet are also an increasingly essential
part of the educational process itself, and both teachers and students rely heavily on
these tools for seeking information, locating articles and references, and composing
documents. Having technology available in correctional facilities also opens up the
opportunity for computer skills classes and other technological training courses.

INNOVATIVE STRATEGIES FOR USING TECHNOLOGY IN EDUCATION FOR CRIMINAL JUSTICE POPULATIONS
Ⅲ The Transforming Lives Network (TLN) provides education for incarcerated individuals and
training for instructors and correctional staff via satellite. This distance learning project is managed by the Correctional Education Association (CEA) and funded by subscriptions from participating institutions. Through a partnership with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections
and the Milwaukee Area Technical College’s College of the Air program, TLN now offers
courses for college credit.
Ⅲ New Mexico provides academic postsecondary education through partnerships with three
state educational institutions. Distance-learning courses are provided using a closed-circuit
Internet connection.
Ⅲ Ohio’s London Correctional Facility has a six-month interactive media and web design course
that teaches students basic design and web development skills. Students have produced
several web sites and other products for nonprofit clients.
Ⅲ Ohio’s Transitional Education Program (TEP) is designed to prepare individuals for success
after release. The in-prison component offers distance-learning through videoconferencing with instructors located at a central site, along with self-paced learning using a specialized computer program. After release, individuals have access to a specially designed
support web site and can connect to a TEP caseworker for support via Internet, e-mail, or
telephone.
Ⅲ The Computer-Based Learning from Prison to Community project, or P2C, provides women in
New Jersey with access to computer-based learning opportunities in prison and after release.
Participants take courses in basic math and literacy, life skills, and computer skills, including
the use of Microsoft Office applications. In prison, participants are given access to a simulated Internet program which allows them to explore and learn about the Internet in a safe
environment. Women who successfully complete the first phases are given a home computer
with Internet access to continue their training after release.
Sources: Borden and Richardson (2008); Contardo and Tolbert (2008); McKay et al. (2008); Ann Coppola, September
10, 2007, “Accessing the Future,” http://www.corrections.com/news/article/16587 (accessed February 11, 2009);
Ohio’s Transitional Education Program web site, http://www.drc.state.oh.us/ocss/OCSS_transitional.htm, accessed
February 11, 2009; and the Transforming Lives Network web site, http://www.tln.ceanational.org/, accessed
February 11, 2009.

33

FROM THE CLASSROOM TO THE COMMUNITY

Despite many potential benefits, technology can have drawbacks if not used carefully.
While exciting new technologies can be appealing, the benefits and appropriate use
of a proposed technology should be carefully considered and, if deemed effective,
the application should be deliberately and purposefully integrated into the classroom.
Giving the latest technology to teachers and students without any support or guidance can be overwhelming and ineffective. These individuals need training in the technology’s use and time to adapt to it and integrate it into the educational process.
Occasionally, teachers fear that technology will replace them or hinder their preferred
instructional methods. Many educators also question whether distance learning, computer-based coursework, or other technology-driven programs can provide the same
quality of education as face- to-face instruction. Direct guidance from a teacher, contact with other students, and experience working in group environments are all intangible benefits of traditional classroom instruction. Hybrid models, wherein programs
like distance learning are combined with face-to-face classroom instruction and support, may offer a promising compromise.

Technology should serve us, not
the other

New technologies also come with security risks, which is why
some correctional facilities have strongly resisted allowing
way around.
Internet access to incarcerated students and even staff.
Many of these security concerns can be addressed with care— CINDY BORDEN AND
ful planning and regulations governing access and use.
PENNY RICHARDSON,
Software applications such as firewalls and content filters
NORTHSTAR CORRECTIONAL
can restrict Internet access, and clear rules and sanctions can
EDUCATION SERVICES
deter misuse of technology. Although the security concerns
are well-founded, there is fairly widespread agreement that
technology must be allowed into correctional facilities in
some form, given the important role computers, the Internet, and other communications technologies play in life outside the walls.

