Prison Education Programs Prove Their Potential

With momentum from the prison-abolition movement and the return of Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students, college in prison programs are poised for growth.
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  • Prison education changes lives, reducing recidivism and increasing employment.
  • With momentum from the prison-abolition movement, college-in-prison programs have grown.
  • In 2023, incarcerated students will be eligible for Pell Grants for the first time since 1994.

Education changes the game for people caught in the judicial system. Incarcerated people who participate in education programs have a 43% lower recidivism rate than their peers. Nationwide, prisons offer — or in some cases require — prison college programs for inmates to earn their GED certificate or degree.

A recent study by Yale University and the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a pioneering prison education program operated by liberal arts university Bard College in New York, found that education reduces recidivism rates across racial groups. BPI is open to inmates at six New York prisons. Participants in the program largely reflect the demographics of the state's prison populations — disproportionately Black and Latino.

Study coauthor Matthew G.T. Denney, a Ph.D. student at Yale, noted that "participation and intensity of engagement in programs like BPI might disrupt" the cycle of poverty, lack of opportunity, and lack of socioeconomic mobility that keep recidivism rates high.

Many people in prison did not have access to educational opportunities in the first place. Investing in prison education can compensate for this inequality while also improving public safety:

Moreover, every $1 invested in prison education programs creates a $4-5 reduction in incarceration expenses during the first three years after an incarcerated person's release. The families of the incarcerated benefit, too. Children are more likely to attend college if their parents have done so.

College-in-Prison Programs Grow by Example

Prison education includes a variety of programs, covering basic literacy and exposure to the arts, GED preparation, vocational training, and college courses. These programs take place on-site or through mailed correspondence.

Early iterations of college-in-prison programs were all conducted through correspondence. This was also the case during prison shutdowns in the early stages of COVID-19. But according to advocates, on-site, face-to-face classes do a better job of building critical-thinking skills.

The impact of a prison education program, according to the researchers behind the Yale/BPI study, is closely linked to its rigor. Growing public and federal support may help such programs increase in number. However, quality shouldn't be sacrificed to quantity.

The study's authors caution that college-in-prison programs that lack rigor may not have the same effect on recidivism rates. The authors recommend that programs keep standards as high behind bars as they are on campus.

The Bard Prison Initiative is an example of high-quality prison education. Other national leaders include the John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Prison-to-College Pipeline program, Georgetown University's Prison Scholars Program, New York University's Prison Education Program, and Wesleyan University's Center for Prison Education.

While the number of colleges and community colleges providing education to inmates is increasing, the Vera Institute of Justice reports that only 35-42% of state prisons provide college-level courses to incarcerated people.

Activists say colleges have a special duty to perform this work. According to the Incarceration Nations Network, "Universities have a powerful role to play in creating safer communities," and in turn, universities are responsible for providing the formerly incarcerated with continuing education opportunities. The idea behind building prison-to-college pipelines is to create a "continuum" in which people who began educational programs while incarcerated may continue their education on the outside.

Federal Financial Aid Once Again Available for Students in Prison

Following a quarter-century ban, Congress in December 2020 reauthorized the use of federal Pell Grants by students in prison.

Beginning in 1965, incarcerated individuals in the U.S. were eligible for need-based Pell Grants to pay for college courses while in prison. In the early '90s, nearly 20% of federal inmates had taken a college course while imprisoned. But the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 banned incarcerated students from receiving federal student aid, shuttering many college-in-prison programs as a result.

By 2004, the share of inmates who had taken a college course fell by half.

Buoyed by the prison-abolition movement, federal aid will be available to students in prison once more. For 64% of U.S. inmates, it already is: The Department of Education (ED) has expanded the Second Chance Pell for the 2022-23 award year. The experimental pilot program provides Pell Grants to inmates at certain federal and state prisons to help prove the merit of college-in-prison education.

Criminal convictions continue to limit eligibility for federal financial aid. Drug convictions no longer affect federal student aid eligibility. Still, individuals convicted of sexual offenses are not eligible for Pell Grants, either as inmates or after release.

Educated, but Ineligible: Formerly Incarcerated Face Employment Restrictions

Incarcerated individuals who participate in academic or vocational programs are less likely to re-enter the judicial system and more likely to gain employment. But the work they are trained to do does not always match up to the work they are permitted by law to perform.

Every state, in addition to the federal government, has laws preventing people with criminal records from holding certain jobs. Known as “collateral consequences,” these laws prohibit the

formerly incarcerated from some types of work and public services, such as public assistance benefits or public housing.

These laws largely restrict those with past convictions from entering healthcare, education, and public service.

For this reason, some colleges prevent incarcerated or formerly incarcerated students from studying in fields that would ultimately be closed off to them. Jessica Neptune, the director of national engagement at BPI, told Inside Higher Ed that this "gatekeeping" is problematic and creates more dead ends.

The Department of Education is currently looking to “ensure that postsecondary institutions do not offer programs to students if State or Federal laws would ban, exempt, or prohibit formerly incarcerated students from licensure or employment.” Otherwise, predatory colleges may enroll incarcerated students to cash in on federal aid — only to award degrees that the formerly incarcerated cannot legally put to use.

Still, the tide is turning, indicating more opportunities for the formerly incarcerated to put their degrees to work. Since 2015, 38 states have eased or removed licensing barriers for people with criminal records, according to the Institute for Justice.