18 Big Pros and Cons of Education for Prisoners

The Washington Post told the story of Jesse Reed in 2002. Reed was studying nights and weekends so that he could earn an associate arts degree. He would turn his lamp levels as low as possible so that you could continue studying while his roommate was sleeping.

Reed’s alma mater was San Quentin Prison. The degree he was pursuing was the highest level he could achieve while serving his sentence. That roommate of his that he didn’t want to disturb was a cellmate.

The federal government slashed almost all funding for college education opportunities in prison during the 1990s. Politicians and their communities were both scandalized by the idea that people who decided to break the law could get a free ride when most others did not receive the same benefit. Reed earned his degree because it was a volunteer program.

“It’s really unfortunate that society feels that way,” Reed said back then. He’s almost 60 years old today. “You have a lot of men in here who made mistakes in life partly because they didn’t feel that they could compete in society. We turned to a life of crime.”

List of the Pros of Educating Prisoners

1. Education reduces the recidivism rate.
A 2005 IHEP report looked at 15 different studies conducted in the 1990s about the education of prisoners. They found that in 14 of them, long-term recidivism rates were lower among the people who participated in postsecondary correctional learning. Prisoners who participate in the facility’s education programs average a 46% lower rate of recidivism compared to those who didn’t take any college classes. Even the Correctional Education Association found that correctional education lowers long-term recidivism by 29%.

2. It reduces the levels of violence in a prison.
The directors of prison education programs report noticeable improvements in the general discipline and conduct of the facility. It only takes one semester for enrolled prisoners to start seeing this benefit personally. Some students even police themselves out of fear because one mistake is all that it takes sometimes to be removed from the educational programs at their facility.

There are changes in behavior that happen because there is an improvement to the cognitive capacity of the inmates with these programs. It gives a person the chance to feel human again, even if all they are doing is engaging in a commonplace activity like attending a class.

3. Prisoner education breaks down the racial barriers that exist.
Incarcerated people attending college classes while in prison in Indiana committed 75% fewer infractions than those who were not enrolled in that opportunity. A post-secondary correctional education program also breaks down the racial barriers that are often the cause of discipline problems in these facilities. It offers an incentive for good behavior, produces well-spoken leaders who have a calming influence, and communicates a message of respect about the human potential of everyone.

4. Prisoner education sets a positive example for the inmate’s children at home.
The number of children impacted by American incarceration rates is a significant figure. During the 2000s, over 50% of the people who were sentenced to a jail or prison had minor children at home. Most of these individuals were living with their kids at the time of their arrest. They also expected to be reunited with them once their sentence was complete. The option to pursue a college-level education while behind bars sets a positive example for these children, creating a far-reaching capacity that benefits society in unknown and potentially immeasurable ways.

The Bedford Hills College Program found that the children of women enrolled in a prison college education program expressed pride in the achievements of their mothers. Those actions inspired them to take their education more seriously, creating a higher level of motivation to attend college one day.

5. It saves money for taxpayers when implemented correctly.
The United States spent over $80 billion on corrections in 2010. That figure does not include the slashed federal funding for educational programs from the 1990s. When looking at data from 1979 to 2013, spending on these services rose by three times the rate of educational spending on K-12 public education. Maryland spends about $12,000 per student during the year, but the state’s taxpayers are spending $37,000 per prisoner. The bulk of corrections expenses goes toward housing costs. By providing at-risk people with a quality education, even if they are behind bars, then it saves tens of thousands of dollars per person.

Missouri saves $25,000 per person, per year for every incarcerated individual who leaves prison and chooses not to return. The U.S. economy loses about $60 billion per year in productivity because of a high incarceration rate.

6. The educational spending per prisoner is surprisingly low.
The “get tough” approach to prisoners in the 1990s meant no education, no television, and no Internet. While there are practical reasons for the last two to consider, restricting access to education as a way to save money is laughable. Figures from 2009 show that the average cost per student when providing correctional-based educational classes was only $3,479. When that same figure was released in 2012, it had gone down to $3,370 per student. Although that figure does represent an additional cost, the savings that taxpayers can experience with the lower recidivism rates more than pays for this investment.

7. It forces correctional officers to rethink their assumptions.
Correctional officers often manage the negative aspects of life in prison. There are moments that are few and far between that are genuinely positive that impact the entire population. Graduating from school can be one of those moments. When students in the Pathways program instituted by the Michigan Department of Corrections went through their graduation, the president, provost, and faculty held an entire event in full regalia to hand awards to the students.

When people who see the negative all of the time receive exposure to positive change, then it forces them to rethink their perspectives. Someone who might be a “troublemaker” could become a unit leader after earning a college degree. When people have a chance to see what is possible for their future, then hope can turn even the darkest night into something bright and productive.

8. Prisoner education creates an opportunity for apprenticeships and internships.
Educational classes in prison don’t need to be 100% dedicated to textbooks and classroom learning. There are also vocational opportunities available with this approach. When an inmate can learn a practical skill while behind bars, then there are more opportunities to find work once they finish their sentence. Programs that include welding, plumbing, and electrical studies can all help people with a record either find employment or start a small business of their own.

This option is attractive to prisoners because it allows them to work for some cash while they get to learn a skill that can take them somewhere afterward.

List of the Cons of Educating Prisoners

1. Prisoners lack access to modern technology for their learning needs.
There are specific challenges that prison educational programs face when instituting a program. Only 14% of students enrolled in a prison program have the opportunity to access a restricted Internet presence. That figure also represents the number of people who are given the option to coordinate with a large-scale program. Giving prisoners access to online features could create untold dangers in some situations that place the safety of the general public at risk. Until there is a way to work around this issue, the effectiveness of an educational program will always be questioned.