Effective Incentives
Student motivation is a key issue in any educational system, particularly in settings
such as correctional facilities where many students have been discouraged by their
past educational experiences. Well-designed incentive structures can encourage individuals to participate in and complete education programs. In-prison benefits, such
as expanded access to visitation or commissary, and rewards such as good time credits or other forms of sentence reduction can promote participation. In Indiana, certain
types of offenders are eligible to receive sentence credits for completing educational
programming, with increasing time credits rewarded for higher levels of educational
achievement.18 When developing incentive structures, program administrators should
consider both “carrots” (rewards) and “sticks” (sanctions). For example, New Mexico
encourages program completion by providing good time credits in a lump sum once
Indiana State Code, http://www.in.gov/legislative/ic/code/title35/ar50/ch6.html#IC35-50-6-3, accessed
March 30, 2009.

18

34

EDUCATION BEHIND THE WALLS

a program is completed but also by garnishing inmate wages to help pay the cost of
a program if the student drops out (Contardo and Tolbert 2008).
Not all incentives need to provide tangible benefits: awards and acknowledgement
within the classroom and in special ceremonies may seem trivial but can do a great
deal to keep students motivated and make them feel proud of their achievements.
Program quality and classroom environment also play a role in student engagement
and motivation. Participation and good behavior can also be encouraged by requiring students to sign a participation agreement and/or classroom behavior contract
laying out the responsibilities of the student, the instructors, and the correctional system. Even if such contracts are not legally binding, formalizing the educational agreement can encourage all sides to follow through on their commitments.
Because incentives and disincentives affect who is in the classroom and for what reasons, correctional systems should carefully consider the incentive structures they have
in place. Some systems require participation in adult basic education, GED preparation, or other courses for individuals functioning below a certain level (Crayton and
Neusteter 2008). The goal of such requirements is to ensure that all inmates reach a
certain level of literacy and abilities. However, some educators have questioned the
value of having students who are being forced to participate in the same classroom with
more motivated students. Program administrators also need to consider disincentives
that may discourage or prevent individuals from participating. Communication between
educators and correctional staff helps ensure that individuals who attend classes do not
miss out on perks like recreation time or commissary. Inmates may not have time for education courses because they need the money or other benefits from in-prison jobs. In
response, some correctional systems pay people for participation in educational programming, in some cases paying the same wage an individual would have received at
an in-prison job. For example, Rikers Island Jail in New York City is experimenting with
a program that pays anyone under the age of 24 to participate in educational activities (Crayton and Neusteter 2008).

35

From Classroom to Community
Education and Reentry

E

ducational opportunities should not end at the prison
walls, and programs in correctional facilities should be

viewed as a first step on an individual’s larger educational path. Correctional education
should build a foundation that, supplemented with reentry planning and case management, can bring individuals real-world success in continuing education and in employment. Structures and support are needed to help individuals transition from correctional
education to education in the community after release, and partnerships and collaborations among key agencies can help build these links. This section explores the transition from education during incarceration to education, employment, and other reentry
successes in the community.19

Promoting Education and Employment Success
after Release
Correctional education programs should be structured with reentry in mind, laying the groundwork for
students to obtain employment and/or continue their education after release. Correctional education
should provide relevant skills and abilities on par with similar programs available in the community, and
19 More information on education after release is available in the Roundtable paper “Prison Postsecondary
Education: Bridging Learning from Incarceration to the Community” by Jeanne Contardo and Michelle
Tolbert (2008).

36

FROM CLASSROOM TO COMMUNITY

achievement should be formally recognized via widely
accepted credentials. Individuals also need support and
planning during the reentry process to help them translate
their in-prison education into real world success.

