Prison Education Programs: What to Know


During his nearly 14 years serving time in an Alabama prison, David Garlock wanted to do everything he could to better himself. That meant earning an education.

While incarcerated, Garlock enrolled in trade school, where he earned a certificate in architectural and mechanical drafting. After he was released, he kept working toward his ultimate goal – a college degree.

Nine months out of prison, Garlock was accepted at Eastern University in Pennsylvania. Because of the classes he’d taken in prison, he entered Eastern with more than 60 credits and eventually graduated with a bachelor’s degree.

“It takes a village for a returning citizen to be successful,” says Garlock, who now works as a statewide organizer for Straight Ahead, an organization focused on reducing mass incarceration. “It takes the person’s family, the community and educational programs that are going to accept the individual.”

What Is Prison Education?

Postsecondary prison education programs come in a variety of forms, ranging from non-credit workshops taught by volunteers to full degree-granting programs.

In partnership with local prisons or jails, colleges conduct classes inside the facilities. Classes function as they would in a traditional college classroom, but with some added obstacles including time constraints, occasional lockdown disruptions and limitations to technology and supplies.

“I find that when I’m teaching inside (a prison), my students are engaged, committed, hardworking and prepared,” says Marc M. Howard, founder and director of Georgetown University‘s Prisons and Justice Initiative in Washington, D.C. “It’s actually a love of learning in the most pure sense; they don’t have cell phones or distractions. They are really there because they want to be there and want to learn and relish in the experience.”

Like other potential students, incarcerated students must fill out an application and provide necessary documentation to be accepted into a college program. Most applications are completed on paper, as is coursework, unless computer access is granted.

Instruction is in person, with college professors teaching inside correctional facilities. Depending on the program, coursework can lead to a certificate, an associate degree, or even a bachelor’s degree.

Cost of Prison Education Programs

For every dollar spent on correctional education, $5 is saved in three-year re-incarceration costs, according to a 2014 RAND Corporation report. But gaining funding for these education programs can be challenging.

For decades, incarcerated individuals could use Pell Grants – a form of need-based federal financial aid – to pay for college courses. But after the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act passed in 1994, incarcerated students were banned from receiving Pell aid. This in turn shut down hundreds of prison education programs across the country that relied on the funding.

Partial eligibility was reinstated in 2015 with the Second Chance Pell experiment, which provided Pell Grants to incarcerated students in about 70 postsecondary prison education programs. The U.S. Department of Education expanded that number to 200 for the 2022-2023 award year, with the maximum federal Pell Grant award being $6,495. In addition, higher education institutions have used their own funds, philanthropic donations or limited state grants to reduce or eliminate the cost of attending for incarcerated students.

But beginning in 2023 as part of the FAFSA Simplification Act, incarcerated students will once again be eligible for Pell funding, under certain requirements.

“The programs that have been available, even with Second Chance Pell, have been somewhat scarce,” says Ruth Delaney, associate initiative director at the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research and policy organization. “Incarcerated people haven’t always had a choice – it’s just been this is the one college program that’s available where you happen to be. Some options will always be constrained somewhat but I’m excited to see more options become available to people inside.”

Examples of College Prison Education Programs

Starting out as a non-credit pilot program for incarcerated students at the D.C. Jail, Georgetown’s Prisons and Justice Initiative recently received approval to offer a bachelor’s of liberal arts degree at the Patuxent Institution in Maryland. The five-year program will enroll cohorts of 25 students per year.

In Virginia, incarcerated students at Buckingham Correctional Center, Dillwyn Correctional Center and Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women can work toward an associate of science degree in general studies as part of Piedmont Virginia Community College’s Higher Education in Prison program. With 63 credit hours of instruction, students are set up to transfer to a bachelor’s degree program post-release.

“It’s been some of the most rewarding work I’ve done in higher education,” says John Donnelly, vice president of instruction and student services at PVCC. “Our students understand the power of education and how it can help them. When they are released from incarceration, they have a very steep hill to climb, but education gives them something more than they would have if they didn’t have it.”

Similarly, Eastern offers an associate in arts degree at the State Correctional Institution – Chester in Pennsylvania. In addition to its for-credit coursework, Eastern offers non-credit workshops focused on developing life and soft skills.

“We are just glad about the opportunity to serve this population of people that’s often forgotten,” says Kimberlee A. Johnson, founder of Eastern’s prison education program. “It behooves us to think about how we help people to come home better prepared to reunite with their families and integrate into the community.”

Not all prison education programs are just for incarcerated students. The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, a model established at Temple University in Pennsylvania that has expanded to other colleges across the country, for example, allows campus-based students to take classes inside a correctional facility alongside incarcerated students. Courses are dialogue-based – students engage in discussions related to various disciplines such as criminal justice, history and religious studies.

Impact of Earning an Education While in Prison

Lowers recidivism rates.

Rearrests are common – a 2018 U.S. Department of Justice study found that about 68% percent of those released from state prisons in 2005 were rearrested within three years. But education programs can reduce recidivism. A 2018 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology found that individuals who enroll in postsecondary education programs are 48% less likely to be reincarcerated than their peers who do not.

Increases employment opportunities post-release.

The vast majority of people in prison will eventually be released, Johnson says. But finding employment after incarceration can be difficult.

Many lack education credentials. And some employers require applicants to disclose their criminal history, limiting formerly incarcerated individuals’ job options. Though some states have enacted ban-the-box laws – which prevent employers from inquiring about criminal history – not all have.

Prison education programs can help: The 2018 meta-analysis found that rates of employment post-release increase by 12% for individuals who participate in any type of correctional education.

Shifts prison culture.

College in prison programs can reduce violence, making facilities safer for both incarcerated individuals and staff, experts say.

“Corrections officers and staff work in really difficult, stressful and potentially violent environments,” Delaney says. “A prison is not a safe place to be. It’s not safe for incarcerated people and it’s not safe for staff. As we see these programs expand in different parts of the country, we are hoping that staff also benefit so they are not bringing these experiences of violence home.”

Social mobility for families.

Children of college-educated parents are much more likely to pursue and complete an undergraduate degree compared to those whose parents did not attend college, according to a 2018 National Center for Education Statistics report.

Not only can earning a postsecondary degree lead to social mobility, it can also connect families in prison during a time of isolation, experts say.

“People who are taking courses while in prison develop stronger ties to their families, especially to their kids,” Howard says. “You can imagine the benefits that it might provide for children who have a parent in prison to be able to talk about school, sort of a meeting of the minds, and having that shared experience.”

Effects of COVID-19

Like the rest of higher education, prison education programs were forced to reevaluate their learning models after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. But limits to technology made the transition from in-person to remote learning challenging.

While some colleges shut down their programs, others were able to operate through asynchronous or synchronous distance learning classes on tablets or over email communication.

“Even when we go back to face-to-face instruction, as many places have at this point, we are going to be able to use these tools to continue to strengthen and deepen the college practice inside,” Delaney says.


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