Prison education is a broad term that encompasses any number of educational activities occurring inside a prison. Educational courses may consist of basic literacy programs, high-school equivalency programs, vocational education and tertiary education. Prison education is typically provided, managed and funded by the prison system, though inmates may be required to pay for distance education programs. The history of and current practices in prison education varies greatly between different countries.

People entering prison systems worldwide have, on average, lower levels of education than general populations. Prison education aims to increase an inmates ability to be employed after their release by improving their skills and education. Studies consistently show they are an effective way of reducing the rates of recidivism and accordingly saving money on the cost of further incarceration. In the US, it is estimated that for every dollar spent on prison education, $4 to $5 is saved due to decreases in crime. Despite the known benefits of prison education programs, rates of education within prison remain low in many countries, and attempts to increase the rate of and funding for prison education has been met with opposition. Opponents have various arguments, including that prison education is a waste of money or that prisoners do not deserve the right to be educated.



The implementation of prison education programs varies between countries. Sweden is considered to be a pioneer of prison education; education became mandatory for inmates in 1842, and vocational education can be traced back to at least 1874, when the Uppsala County prison hired a carpenter to teach inmates woodwork skills.[1] In Denmark, juvenile offenders have had access to education since the 1850s, and educational programs became mandatory for them in 1930. Adult prisons have had educational programs since 1866, and legislation requiring all inmates under the age of 30 to participate in educational courses was implemented in 1952.[2] Norway opened its first prison to focus on education as a form of rehabilitation in 1851. By the end of the century, legislation was in effect ensuring that any prisoner who had not completed primary and lower secondary schooling should do so while in prison.[3] In Finland, legislation was adopted in 1866 which ensured that all prisoners would receive primary education, though the implementation of the order faced practical difficulties. A more successful education reform was implemented in 1899, which remained unchanged until 1975.[4] In 1918, the Soviet Union recommended that children in prison should receive education alongside punishment. Little education was actually implemented, however, due to competing agendas from various jurisdictions and agencies.[5] In 1928, very few prisons in the UK were offering anything other than the most basic education courses.[6] Iceland, which averages only 108 prisoners in the country, began implementing education programs in 1971. The small size of prisons in Iceland, while having numerous advantages, makes running organised educational programs difficult, as the small number of inmates may have drastically different education needs.[7]

North America

In the early 19th century US, secular education programs were run in prisons with the intention of helping inmates read Bibles and other religious texts distributed by visiting chaplains, though the first major education program aimed at rehabilitating prisoners was not launched until 1876.[8] Zebulon Brockway, the superintendent of Elmira Reformatory, is credited as being the first person to implement such a program. He believed prison education would "discipline the mind and fit it to receive .... the thoughts and principles that constitute their possessors good citizens".[8] By 1900, the "Elmira system" of education had been adopted by the states of Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois and Minnesota,[9] and by the 1930s, educational programs could be found in most prisons. Tertiary education programs, however, did not begin to appear until much later. In 1960, only nine states were offering college-level education to inmates; by 1983 such programs were available in most states.[8] Between 1972 and 1995, inmates in the US were able to apply for Pell Grants, a subsidy program run by the U.S. federal government that provides funding for students.[10] However in 1994 Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which denies Pell Grants to anyone who is incarcerated.[11] As a result, by 2005 only about a dozen prisons were running postsecondary education, compared to 350 in the early 1990s;[10] the number in New York alone dropped from 70 to four.[12] In 2015, then President Barack Obama created a pilot program that allowed a limited number of inmates to receive Pell grants. More than 200 colleges in 47 states subsequently expressed interest in running educational programs for prisoners.[12] The development of prison education within Canada has paralleled that of the US; Royal Commissions in 1914 and 1936 both recommended that work programs by replaced, to as least some extant, by rehabilitative programs including education.[8] However education programs did not become commonplace until the mid 1940s.[8]

Literacy rates and available programs

People in prison systems worldwide are consistently less educated than the general population. In the UK, as of 2010, 47% of inmates reported having no formal qualification compared to only 15% of the population.[13] In Australia, as of 2006, only 14% of prisoners had completed Year Twelve, compared to 63% of the population.[14] In the US, as of 2004, 65% of inmates had either a General Educational Development or high-school diploma, compared to 82% of the population, and only 17% had tertiary education, compared to 51% of the population.[15] A survey of German inmates in 2003–04 found that 85.8% had completed middle-school, compared with 97% of the population, and 51.7% had completed high-school, compared to 55.4% of the population.[16]

Prison education courses can range from basic literacy courses and high-school equivalency programs,[17] to vocational education and tertiary education programs. Educational programs are typically provided, managed and funded by prison systems. Correspondence courses, however, may need to be paid for by the inmates of their families. Charity groups, such as the Prisoner's Education Trust in the UK, can accept application for grants from prisoners who cannot afford to finance their distance education.[18]