The challenges are ensuring that
current and new program credits,
certificates, and licenses are not

Program designers need to ensure that course credits, ceronly transferable between prisons
tificates, and other credentials obtained during incarceraand outside institutions, but also
tion are recognized by the broader educational community
as well as employers. In the realm of academic instruction,
in demand by [the local] business
programs should provide courses that qualify students for
further education (such as the GED) or that transfer to other
community.
educational institutions like community colleges and state
— GENO, A STUDENT
universities. Often the more centralized and standardized a
INCARCERATED IN VIRGINIA
correctional education system is, the more likely credits are
to transfer. Postsecondary education in New Mexico’s prisons, for example, follows a standardized curriculum. The
most widely available program leads to an associate’s degree in general studies that
articulates to all the state’s public universities and forms the core curriculum for a
bachelor’s degree (Contardo and Tolbert 2008).
Vocational programs should also be reentry-relevant, providing skills, abilities, and
certifications that will help individuals obtain good-paying, stable employment, ideally in a high-growth industry where jobs are in demand. Creating programming that
is relevant to the local and regional job market and suitable for the incarcerated population may require analyzing labor market trends and structuring vocational training
and other education programs accordingly. Correctional administrators and educators should also consider legal barriers that prevent people with criminal histories from
being employed in certain industries (Samuels and Mukamal 2004). Continual review
is important to ensure that training programs provide the most current knowledge and
techniques in a field. Vocational training in some facilities is geared toward outdated
career paths and uses equipment and techniques that are no longer relevant. To
ensure that their educational efforts are effectively preparing students for employment, North Carolina has developed a business and industry advisory committee that
advises the state on academic and vocational education for incarcerated students
(Contardo and Tolbert 2008).
Even if a strong educational foundation is laid in prison, individuals may encounter significant barriers to continuing their education or obtaining employment after release.
Returning prisoners face challenges on many fronts and obtaining education and training may not be their first priority as they struggle to meet their basic needs and reconnect with their families. Those who do pursue education or employment may have difficulty with issues as basic as finding transportation to class or a job and a stable, calm
living environment in which to study and rest. Individuals need reentry planning and case
management to help them navigate the reentry process and ensure that all the pieces
are in place to support their employment and education endeavors. Those who are

37

FROM THE CLASSROOM TO THE COMMUNITY

PROVIDING WRAPAROUND SUPPORT FOR
CONTINUING EDUCATION: THE COLLEGE
AND COMMUNITY FELLOWSHIP
The College and Community
Fellowship (CCF) is a New York-based
organization that provides formerly
incarcerated women with opportunities
for educational advancement, professional development, personal growth,
public leadership, and civic participation. CCF supports women who are
continuing their education through
mentoring, financial assistance, peer
support networks, academic counseling, leadership training, and referrals to
agencies that offer housing, mental
health, substance abuse treatment, and
other services. Students who maintain
a minimum 2.5 grade point average
have the opportunity to receive $600
each semester after they earn their first
12 college credits. Almost 70 percent
of CCF participants receive four-year
college degrees within four years of
starting the program. Since the program began eight years ago, 99 participants have received college degrees
ranging from associate’s degrees to
Ph.D.s.
More information on CCF is available
online at http://www.collegeand
community.org/.

pursuing further education can benefit from assistance in
accessing educational opportunities and obtaining funding,
academic counseling and mentoring, training in study skills,
and peer support. In the realm of employment, formerly incarcerated individuals often need “soft skills” training that covers
such topics as arriving at work on time and communicating with
superiors and colleagues in the workplace. They also need
resume and interview preparation, basic computer skills, and
assistance with job development and placement. Vocational
and academic education must be supplemented with these
types of training activities and support in order for students to
reap the full benefits of their education.
One of the most difficult challenges to continuing one’s education after release is funding, despite the fact that people
just released from prison are often eligible for financial aid.20
In a recent survey of incarcerated men, funding was identified
as the biggest obstacle preventing individuals from pursuing
education after release (Hanneken and Dannerbeck 2007).
Many people return to the community without a job or with a
low-paying job, lacking savings or assets, with poor credit histories, and with a significant amount of debt from child support and criminal justice expenses. Yet education can be a
valuable investment and, given their low incomes, many former prisoners qualify for need-based financial aid for postsecondary education (see text box on the next page).
Unfortunately, formerly incarcerated people are often unaware
of public and private funding sources that may be available for
continuing their education. Additionally, some colleges have
started conducting background checks and making admissions
decisions based on applicants’ criminal histories (Center for
Community Alternatives 2008). There are generally no legal protections against using criminal records in college admissions.

