Overview of North Carolina’s Prison Education Programs

By Christopher Zoukis

Like many other states, North Carolina’s approach to prison education is multi-tiered and varied.  With inmates coming from different backgrounds, cultures, and educational levels, the population of NC prisoners has access to many programs suited to their needs.  Not only does the North Carolina Department of Corrections offer basic adult education to inmates, they partner with universities and community colleges statewide to offer qualifying inmates access to higher education. 

Why Education in NC Prisons? 

The NC vision for education isn’t much different than other state programs that hold the view that if you educate prisoners, give them a chance to earn an income through legitimate forms of employment, you will reduce recidivism.  In a news article in the Star News Online, the reporter acknowledged that North Carolina is among a handful of states that make “inmate education a Image courtesy en.m.wikipedia.org priority."  An official at the Department of Corrections stated clearly that they have the inmates as a “captured audience.”  They then treat this audience to a regimen of programs that are ultimately good for them—and many inmates realize the good it does them as they participate in their own educational growth.

Addressing Educational Needs

Many inmates require educational programs that teach the basics—reading and writing.  There are programs that impart basic literacy skills to prisoners statewide.  Many inmates, of course, have basic skills but do not have a diploma or GED that would make them more employable upon release.  So, the prison system offers coursework that allows inmates to brush up their skills and acquire the certifications they need to eventually gain legitimate work.  Other programs address vocational skills that help inmates develop specific career skills for specific types of jobs.  Gaining experience in a field is an important asset for prisoners to obtain in order to qualify for jobs upon their release.

Simple to Complex Skills

An education with an eye toward future employment takes many forms in the North Carolina education system.  Simple as it seems, an inmate who learns how to grow a head of lettuce makes for a profound experience.  On the other hand, an inmate who learns to perform computer operations can also be a life-changing event by leading to future employment.  The vocational aspect of the system’s educational platform is real-world and geared toward existing jobs.  Prisoners that have interest or capability in a vocational program can build a repertoire of experience while learning more about the profession or occupation.

Higher Education

Higher education institutions like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill partner with the North Carolina Department of Corrections to deliver tuition-free college-level coursework to inmates who meet the requirements and have the ability to study at the college level.  The prison system also works with state colleges and community colleges to provide coursework to inmates.  The University of NC, as a prestigious college in the nation, truly offers inmates an extraordinary opportunity to fulfill their educational goals.  The university offers classes on site in prisons as well as correspondence courses. 

Inmates that take classes while in prison at the college level have a reduced rate of recidivism.  Many go on to work in professional fields.  The University of North Carolina states that the recidivism rate among their participants is only seven percent.  While the statistics may vary depending on the reporting agency, nationwide recidivism rates tend to be more than 60% while the NC rate is slightly less—about 56%.  Reducing those statistics is, naturally, a priority and it appears that education is a tool that does just that since participants who take advantage of prison education opportunities return to prison at a much reduced rate of recidivism. 

Other Programs

The state’s prison system has other opportunities for inmates to participate in educational programming.  The Think Smart program trains qualifying inmates as educational ambassadors that go into the outside community to talk to school or civic groups about their incarceration experience.  They share what led them to prison and how it affected their life and perspective about crime.  In essence, the program is all about crime prevention; yet the participating inmates gain experience in public speaking and fulfill important community service by teaching others to follow a different path.

Prisoners who draw closer to their release date also have access to programming that is geared for job hunting as well as reentry into society and their local communities.  The correctional department takes the view that setting up these inmates for success through education is ultimately beneficial for them and the public at large if it reduces the risk that they will return to criminal lifestyles. 

The Goal of Education

Anyone—whether it’s a prisoner or a typical high school or college student--can improve their life by learning.  Acquiring an education enables people to get jobs—usually better jobs than if they had no education.  Education can also alter perspectives and provide people with insights about the world and their place in it.  Inmates that embrace the opportunity to learn often learn so well that they don’t return back to jail—a result that seems well worth the effort to bring education to incarcerated people.