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Education in Prison

Big Picture

If we continue to ignore the lack of proper education in American prisons, we will continue to see ex-convicts get out of and then return to the system, time and time again. This creates disadvantages for those recently incarcerated and for all communities impacted by the justice system. The U.S. must prioritize education within the prison population more than it has in the past. 


Graphic from: Couloute, Lucius. “Getting Back on Course: Educational Exclusion and Attainment among Formerly Incarcerated People.” Prison Policy Initiative, This figure illustrates the education disparity between formerly incarcerated people (age 25+) and the general public (age 25+).

Operative Definitions

  1. Incarcerated: Imprisoned or confined.

  2. Low-Skilled Job: According to “The Working Life: The Labor Market for Workers in Low-Skilled Jobs” by Nan L. Maxwell, this term refers to any job that mandates nothing more than the acquisition of high school-level education and nothing more than one year of work experience.

  3. General Educational Development (GED): According to the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs, this term refers to four subject tests that verify that anyone who passes has the academic skills of an individual who has received a U.S. or Canadian high school-level education.

  4. “Ban the Box”: The name of an American campaign created by advocates for ex-offenders that was created with the intent of getting the check box on hiring applications that asks if applicants have a criminal record completely removed. 

Important Facts and Statistics

  1. Formerly incarcerated people are twice as likely to have no high school credentials.

  2. On average, people with high school diplomas earn 33% more than people with GEDs.

  3. GEDs in prison may not lead to the same opportunities as GEDs earned outside of prison.

  4. Education attainment levels among prisoners are far below the national average.

Six-Point Plan


(1) Address the K-12 school inequalities.

School districts, usually in urban settings, often receive less funding than other schools, usually in suburban settings. Many of the underfunded schools have outdated books and technologies, as well as unqualified educators, making the education of students unequal to that of schools that are more appropriately funded. These underfunded schools also lack proper facilities for sports and other recreational activities, which hinders students from excelling in other areas outside of academics. The U.S. should create an initiative that focuses on giving all schools equal access to the same amenities that encourage healthy behaviors and equal opportunities.

(2) Allow more access to educational resources.

Students who are financially disadvantaged and students who are part of marginalized populations often do not have access to the proper tools for a successful education and/or are not treated fairly in the education system. It is statistically shown that students of color are less likely to have access to college-preparatory classes, such as AP and honors classes. Therefore, students of color should be allowed more opportunities to access these types of courses, and schools should push to have more students of color in these programs.

(3) Allow more access to different education programs in prison. 

While GEDs are a good first step for the incarcerated to receive a proper education, it is simply not enough for most jobs in today’s society. To combat this, we should have more programs in prisons that allow inmates to connect with employers and receive training for specifically tailored skills.

(4) “Ban the Box” should be implemented in all states. 

Many companies and institutions require job applicants to fill out whether or not they have been incarcerated, which puts ex-convicts at a disadvantage in the application process. This practice should be banned in all states. There should only be special instances in which this question must be asked, such as if a job requires workers to be around children.

(5) Remove barriers to financial aid for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. 

Financial aid should be offered to anyone who wants to receive a higher education, and this should extend to ex-convicts. The government should encourage the prison population to reform by giving them equal access to these opportunities that other Americans receive, and this can start with allowing the incarcerated to receive Pell Grants once more.

(6) Work on initiatives to lessen the American “tough on crime” mindset and focus more on rehabilitation.

A huge hurdle that is still impacting inmates and former inmates today is the stigma of prison. In order to combat this, politicians and other public figures should change their everyday language when it comes to speaking about ex-convicts and the incarcerated and focus on using more reformative speech. 

Why This Initiative is Important

We live in a society where, once an individual is put into the prison system, it is quite difficult to get out. Prisoners receive much fewer opportunities than the rest of the population once released, even though they served their time. This perpetuates an endless cycle of people going in and out of the system, and this should worry the U.S. government. Many researchers have linked this back to education, where many people who are incarcerated did not receive the proper education in their K-12 schooling. Then, they continue to be ignored into adulthood. This initiative prioritizes education and reform, instead of further stigmatizing ex-convicts; it aims to create a prison system that helps former inmates turn their lives around and seek a better future. 

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.


Couloute, Lucius. “Getting Back on Course: Educational Exclusion and Attainment among Formerly Incarcerated People.” Prison Policy Initiative,

Maxwell, Nan L. "The Working Life: The Labor Market for Workers in Low-Skilled Jobs." Kalamazoo, MI: W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, 2006,

President, Julia Cusick Vice, et al. “Education Opportunities in Prison Are Key to Reducing 

“Race in Education.” Center on Education and Training for Employment, 23 May 2022, 

Steurer, Stephen, et al. “Why Aren't We Spending More on Prisoner Education?” The Crime Report, 26 Apr. 2021,

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