Partnerships to Support Reentry Success
Whether they are seeking education, employment, or both, individuals returning from
prison need support and case planning to achieve their goals. Increased collaboration
and communication among agencies that work with returning prisoners can enhance
educational services and support for this population. For example, when correctional

20In states where postsecondary correctional education is financed in part through loans which students are
required to pay off after release, lack of financial resources can also discourage individuals from participating in education programs during incarceration.

38

FROM CLASSROOM TO COMMUNITY

FEDERAL FUNDING FOR EDUCATION AFTER RELEASE
Though eligibility for some forms of federal financial aid for postsecondary education, such as Pell
Grants, is revoked during incarceration, for the vast majority of inmates eligibility is reinstated upon
release. Those with drug-related convictions, however, may still be disqualified from receiving federal financial aid for postsecondary education even after their release. Drug offenders were once
barred completely from receiving aid under the Higher Education Act, but the act was amended in
2006 to apply only to those individuals who were receiving Title IV Federal financial aid at the time
of their drug conviction. For these individuals, federal loans, grants, and work assistance are suspended on the date of conviction for varying lengths of time, depending on the type of offense and
whether it is a repeat offense. However, a person convicted of a drug-related offense may have his
or her eligibility for federal funding reinstated before the end of the suspension period if he or she
completes specified types of substance abuse treatment and successfully passes two unannounced
drug tests. Eligibility for financial aid may also be reinstated if the conviction is reversed, set aside,
or otherwise repealed. While the disqualification of individuals who were receiving federal financial
aid at the time of their drug conviction only affects a small number of former prisoners, confusion
surrounding the ban often discourages eligible individuals from applying.
Source: Dan Klock, U.S. Department of Education, e-mail communication with the authors, December 10, 2008.

educators have information about what happens to their students after release, they can
gauge whether their methods are being successful and how they might better prepare
their students for reentry. They can also work to link their students to opportunities in
the community and design their programs to help facilitate the transition process.
Partnerships between corrections, community supervision, service providers, educational
institutions, and employers can strengthen correctional and community education programs and create links between incarceration and the community. Collaborations are
particularly valuable for providing multimodal programs that address individual’s multiple interrelated reentry needs, from employment and education to physical and
mental health, substance abuse treatment, stable housing, and family reconnection.
Innovative programs such as education release (similar to work release) inside facilities and education-focused transitional housing after release can help create
bridges between incarceration and education in the community. Partnerships like
North Carolina’s business and industry advisory committee not only bring the expertise of employers into the design of correctional education, they also build buy-in
among employers and interest in hiring former prisoners educated in the system.
Multi-agency collaborations like the ones described above also help ensure that all
partners are working toward a common goal; for example, that stringent supervision
requirements are not getting in the way of individuals attending class.
Local jails are both uniquely suited for and in need of community partnerships (Solomon
et al. 2008). Because jails are located close to the communities where inmates live, they
have promising opportunities to build connections with local educators, employers, ser-

39

FROM THE CLASSROOM TO THE COMMUNITY

vice providers, and other key partners. Jails have a strong need for these partnerships
because their inmate population transitions rapidly and many individuals only stay for a
short time, making the provision of meaningful educational opportunities within the jail
difficult. Partnerships with community educational institutions might take the form of programs where jail inmates start their coursework during incarceration and transition into a
comparable program after release, or “education release” programs where inmates are
permitted to leave the jail during their incarceration to receive education in the community. For some jail inmates whose incarceration is likely to be very short, the most appropriate role for the jail may be to assess their educational needs and connect them with
appropriate community agencies so they can continue their education upon release.
Just as jails benefit from their proximity to the local community, community colleges
are ideally suited for collaborations with the criminal justice system to educate current
and former prisoners (Contardo and Tolbert 2008; U.S. Department of Education
2009). They have an explicit goal of providing education to everyone in a community,
including nontraditional students and populations that are underserved by other institutions of higher education. Their classes cost less than many other institutions, and
their course offerings are often flexible and responsive to student and community
needs. Community colleges are, by definition, “uniquely situated within local communities” and have connections to employers, service providers, and others who should
be engaged in the reentry process (Contardo and Tolbert 2008). Partnerships between
correctional systems and community colleges can also benefit the colleges, as the
funds they receive for providing correctional education can help them develop and
expand their program offerings. Community colleges across the country are already
strongly engaged in correctional education: they provide 68 percent of all postsecondary education behind bars (Institute for Higher Education Policy 2005).