There are several barriers to both running and participating in educational programs in prisons. For example it is more difficult to operate education programs inside a prison where security concerns are considered more important than educational goals,[19][20] particularly in vocational trades where it is easy to manufacture weapons.[21] Shifts in the way courses are offered, such as correspondence courses increasingly only being offered via online formats, has presented a significant barrier as most countries do not permit inmates to access the internet.[20][22][23] Other factors that prohibit education programs from being effectively carried out in prison are frequent transfers of prisoners between correctional facilities, prisons which have mandated that educational programs should focus solely on basic skills, staff shortages preventing programs from being run,[20] and difficulty finding external teachers willing to work for the rates of pay offered by prisons.[24] Prison education programs may also face a lack of support, or even outright opposition, from the prisons they are trying to operate in.[16]

In both Australia and the UK, prisoners on remand or in hospital are not eligible to undertake educational study.[20][25] Norway and Finland, however, do not house people on remand separately, and they are accordingly entitled to the same education as regular prisoners. Denmark and Sweden entitle inmates on remand to some education programs, though less than those available to other prisoners.[26]

Reductions in recidivism

The recidivism rate among prisoners in the Western world is high. As of 2011, within three years of release, seven out of ten inmates in the US will have re-offended and half will be back in prison.[19] In Australia, 44.8% of prisoners released between 2014 and 2015 returned to prison within two years,[27] and in England and Wales, 46% of people released from prison between April 2013 and March 2014 were incarcerated again within 12 months.[28][29] Ex-prisoners often face difficulty obtaining employment after their release, and such difficulty is highly associated with re-offending. Prison education programs are intended to reduce recidivism by increasing an inmates ability to be employed.[30][31] Prison education also has therapeutic benefits such as alleviating boredom and stimulating creativity, which have been linked to reductions in recidivism.[20][32] Recidivism is also high in Latin America, with Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Chile all having rates above 40%.[33]

In the US, there were very few studies done on the relationship between educational programs and recidivism prior to the 1970s.[8] The first was done at Ohio Penitentiary in 1924, and examined 200 inmates who had completed correspondence programs. Results, which found that inmates in the program were more "successful" after release, established the first link in the US between prison education and reduced recidivism.[34] A study at a Wisconsin State Prison in 1948 examined 680 prisoners who attended full-time study in custody for two years after their release. Results found a "small but statistically significant" decrease in recidivism.[8] The first extensive study run to examine the relationship was called Project Newgate.[8] Beginning in 1969 and studying 145 inmates in Minnesota over five years, results found that inmates who participated in an education program were over 33% less likely to return to prison.[35][36] Other results at the time were not unanimous. A meta-analysis in 1975 and another in 1983 found that while education programs in prison were beneficial for inmates, their effects on recidivism were inconclusive.[8] More recent studies, however, consistently show that educational programs reduce the rates of re-offending.[30] A 1987 study of Federal Bureau of Prisons inmates found that those who participated in education programs were 8.6% less likely to return to prison,[37] a 1997 study of 3,200 inmates in Maryland, Minnesota and Ohio found a reduction rate of 29%,[11] and a 2003 study of Californian prisons found a 10–30% reduction.[38] A meta-analysis of 15 studies done in the US during the 1990s found that, on average, inmates who attended tertiary level education in prison were 31% less likely to re-offend,[34] and a meta-analysis conducted by the RAND Corporation which completed a comprehensive literature search of studies released between 1980 and 2011 found that, on average, inmates who participated in educational programs were 13% less likely to return to prison.[31] A prison educational program created by Bard College has a recidivism rate of four percent for people who only attended the course and 2.5% for those who completed it.[12]

An Australian study of prisoners released between July 2001 and November 2002 found that in the two years following release, inmates who participated in educational programs were nine percent less likely to return to prison,[22][24] and a 2005 report found that in the Australian state of Queensland there was a 24–28% reduction in the rate of recidivism among inmates who completed education courses.[39] In England and Wales, a 2014 study of over 6,000 prisoners found that those who undertook education courses were seven percent less likely to return to prison.[40] A prison education program in Ukraine had only three out of 168 participants (1.8%) re-offend in 2013.[16]

Effects of prison education courses have been found to by cumulative; studies show the more classes than an individual undertakes while in prison, the less likely they will be to re-offend.[22][41] Studies also show higher level qualifications are associated with lower re-offending rates.[30][42] A 2000 study by the Texas Department of Education found that the overall re-offending rate was 40–43%, though inmates who completed an associate degree while in custody had only a 27.2% chance of re-offending, and those who a completed a bachelor's degree had a rate of only 7.8%.[11]

Cost and financial benefits

In the US, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers, in 2009 the cost of providing education to a prisoner was between $2,000 and $3,782 per year, and the cost of incarceration itself was $32,000 to $40,000 per year.[43] According to the RAND Corporation, in 2013 the figures were between $1400 and $1744 for the cost of education and between $28,323 and $31,286 for the cost of incarceration per inmate per year.[44] In England and Wales, education courses that have been linked to reduced recidivism are priced at about £250 each, compared to a £37,648 cost of keeping a person incarcerated for a year.[40] In Canada, the cost of educating an inmate in 2013 was $2,950 per year, compared to a cost of $111,202 for incarceration for a year.[45][46]

