The Success of Prison Education Programs By: Nicole David

The Problem

At the end of 2014 there were an estimated 1,561,500 prisoners in state and federal correctional facilities within the United States. This number is continuing to grow and the recidivism rate is over 70% within five years of release. It is increasingly hard for released prisoners to find work or obtain an education.In 2016 during any given month the Washington state Department of Corrections lists between 18,000-19,000 incarcerated offenders. Most of the offenders entering prison in Washington state lack the skills and education to succeed in society. Inmates who participate in correction education programs have a 43 percent less chance of returning to prison. Offering education programs to prisoners helps to create individuals that are able to be contributing members of society. Everyone deserves access to education.

With an education there is hope.

A Transformative Experience

When speaking with offenders who receive an education while in prison you will hear many of them describe it as transformative. Many prisoners come from minority and low-income backgrounds. At a young age they do not see a college education as something they will be able to achieve, lots of times they do not even graduate from high school. It is amazing to hear the real life accounts of those who are transformed by their education while in prison.

A transformative prison education can assist in building self esteem as well as motivating the learners involved. A transformative learning experience can impact the prisoner, society, and the prisoner’s immediate family in a positive light (Keen,2016).

For a prisoner an education can be liberating and freeing. Prisoners are in an institution where they completely feel powerless . Sharing power with students helps them to feel like they are part of a democratic society when all of their actual power has been stripped away. It is important to know how as an educator teaching in the prison can be equally rewarding. Prison education is a form of activism and it strives for social justice. There is a great deal of social inequality in prison. The institution of prison tries to create robots who are unable to think on their own, yet by offering prison education we are encouraging free thinking. Prison punishes a prisoner’s behavior but it does little to transform the person. An education in prison can be the one factor that offers something transformative for the prisoners.


So many offenders go in and out of prison. It is incredibly likely that someone who goes to prison will be released and go back. We are not benefiting anyone, the prisoner or society by this endless cycle. An education open doors for prisoners that most thought were impossible.

Watch below to learn more:

The recidivism rate is drastically decreased for prisoners who receive an education while in prison. This is attributed to the fact that prisoners feel that they are able to leave prison after receiving an education and make a positive impact in their own lives and society. Many times released offenders are not able to find work once released and will go back to doing whatever it was that got them into prison in the first place. With an education they are able to acquire work as well as be contributing members of society.

Personal Quotes From Prisoners and Their Educators
“The problem is that prison changes people in the wrong direction. Prison beats them down and shuts them down. So the crap they did to get there will be the crap they do when they get out because prison doesn’t do anything to change them. It doesn’t do anything to change their attitudes, change their worldview. You have got to perceive the world differently or you are going to go right back to prison” (Cantrell, 2013)
“I had the opportunity to go to prison and achieve an undergraduate college degree. I was free inside prison. I couldn’t leave prison physically, but mentally it freed my mind because I learned so much about the community I came from. I learned about what might have brought me into prison in the first place: childhood issues, economic issues—and it basically freed my mind. I found my purpose in life through achieving a college education. I didn’t have a purpose in life before I looked at the things that I thought may need changing in my community. So I pursued a degree in policy so I could affect a large amount of people and change policies that affect my community” ( Fine, 2013)
If I have learned anything as a result of my work in the college program at Bedford Hills, it is that what we do matters, helps, makes things better and that writing – as hard as it is to teach and learn – is a skill that will not only help the women succeed in their college courses, it will help them succeed in negotiating prison life and life after prison in a way that few other skills will” (Maher, 2004)
“Each of the 13 educators believed they served as a role model; because of the nature of their relationship with their inmate students, some of the students would recognize positive characteristics they modeled and would be able to learn new values and new social skills. The educators observed that when inmate students began to apply these new values that defining moments of transformation occurred” ( Keen, 2016)

Help Create Change

There are several programs that are dedicated to reducing the recidivism rate and preparing prisoners for life after prison- through education and employment:

A very good resource for learning more about education in the prison system is below, most all of the articles I read about this topic were written in this journal:

To me the importance of access to education for all is immeasurable . This includes people from all races and identities. This also includes those who are in prison. I often find that most people do not consider how can we can assist educating prisoners. A common narrative I hear is that prisoners are not worthy of an education or changing. I believe that no one should be forgotten and educating our prisoners will help to reduce the recidivism rate and benefit society as a whole.

With an education we can change the World.


Cantrell, D. (2013, January). Correctional Education as Democratic Citizenship Education. The Journal of Correctional Education, 64(1), 2-12.

Cheryl H. Keen, R. W. (2016). Creating Activating Events for Transformative Learning in a Prison Classroom. Journal of Transformative Education, 14(1), 15-33.

Fine, A. H. (2013). Higher Education and Reentry : The Gifts They Bring. Prisoner Reentry Institute. New York: John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Maher, J. (2004). "You Probably Don't Even Know I Exist": Notes from a College Prison Program. Journal of Basic Writing, 23(1), 82-100.


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