COLLABORATION BETWEEN COMMUNITY COLLEGES AND CORRECTIONS IN NORTH CAROLINA
The North Carolina Community College System (CCS) and Department of Corrections (DOC)
partner to provide education to prison inmates in the state, including adult basic education,
GED preparation, and postsecondary coursework. CCS provides postsecondary education to an
impressive one-third of the state’s inmates annually, with a strong focus on vocational training.
The program only offers coursework that can lead to a certificate or academic degree, and credits can be transferred to CCS colleges or state universities. The partnership was initiated by the
state’s General Assembly in 1987, and the Assembly continues to play a role in managing the
collaboration. Cooperative agreements govern the relationship and dictate program structures,
agency responsibilities, inmate eligibility requirements, and other elements of the collaboration.
The state funds the programming through several mechanisms, including tuition waivers, inmate
welfare funds, and grants for smaller community colleges (Contardo and Tolbert 2008).
Information on education services offered by the North Carolina DOC is available online at
http://www.doc.state.nc.us/dop/education/index.htm.

40

Conclusion

P

eople from all walks of life pursue education for much
the same reason: because it provides opportunity—

the opportunity for self-improvement, a better life,
and the means to provide for oneself and one’s
family. That this opportunity should be available to

In a country where second
chances and opportunity are

all has been a longstanding American ideal, as

professed values, democratic

demonstrated by the development of the country’s

access to high-quality higher

public education system, the dedication of govern-

education must include access

ment and private funding for higher education, and
even the provision of education programs in correctional facilities. Unfortunately, the country’s

for people in prison and people
who have been convicted of

commitment to public education has not always

crimes. We cannot bar the most

been fulfilled, particularly for low-income people,

vulnerable people from the very

people of color, and those involved in the criminal

thing that has the greatest

justice system. The lack of formal education among
the incarcerated population is rooted in a much
larger failure of the public education system in
communities across the country, a failure that limits

potential to change their lives.
— VIVIAN NIXON, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR,
COLLEGE AND COMMUNITY FELLOWSHIP

41

FROM THE CLASSROOM TO THE COMMUNITY

Education for current and former

the economic, political, and social opportunities

prisoners is a cost-effective

available to people in these communities. For many

solution to reducing reoffending

individuals, even at the start of the 21st century, the
tremendous transformative power of education

and improving public safety. The

remains out of reach.

effect of education on recidivism
has been well-demonstrated,
and even small reductions in
reoffending can have a significant
impact when spread across large
numbers of participants.
— GERRY GAES, VISITING RESEARCHER,
COLLEGE OF CRIMINOLOGY AND CRIMINAL
JUSTICE, FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY

The importance of access to high-quality education for
incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people has once
again garnered attention as part of a larger conversation on
strategies for addressing the social and financial challenges
caused by mass incarceration and prisoner reentry. The conversations at the Reentry Roundtable on Education made it
clear that education can play a crucial role in rehabilitation
and reintegration for people who are or have been incarcerated. Research demonstrates that education can change
thinking, encourage pro-social behavior, increase employment, and reduce recidivism. Education’s power to transform lives in both tangible and intangible ways makes it one
of the most valuable and effective tools we may have for
helping people rebuild their lives after incarceration, as well
as for combating crime and reducing criminal justice costs.