Studies have found that due to the increased rate of employment and decreased the rate of crime committed by inmates after release that is associated with prison education, the financial savings to the community more than offset the cost of the programs.[47] A 2003 study found that a prison education program in Maryland reduced recidivism by 20%. Government analysts estimated that the education program was saving taxpayers over $24 million a year based solely on the costs of re-incarceration. This estimation did not factor in the additional savings due to reduced strain on police, judicial and social service systems, nor the financial benefit from the fact that prisoners who gain employment after release pay taxes and are better able to support their families.[48] A 2004 study by the University of California found spending $1 million on prison education prevents about 600 crimes, though that same amount invested in incarceration prevents only 350 crimes.[49] The 2013 RAND Corporation study estimated that every dollar being spent on education saves taxpayers $4 to $5,[12][50][51] and that in order to break even on the cost of education programs, recidivism must be reduced by between 1.9% and 2.6%.[52] According to journalists from Forbes in 2013, given the relatively low cost of educating inmates and the considerable financial savings "it’s hard to fathom why there isn’t a national, fully funded prison education program in every [US prison] facility.[10]

Funding allocation and prevalence

In the US, the rate of spending on prison education has decreased, even though the budget for the prison system overall has increased. In 2010, 29% of prison budgets were allocated to education, the lowest rate in three decades; in 1982, the rate was 33%.[50][53] Funding for tertiary programs in prison was reduced from $23 million in 2008 to $17 million in 2009.[19] As of 2005, 35–42% of prisons were offering tertiary education programs, and as of 2009–10, 6% of inmates in participating states were enrolled in such a program.[19]

Both the European Convention on Human Rights and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union state that no person shall be denied the right to education, and the European Prison Rules state the education of prisoners shall "be integrated with the educational and vocational training system of the country so that after their release they may continue their education and vocational training without difficulty".[20] Despite this, prison policy documentation in several European countries does not even mention education, and a study in 2013 found that there were 15 countries in Europe (including the UK) with less than 25% of inmates participating in educational programs.[20] In the UK, between 2010 and 2015, the number of inmates studying at university level dropped from 1,722 to 1,079, and the number of inmates studying at GCE Advanced Level had halved.[54] As of 2016, only 16% of people who leave prison in the UK completed an education or training placement.[55] According to a 2014 report, Belarus had 82 correctional centres, five of which were running primary and secondary schooling for inmates and a further 21 which were offering vocational training.[16]

In 1996–97, the rate of prisoners undertaking education in Australia ranged from 28% in South Australia to 88% in New South Wales, and averaged 57%.[56] For 2006–07, the national average was 36.1%.[57] A 2014 report found that decreases in participation was due to the inability of prison educational courses across the country to keep up with the growths in the prison population.[58] In 2016–17, the national average was 32.9%.[25] Vocational education had the highest participation rate at 22.4%, and university level education had the lowest at 1.7%.[25]

As of 2016, only one of Singapore's 14 prisons has a school for inmates. Participation at the prison, however, is increasing. In 2012, 210 inmates sat for General Certificate of Education exams, compared to 239 in 2015.[59] A 2014 report found that six of the 31 prisons in Kyrgyzstan were offering vocational education, and that 13.5% of inmates overall were enrolled in such programs.[16] In 2012–13 in Morocco, 14,353 inmates participated in educational programs, an increase of about 20% on the previous year; the prison population in Morocco is about 70,000.[16]


Prison education programs are not without opposition. For example, in 2014, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed allocating $1 million of the state's $2.8 billion budget for prisons towards a college program for inmates. 53% of voters supported the proposal, however, it faced a backlash from lawmakers and Republicans, with 68% of Republicans opposing it. It was subsequently withdrawn and replaced by a program that was privately funded instead. Opponents had argued helping educate inmates was a waste of taxpayers' money, and that it was unfair for inmates to receive free college when law-abiding citizens have to pay for it.[12][60] In response, three Republican congressmen introduced a bill entitled the "Kids Before Cons Act", which aimed to removed Pell grants and federal financial aid for prison education.[51][60] The bill was referred to the subcommittee for Higher Education and Workforce Training in November 2016, though has not progressed any further.[61]

Other arguments against the practice is that prisoners do not deserve the right to be educated, and doing so is being "soft on crime".[58][62] It has also been argued that reductions found in recidivism are not due to the educational courses themselves, but rather is simply a reflection of the positive attitudes of people who volunteer for the programs.[20] Several studies, however, have made attempts to account for this effect, and evidence shows it is the education and not the personal characteristics of participants that leads to reductions in recidivism.[30]


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