What Are Prison Education, Inmate Education, and Correctional Education?

By Christopher Zoukis

Prison education, inmate education, and correctional education are, depending on whom you ask, essentially the same concept.  They comprise the field of educating those in prisons or jails.  The difference in nomenclature has to do with which group a person belongs to, based on preference more than substance.  Those incarcerated in a correctional setting tend to refer to their learning as prison education, while regular staff prison educators tend to refer to the education they provide as being inmate education.  Academics, and those who think of education in prison as a method of correction, tend to view this sort of education -- an education provided to prison inmates -- as correctional education. Photo courtesy hudsonlink.org

Regardless of what it is called -- prison education, inmate education, or correctional education -- this field is concerned with providing an education to those in jails and prisons.  And this education can take on a variety of forms.  At its most basic, prison education, inmate education, and correctional education revolve around basic literacy.  This is comprised of reading, writing, math, science, and social studies, all at the most basic levels since inmates tend to have lower levels of prior academic achievement than those in general society.  And at its most advanced level, prison education consists of college-level studies.  Both basic literacy and college education, and all levels in between, are covered in this article.

GED: The Most Basic Form of Prison Education

Many prison systems call their literacy programs "GED programs," since GED programs are far more common than high school diploma programs in the correctional setting.  For those not in the prison education industry, high school diploma programs are programs where inmates take actual high school courses and earn a high school diploma upon program completion.  This means up to 4 or 5 years of courses, depending upon the rate of course completion.  GED programs, on the other hand, have to do with earning a General Equivalency Diploma (GED).  While this requires incarcerated students to take several classes (depending upon their current level of academic ability), it can be done at a much faster rate than it would take to earn a traditional high school diploma.  I've known inmate students who never graduated from high school to earn a GED without requiring any classroom time.  Other prisoner-students have been known to rack up hundreds, if not over a thousand, hours of classroom time and still require more instruction.  While this mode of inmate education tends to be a slow one, it is very beneficial to all involved.

In order to pass the GED, inmate students must pass five subject specific examinations, all of which must be passed at a rate of around 60%, depending upon state of testing (some states require a grade of up to 75% in order to pass).  The subjects include Language Arts-Reading, Language Arts-Writing, Science, Social Studies, and Mathematics.  With the exception of the Language Arts-Writing and Mathematics, incarcerated students are trained for reading comprehension, not subject mastery, since all of the other examinations have students read short paragraphs and answer multiple-choice questions.

Many prison systems require those who do not possess either a GED or high school diploma to take GED courses, or another form of basic literacy education.  For example, the Federal Bureau of Prisons requires incarcerated students to either earn a GED, or to spend a minimum of 240 hours of in-class instruction prior to allowing them to sign out of the GED program.  Inmates who are deemed to not be satisfactorily progressing in their GED classes face stiff penalties, including the loss of nearly a quarter of applicable good conduct time, the lowest pay grade for work assignments, and restriction in work assignment promotions.

Adult Continuing Education: The Next Step in Inmate Education

The next most prevalent form of prison education is Adult Continuing Education (ACE), also known as Adult Basic Education (ABE), depending on the prison system in which the courses are being offered.  These classes can be either inmate instructor led or taught by prison staff educators.  Topics covered in this series of courses include basic academic and more elective content.  On the basic side, I've seen reading, math, essay writing, and other more basic topics.  On the elective side, I've seen automotive repair, Spanish, Writing and Publishing, accounting, car sales, and other personal interest topics.  Some prison Education Departments use their ABE or ACE program to complement their GED program.  As such, incarcerated students can voluntarily enroll in a GED-complementing ACE/ABE class in order to speed up their progress in their normal GED classes.

English-as-a-Second Language: A Mainstay of Correctional Education

English-as-a-Second Language (ESL) is another mainstay in the prison classroom.  ESL classes are designed to assist non-English speakers to become English proficient so they will be able to pass the GED and/or converse in English.  While some prison systems require all non-English speakers to participate in ESL classes, others only require inmates who will be released into the United States to participate.  Within the Federal Bureau of Prisons, inmate instructors lead such classes, but do so under the supervision of a staff prison educator.  The BOP also deems ESL classes to be mandatory.  Once a prisoner-student passes a competency skills test, which is graded at the eight-grade level, they can then sign-out of such educational programming.  In recent years, Spanish language GED courses have become the subject of court litigation, with mixed results, but many correctional systems are adding such classes to offerings.

Vocational Training: Prison Education for the Workplace

Vocational training, advanced occupational education, and apprenticeship programs all cover much of the same areas.  All are focused on training an inmate so that they will possess marketable skills, thereby obtaining a chance at employment upon release.  According to a general BOP Admission and Orientation Handbook, "Course offerings are based on general labor market conditions, institutional labor force needs, and vocational training needs of inmates."  Programs which are covered under this umbrella include electrical, HVAC, plumbing, computer aided design, cabinet making, masonry, machine shop, lawn care, carpentry, building trades, welding, dental assistant training, amongst others.  While vocational training and advanced occupational education programs tend to last a number of months, apprenticeship programs can last several years.  The former teach an inmate student how to engage in a specific task or profession.  The latter strives to provide skill mastery to prisoner-students.  Often, apprenticeship programs include a real work -- called "live work" in Federal Bureau of Prisons' program statements -- component where the incarcerated student actually works in the field as they learn about the field.  As such, an inmate who is assigned to the HVAC shop may earn hours toward industry certification.

College Courses: Correctional Education at its Best

The final area of prison education that many prisons allow is that of college correspondence courses (also known in the academic community as post-secondary correctional education).  The vast majority of prison systems have done away with any meaningful in-prison college programs.  While there are a few scattered across the country, they are limited in scope and have few seats for interested prisoner students.  As such, most incarcerated students who participate in college-level learning do so via correspondence education.  In this model, the inmate student receives permission from their prison's Education Department to participate in college correspondence education (the person to usually handles this is called a college coordinator or post-secondary education coordinator), orders the specific course from the school (and pays for it prior to delivery), completes each lesson in their cell and mails the completed lessons to the school, and sits for examinations which are proctored by a member of their prison's Education Department (usually the college coordinator).  This is usually the only model of prison education which requires the student to cover all associated costs.  It is also the best model, as indicated by reduction in recidivism rates and increased employment prospects upon release, which numerous studies of both have proven without a doubt.

Prison Education: A Path Forward

Regardless of whether it is called prison education, inmate education, or correctional education, all provide instruction to those incarcerated in prisons and jails.  While offerings will most certainly differ depending upon the locale, such programs are a terrific way for inmates to learn and to grow.  And for the taxpayer, the reduced recidivism and all that comes along with it.  Educating America's incarcerated class is a win-win for all involved.