While providing education within correctional facilities is challenging, education programs can flourish within prisons and jails when dedicated educators are equipped with
the necessary resources and are supported by correctional administrators and staff.
There is still a great deal to learn about what program models work and what instructional methods, staff training and qualifications, technology applications, participation
incentives and other program components are effective for different types of students.
There is also work to be done in developing models for providing education during
and after reentry and ensuring that education does not stop at the prison walls.
Individuals need planning and support to guarantee that the education they receive
during incarceration translates into reentry success, employment, and especially
opportunities for further education after release. Despite these challenges, the
Roundtable demonstrated that there are individuals, from correctional administrators
to reentry advocates to researchers, who believe in correctional education and are
working to expand and improve it.
The Roundtable was meant to serve as a starting point for conversation and collaboration, and the discussion explored ideas for moving forward on several fronts.
Participants highlighted the need to convince correctional administrators, policymakers, and the public that education is a sound investment that can reduce costs,
enhance security and improve behavior within facilities, and produce positive outcomes after release. They suggested that the field has more to learn about how best

42

CONCLUSION

to educate adults involved in the criminal justice system and how to support individuals in shaping their own educational pathways. Roundtable participants focused on
the importance of equipping educators with the tools they need and working with
them to develop innovative strategies for providing education within prisons and in the
community. Perhaps most importantly, participants emphasized the value of building
partnerships across the board: between the worlds of education and corrections;
between programs within facilities and those on the outside; and between policymakers, researchers, advocates, and practitioners. While more work remains to be done,
the authors hope that the Roundtable and this monograph will inform and influence
future efforts in the field of correctional education.

43

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48

About the Authors

DIANA BRAZZELL is a research associate in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. Ms. Brazzell
is involved in several research projects on topics including reentry from prison and jail to the community, the impact of incarceration on families and communities, faith-based programming in criminal justice, and the use of mapping to improve the understanding of justice issues.
ANNA CRAYTON is the deputy director of research of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College
of Criminal Justice. Ms. Crayton has worked on a number of projects pertaining to sentencing, corrections, and reentry, including the development of a national resource guide to assist individuals in planning for their education upon release from prison and a quantitative analysis of the effects of long-term
incarceration on reentry. Additionally, she is a candidate for a doctoral degree in criminal justice at the
City University of New York Graduate Center.
DEBBIE A. MUKAMAL is the founding director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College of
Criminal Justice. She is responsible for overseeing all the Institute’s projects including the design and
implementation of an innovative neighborhood-based reentry service initiative and the development
of research and effective tools in the areas of entrepreneurship, education, long-term incarceration,
and reentry from local jails. Before joining John Jay College, Ms. Mukamal served as the director of
the National H.I.R.E. Network and a staff attorney at the Legal Action Center, where her work focused
on the collateral consequences of criminal records.
AMY SOLOMON is a senior research associate in the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center. Ms. Solomon
has worked in the criminal justice field for 20 years, in federal government, state corrections, and nonprofit organizations. She currently directs projects on prisoner reentry, including transition from local
jails, community supervision, and innovative reentry practices at the neighborhood level. Ms. Solomon
serves on several national criminal justice advisory boards and has published extensively in the area of
prisoner reentry.

49

FROM THE CLASSROOM TO THE COMMUNITY

NICOLE LINDAHL is a graduate student in jurisprudence and social policy at the University
of California, Berkeley. Previously, she served as assistant director of the Prisoner
Reentry Institute at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where she developed projects facilitating entrepreneurship and education for currently and formerly incarcerated
individuals. She also served as program director and an English instructor for the Prison
University Project, which operates the College Program at San Quentin State Prison in
California.

50

-I
II.

JOHN JAY COLLEGE
THE CITY UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK

THE URBAN INSTITUTE
2100 M Street, NW
Washington, DC 20037
Phone: 202.833.7200
E-mail: paffairs@ui.urban.org
http://www.urban.org

OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE
Prisoner Reentry Institute
555 W. 57th Street, Room 601
New York, NY 10019
http://www.jjay.cuny.edu

 

 

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