2. It requires a significant amount of capital to get started.
After the federal government removed almost all of the funding for prison education programs, non-profit agencies like The Last Mile at San Quentin stepped up to keep providing this service. Most governments are not willing to invest in their prisoners in the same way that they want to help people who do things the “right” way. When Governor Andrew Cuomo made changes to the educational structures of prisons in New York State, it required an award of more than $7 million to institutions like Cornell University to offer in-prison classes.

Education can be a fantastic equalizer, but it only works if the most vulnerable populations have access to this resource. Since prison can often be a one-and-done scenario for a program like this, it can be challenging to get the inmates who need help the resources that will help them to start reforming.

3. Prisons must reduce their recidivism rate to make educational programs profitable.
Studies that go back 10 years find that correctional education programs must achieve a specific recidivism rate reduction to become a cost-effective resource. The break-even number varies for each institution, but the average amount it would need to lower is 1.9 to 2.6 percentage points over a three-year examination period. RAND also found that if these successes became available, then an inmate with an education was 13% more likely to find employment. If those rates were not present, then many of the expected benefits of this program type disappeared.

4. Prison education programs can place educators at risk of harm.
There are instructors and professors who take time out of their schedule to work with local prison education programs. Some of these teachers are paid for their services, but there are others who don’t receive any compensation. If their inmate students are not carefully watched while they provide a lesson, then these educators could be in serious danger without realizing what is happening.

That means correctional officers and prison administrators are taking time out of their day to support a free education instead of managing their facility. Successful graduates can definitely improve their communities upon release, but those who don’t complete their classes could go in a different direction.

5. Prisoners could use classroom information to their personal benefit in negative ways.
The knowledge and information taught during prisoner education classes could be used in negative ways. Providing individuals with advanced lessons on planning, foresight, or coding could make them more effective at breaking the law. These individuals might graduate successfully from their program, but it might also lower recidivism rates because law enforcement can no longer detect their criminal conduct. If education programs are successful, then a curriculum that fits outside of the conduct profile of the inmate is the option to consider instead of a generalized option.

6. Free education to prisoners who won’t be released is a waste of money.
It makes sense to provide educational options for people who might come back to society one day. There is 5% of the prison population that involves death row inmates or people who are serving life sentences for their conduct. Providing this latter group of people with a free education doesn’t benefit society much because they have no way to create a societal benefit. Many of these individuals aren’t allowed to leave their cells except for the one hour per day mandated by laws or regulations.

If a teacher delivers instructions to prisoners through the bars without the ability to use the knowledge they gain, then what’s the point of the expense? That person is still going to be in prison with limited contact to the outside world.

7. It creates a disparity between those who make good choices and those who don’t.
“Students work hard to gain a college education,” wrote Kara Henson for her high school online publication in 2009, “and it is not fair that one receives it for free, especially if they do not truly want or appreciate it. People today argue about the temptations that society must face and overcome. In these hard times, it is tough to be a well-rounded individual.”

Some students who want to go to college get rejected because their grades aren’t good enough. Others don’t have the money to pay for classes, and they don’t want to have substantial student debt to manage afterward. Allowing someone who broke the law to get a benefit that those who keep the rules don’t receive does send the wrong message to some people about society’s priorities.

8. Educators lose the right to set the rules for their classroom.
Teachers and faculty create their own classroom environment on campus or at their school. The rules of the class are dictated by the instructor. When you walk into a prison, then the educators lose control over those things. You don’t even have the option to communicate with the students at any time during the day or night. It becomes a stripped-down, painfully limited environment for learning.

It can be nosy. There might not be enough tools to get the job finished. Educators experience consistent interruptions from the correctional officers who supervise the classroom. Even the students come into or leave the class in ways that are unexpected. It creates a lot of hassles that some people are not willing to accept.

9. Profits can become the foundation for results instead of knowledge.
The funding models for many of the prisoner education programs across the United States are experiencing reformation. Many of them are moving toward a payment-by-results system that tries to get offenders into classes and eventually work opportunities. Contracts go to non-profits that are willing to put in the risk to push someone toward bigger and better things before receiving a full paycheck. Some programs require the charities to place a released inmate into an employment position to maintain them there for six months before receiving their funding.

Alastair Clark, who is the co-leader on offender learning at the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, said that this disadvantage creates a “perverse incentive to go for the quick wins.” Instead of encouraging everyone to pursue a better life, the agencies are prone to cherry-picking the easiest cases to ensure their funding comes through as it should.

10. Going to school doesn’t guarantee money in prison.
Work tends to be more attractive than education in a prison environment. It gets you out of your cell for longer during the day, and it helps you to earn some cash. That’s often why recidivism rates stay high even though there are educational classes available. Being involved in unskilled, low-quality, prison industry jobs doesn’t create the foundation for a crime-free life. Most prisoners can earn three times the amount of money per week by working instead of learning.


Multiple studies over the past 20 years find almost unanimously that investments into prisoner education will lower local recidivism rates. This action translates into crime reduction, taxpayer savings, and long-term contributions to society by people who are written off while they are behind bars. It is a way to improve the well-being of communities when those who were incarcerated return.

Prison education programs also find that a higher-level degree will lower the recidivism rate even more than the level of learning below it. That means a graduate degree offers significant benefits over an undergraduate degree to prisoners. A doctorate would be even more beneficial.

When we look at the pros and cons of education for prisoners, it is essential to remember that 95% of the people in jail right now will eventually rejoin society. Developing the tools and programs now that can reduce recidivism will create long-term results that help everyone live happier and safer lives.

Author Bio
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.