These resource papers are excerpted from the book College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons

A high-school diploma or the GED equivalent is typically as far as prisoners can go with their education. Fortunately, the Obama administration announced in July this year that Pell Grants are again being offered to prisoners.

This test will last three to five years, and will help determine if prison education will reduce recidivism. Details about how much money will be available and who might qualify aren’t clear yet but America’s prisoner - and our society as a whole - finally see a glimmer of hope.

For now, other federal mandates for educational and vocational training for prisoners include:

  • Title II of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998. This requires that 10% of state funding be spent on correctional education for offenders. The ruling funds basic education, special education, English literacy, and secondary school credit programs.
  • The Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006. This mandates that 1% of state funds be used to provide academic and vocational skills. 

Until this bold movement by the Obama administration, education has been notably absent from state and national political policy agendas.

Although the policy of virtually all federal prisons is to offer basic and secondary education along with post-secondary vocational training, what little is available focuses primarily on adult basic education (ABE) and GED classes. Other types of programs often earn only a BOP (Bureau of Prisons) certificate. The credits don’t count toward college. They certainly don’t garner recognition outside prison. 

Every federal facility and some state prisons have education departments. Prisoners who want to pursue an education via correspondence courses must look to this department for help. Frequently these departments don’t maintain lists of schools or available courses. 

The prospects for female prisoners are even worse. Out of 98 state prisons for women, only 20% offer college-level programs. Most of these are privately funded and are short-term experimental efforts.

Currently the vast majority of educational programs are provided by local two-year community colleges. Here, too, obstacles abound.

  • Correspondence courses are very limited and become increasingly so each year due to costs and the difficulties of providing education to prisoners.
  • Some correspondence programs are not coordinated with the reading material.
  • Meeting with academic advisors is difficult, if not impossible.
  • Science courses are especially limited due to laboratory restrictions. 
  • Prisons frequently don’t have adequate libraries to support students’ activities. 
  • Because college education is expensive, many inmates cannot participate. Even affordable courses are beyond the reach of the wages paid prisoners, so without financial support from their families, would-be students can’t better themselves.
  • An estimated 50% to 80% of inmates have learning disabilities but few prison educators have been trained to help those with special needs.