Prisons As Credential Provider - Correctional Education


Correctional education is a fundamental component of rehabilitative programming offered in juvenile justice facilities, most American prisons, and many jails and detention centers, with the goal of reducing recidivism. Federal and state prisons, jails, and juvenile detention centers typically offer their inmates, therefore, a variety of educational programs from a range of providers. Many of these educational programs lead to a credential. 

Various federal programs and legislation support education in correctional facilities, including the First Step Act of 2018, which, among other things, requires the U.S. Department of Justice to identify and publish best practices relating to academic and vocational education for incarcerated offenders.

Prison education typically occurs on site and includes a wide range of offerings, from basic literacy and vocational training to physical education and the arts. For example:

  • All federal institutions offer literacy classes, English as a second language courses, parenting classes, wellness education, adult continuing education, library services, and instruction in leisure-time activities.
  • Correctional education includes programs that allow—or as in federal and most state prisons, even require—inmates to pursue a General Educational Development (GED) or high school equivalency. For instance, inmates in federal prisons who lack a GED or high school diploma must participate in the facility’s literacy program for a minimum of 240 hours or until they obtain their GED. Non-English-speaking inmates also must take an English as a second language course.
  • Many facilities offer programs that provide access to college courses, either on site or through mailed correspondence, though inmates are responsible for the costs associated with those programs. Online courses are rarely offered in correctional facilities due to the strict limits placed on internet access.
  • GED programs, basic literacy courses, and other non-credentialing education programs are most common, but postsecondary opportunities in the form of vocational certification and academic degrees are available.
  • Vocational certification programs geared toward practical and technical skills training are more commonplace than academic degrees. Such programs are more likely to be subsidized through public funding than are associate or bachelor’s degree programs.
  • In federal prisons, vocational and occupational training programs are based on the needs of the inmates, general labor market conditions, and institution labor force needs.

Though research demonstrates that every dollar spent on correctional education yields $5 in saved three-year re-incarceration costs), funding for 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. After the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act passed in 1994, however, incarcerated students were banned from receiving Pell aid. This shut down hundreds of prison education programs across the country that had relied on the funding.

Partial eligibility for funding was reinstated in 2015 with the Second Chance Pell experiment, which provided Pell Grants to incarcerated students in about 70 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. Beginning in 2023 as part of the FAFSA Simplification Act, incarcerated students will once again be eligible for Pell funding, under certain requirements. 

Relation to Ecosystem

Prison education programs are an important part of the learn-and-work ecosystem. Many prisons give inmates opportunities to earn a credential that they can use once they are released. The credential shows employers that formerly incarcerated individuals have acquired the skills necessary to perform relevant tasks in the workforce. 


The federal Improved Reentry Education (IRE) program builds the lessons learned from OCTAE’s previous investment, the Promoting Re-entry Success through Continuity of Educational Opportunities (PRSCEO) program. The IRE program supports demonstration projects that develop evidence of re-entry education programs’ effectiveness. IRE seeks to demonstrate that high-quality, appropriately designed, integrated, and well-implemented educational and related services—provided in institutional and community settings—are critical in supporting educational attainment and re-entry success for previously incarcerated individuals. 

California has set an example for prison system educational reform in its extensive offerings of face-to-face postsecondary courses in state correctional facilities (Paynter, 2018). College-level courses are offered to students through the Postsecondary and Continuing Education Program. The Office of Correctional Education of the Division of Rehabilitative Programs collaborates with the California Community College Chancellor’s Office and various community colleges to allow students to enroll in college courses that are nationally or regionally accredited by the U.S. Department of Education and lead to an associate degree (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation [CDCR], n.d.-b).

Community colleges across the state provide face-to-face college courses in 34 of the state’s 35 institutions, which are non-remedial and lead to a degree (CDCR, n.d.-b; Paynter, 2018). Opportunities for in-person bachelor’s degree programs are offered at six different facilities in collaboration with various colleges, including California State Universities and one private college. College courses also are provided to students via a correspondence program by more than 25 different colleges (CDCR, n.d.-b). Career and Technical Education (CTE) is provided , through 20 different programs that provide industry-recognized certification in seven career sectors: building and construction, energy and utilities, business and finance, information and communication technologies, fashion and interior design, manufacturing and product development, and transportation (CDCR, n.d.-a). Career training options change annually based available employment opportunities.

Most states lack a system of face-to-face postsecondary options such as California’s, relying instead on college and university correspondence programs to offer associate and bachelor’s degrees to inmates. The Zoukis Consulting Group has created a list of undergraduate correspondence programs that they consider higher quality and trustworthy (Zoukis, 2017). For example, Adams State University, which Zoukis found to be the strongest, offers a number of associate and bachelor’s degrees, with tuition fees in the below-average range. In addition, Adams waives the application fee for incarcerated students, and they are accustomed to the restrictions involved with educating prisoners. 

See Also

College Education in Prisons | Learn & Work Ecosystem Library (


California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. (n.d.-a). Career and technical education programs.

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. (n.d.-b). Post-secondary education.

Federal Bureau of Prisons. (n.d.). Education programs.

First Step Act of 2018, S. 756, 115th Cong. (2018).

Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education. (2021, January 27). Correctional education. U.S. Department of Education.

Paynter, B. (2018, March 26). California’s prison education system is yielding impressive results. Fast Company.

RAND Report. (2014).  How Effective Is Correctional Education, and Where Do We Go from Here? The Results of a Comprehensive Evaluation

TBS Staff. (2022, July 1). Top prison college programs [guide for inmates and ex-offenders].


Wood, S.  (2022, March). Prison education programs lower recidivism rates and increase employment. US. News

Zoukis, C. (2017, June 16). Prison college programs: College correspondence courses for prisoners. Zoukis Consulting Group.

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