Prison education programs are proven to reduce recidivism.  Although as many as 67% of incarcerated persons are rearrested within three years of release, studies consistently show an overwhelmingly positive correlation between education access and likelihood of successful reentry.  According to one Emory University study:

  • Completing “some high school courses” reduces recidivism to 55%

  • Completing vocational training reduces recidivism to 30%

  • Obtaining an associate’s degree reduces recidivism to 13.7%

  • Obtaining a bachelor’s degree reduces recidivism to 5.6%

  • Obtaining a master’s degree reduces recidivism to 0%

High-quality prison education programs not only reduce recidivism; they generate savings to taxpayers and contribute to the long-term wellbeing of communities most affected by over incarceration.  As Barack Obama wrote in January 2017: “Studies have shown that inmates who participate in correctional education programs have significantly lower odds of returning to prison than those who do not, and that every dollar spent on prison education saves four to five dollars on the cost of reincarceration.”  

The value of well-designed prison education initiatives is not limited to diploma- or degree-granting programs.   Even standalone or upstart programs like the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop—which began with one instructor and ten incarcerated students—can combat social isolation and foster dialogue across social barriers. These environments improve individual self-esteem and social competence by giving incarcerated students a voice.

Model Prison Education Programs:
  • Inside Out:  The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program brings together campus-based college students (“outside” students) and incarcerated students (“inside” students) for a semester-long course held in a prison, jail or other correctional setting.  Inside Out has grown into an international network of faculty and alumni, with over 1,000 courses offered to-date through more than 140 educational institutions. I teach a course titled Inside Out: Issues in Criminal Justice, in which Yale law students study alongside men incarcerated in a Connecticut state prison.  To learn more about how to become a trained instructor or how to bring Inside Out to your educational institution:

  • Prison University Project: The Prison University Project offers 20 college courses per semester at San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California.  Students pay no fees or tuition, and all textbooks and school supplies are provided by the program and through donations from publishers.  Volunteer faculty are placed as instructors and tutors during the spring, summer, and fall terms, committing to 5-10 hours per week for the duration of the semester.  The project also offers assistance to other organizations seeking to implement thoughtfully-designed higher education programs in prisons across the country:

  • Bard Prison Initiative (BPI): BPI enrolls over 300 incarcerated students in full-time programs that result in degrees from New York’s Bard College.  Partnering with a consortium of twelve colleges and universities, BPI offers 165 courses per year and boasts a 97.5% rate of graduates who leave prison and never come back.  Through its Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prison, BPI collaborates with colleges and universities across the nation in order to catalyze, launch, and sustain college-in-prison programs across the country.  To learn more about the resources and strategic support available through BPI:

  • Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop: Since 2011, MPWW has grown from ten-student program with one instructor to a 25-instructor network that has reached over 1,200 incarcerated men and women.  The program has put on 120 creative writing classes in 8 facilities and runs an additional mentorship program that pairs incarcerated writers with mentors on the outside.  MPWW’s website features a helpful FAQ section for those who are interested in starting prison education programs elsewhere:

  • PEN Prison Writing Program: Well known for its annual Prison Writing Contest, PEN also offers a mentorship program that pairs incarcerated writers with 250+ skilled writing teachers that help them to develop their storytelling skills.  PEN has developed a handbook for incarcerated writers, which is available free of charge for anyone currently in prison.

  • University of Michigan Prison Creative Arts Project PCAP: PCAP trains college students to facilitate weekly arts workshops in adult prisons, youth detention and treatment centers, and prisoner reentry programs.  PCAP’s undergraduate courses at the University of Michigan that serve as gateways for student participation in prison education. PCAP then provides structured support for the prison workshops as well as academic training in issues surrounding incarceration and practical skills in the arts.  “Through individual and group activities, honest discussion, and hard work, each workshop creates original art in the form of plays, writing, dance, music, and visual art that is ultimately shared with others through performances and/or exhibitions.”  PCAP offers a “Toolkit for Arts Programs and Faculty” here:

Other notable programs: