top of page

Education Programs in Prisons: Overcoming Obstacles to Sustaining a Program — And Then What?

Driven largely by institutional barriers and notions of worthiness, education programs in prisons are vulnerable and controversial. Beyond proving the validity of creating such programs, their facilitators must carefully consider internal and external factors in order to achieve successful implementation. A wide variety of programs may be useful in different circumstances, considerably mirroring the world outside of prisons. By Eliza Kravitz |

Photograph of a Bard Prison Initiative classroom in the film College Behind Bars, Part 3: ‘Every Single Word Matters,’

Part I: Vision

From a political standpoint, the role of prisons ranges from dispensing punishment and preserving public safety to facilitating rehabilitation. From a human rights perspective, on the other hand, we can readily envision prisons as potentially robust educational centers. Under the section heading, “Making the Best Use of Prisons,” the United Nations (UN) “Pocketbook of International Human Rights Standards for Prison Officials” contends that education programs in prisons should be “provided and encouraged” and “should be aimed at developing the whole person, taking account of prisoners’ social, economic and cultural background.” Additionally, the book of guidelines states that “the outside community should be involved as much as possible in educational and cultural activities in prisons.” These guidelines suggest that we have a human rights obligation to bolster and expand education programs in prisons around the world.

Indeed it seems as though prison education programs contribute to “making the best use of prisons,” derived not only from the UN’s guidelines but also from quantitative and qualitative benefits such programs have in practice. The Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) 2014 Prison Study finds that significant statistical educational disparities exist between incarcerated and non-incarcerated adults in the U.S. Educational attainment achieved through prison education programs, therefore, lessens inequality on a systematic level. Additionally, the RAND Corporation reports that people who participate in any education program in prison are 43% less likely to recidivate than people who do not, and that percentage increases to 50% for those who participated in college or post-secondary education programs in prison. Because of this decreased recidivism and the unbelievable expenses of incarceration, the RAND study estimates that “every dollar invested in prison education programs saves taxpayers, on average, between $4 and $5 in three-year reincarceration costs.” From a quantitative standpoint, prison education programs both lessen the educational discrepancies between different segments of our population and create a more successful, cost-effective criminal justice system.

Experts on prisons offer complementary arguments for the qualitative benefits of education programs in prisons. Susan Burton, who revitalized her life after incarceration by founding A New Way of Life Reentry Project and publishing the award-winning memoir Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women, explains that, despite the continual “problem of having a criminal record” during reentry, education can be a “deal-breaker” that can “change the trajectory of our lives.” Working towards her goal of improving reentry experiences by increasing educational opportunities, Burton also helped to create Project Rebound, a California-based program that focuses on connecting formerly incarcerated students to higher-education opportunities and providing them support in their educational endeavors. Romarilyn Ralston, the program’s director who was incarcerated at age 24 and who champions prison-education rights, says that “education introduces you to a world bigger than your community… you can break those cycles of poverty and incarceration.” Concerning adults, though, she warns, “A GED is not going to get it… it’s a start, and if that’s all you’re capable of earning, that’s wonderful… but most people are capable of earning a lot more. That’s what’s not happening at a lot of prisons.”

Photograph of Romarilyn Ralston by Christian Cook, “Paroling the Mind: A College Program Opens New Doors for Former Convicts,”

Ralston’s call for higher-education programs in prisons finds enthusiastic support from Kelsey Kauffman (YC `71), who worked in prisons first as a correctional officer and later as the facilitator of a higher-education program in Indiana Women’s Prison (IWP), and who now works primarily as an advocate for passing legislative prison reforms in Indiana. Kauffman is confident that expanding post-secondary educational offerings to incarcerated people will increase societal knowledge and problem-solving abilities. “Beyond the individual value of education,” she says, “there is this wealth of knowledge about problems that are really important in our society, and we’ll never get it right until we privilege [incarcerated people’s] opinions about what is going on. Epistemic injustice is where we don’t credit other people with the status of being a knower… [incarcerated people are often] the people who have the best and the keenest insights.” Ralston echoes this notion of untapped potential, asserting, “I think people would really be surprised [by] how intelligent and smart and brilliant so many incarcerated people are [who] don’t get to share their brilliance with the world because of stigma and stereotypes.”

Anastazia Schmid, one of the students in Kauffman’s program at IWP, writes eloquently about the unique, experience-informed position that incarcerated students occupy: “Incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people hold a position of epistemic privilege that must be acknowledged in order to end human rights violations, medical experimentation and sexual abuse of prisoners, epistemic/testimonial injustice, and myriad forms of oppression, marginalization, harm and death caused to those ensnared in the modern carceral system.” According to Burton, Ralston, Kauffman, and Schmid, education programs in prisons, particularly post-secondary ones, provide transformative benefits on both a personal and a societal level.

Returning for a moment to statistics, the PIAAC study reports that, although 42% of adults complete some type of formal education while incarcerated, 70% want to do so. All indicators point towards funneling increased resources into education programs in prisons, and especially higher-education programs--so why does this tend not to happen in practice?

Part II: Obstacles

In reality, controversy from all sides regarding prison education programs makes them vulnerable, at best. Finding reliable funding for programs in prisons can be challenging. In 1994, a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives approved a provision of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act that made incarcerated students ineligible for Pell Grants, federal subsidies that help students in financial need pay for college. Immediately afterwards, the vast majority of college education programs in prisons in the U.S. crumbled, and those that were able to remain on state funding were subject to similarly-abrupt funding cuts. But, while government funding is unreliable, philanthropic funding can be imbalanced, disproportionately favoring elite programs like the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), which Kauffman characterizes as “the Harvard of prison college programs.”

In addition to the funding debacle, accreditation and credit transfer also prove to be major issues for education programs in prisons. When Kauffman worked in Indiana Women’s Prison, she had a “thriving program” with 110 students and a total annual budget of $5,000. Yet, she could find no college or university willing to accredit her program, either because schools were public and thus not authorized to oversee programs in prisons, because they were financially unstable, or because they were unwilling to support college education for incarcerated people. Another challenge Kauffman faced was credit transfer; losing credits was so easy that some of her students “had a mind-boggling number of credits… without ever having earned an associate degree.” Kauffman’s experience reflects the common circular difficulties of creating a program that can garner enough objective success to effectively negotiate for funding.

Beyond these institutional barriers, individual objections can emerge from unexpected sources. Even within the prison reform movement, for instance, education programs in prisons may receive opposition from radical reformers who argue that any form of investment in the prison system, which they want to see abolished, is counterproductive. Objections based on arguments about worthiness or the proper allocation of resources can originate anywhere from the political sphere to the affected community itself. The House’s stated reasoning behind the 1994 Crime Bill is illustrative: members of Congress could not justify distributing Pell Grants to incarcerated students when other eligible, non-incarcerated students did not receive grants, they said. Representatives offered this defense despite the fact that incarcerated students accounted for less than 1% of Pell Grants prior to 1994. On the other hand, even though it seems reasonable to expect many incarcerated students’ family members to oppose the congressional attitude in 1994, a powerful example discourages such a generalization. In October 2019, Yale University hosted a preview and panel discussion about College Behind Bars, a film directed by Lynn Novick (YC `83) that documents Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) in action. A documentary clip streamed at the event depicted the mother of a BPI student lamenting that her incarcerated daughter, who had committed a crime, was on her way to a free diploma, while she had to pay for diplomas for her other children. This example in particular, which expresses an opinion that is not unique, should challenge prison-education advocates whose professed goals tend to align with those described above. If a community member affected by incarceration does not see prison education programs as beneficial to her community, are these programs achieving their intended effects?

Part III: Overcoming Challenges

Despite what appears to be an overwhelming onslaught of obstacles, prison-rights advocates defend education programs in prisons and work to achieve their goals in spite of the barriers. Since the notorious 1994 Crime Bill, the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative (2015) and the Restoring Education and Learning Act (2019) have reinstated limited Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students in rare circumstances. While Kauffman contends that this funding resource is under-utilized, she cautions that, since government funds “can disappear overnight… long-term programs have to find a way to survive that possibility,” such as by receiving consistent donations or staffing a program with volunteers. The RAND study identifies other creative funding sources that states have used, such as fee waiver funds (California), prison industry funds (Minnesota), or pay-for-success program funds (New York). In order to make prison college education programs not only fundable but also capable of outputting academic degrees, Kauffman recommends a “national policy with colleges’ agreement to accept each other’s credits.” All of these strategies can help to make higher-education programs in prisons more viable options in our society.

On the other hand, when Kauffman discusses how to defend investing resources in incarcerated students’ education rather than in that of non-incarcerated students, she admits that this question is “really legitimate.” Her response, though, is clear: “This shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. We need to have college affordable inside and affordable outside.” Ralston discards the notion that education is any less valuable for incarcerated people, stating that “none of us are born with a number. Our environment, our circumstances, society, wrong choices, miseducation, poverty, [and] poor health lead to poor decisions, which lead to incarceration. When you know better, you do better, and then you know more.” Furthermore, while people from socially or economically distant communities have an obligation to privilege opinions from those within more affected communities, Burton says that she would react to the mother in College Behind Bars “by not responding.” The mother’s stance is “short-sighted,” Burton argues, since raising “problems with anyone who is trying to better themselves” is counterproductive. So, while we must acknowledge the difficulties in persuading non-incarcerated people of the importance of prison education, there are also compelling reasons to invest specifically in prison education programs.

Part IV: Beyond

It is not enough simply for education programs in prisons to exist; they should be excellent, and they should be advanced. Yale Law Professor James Forman, Jr. embodies this belief. Forman co-founded the Maya Angelou Public Charter School, a school in Washington, D.C. designed to provide high-quality and targeted education to children involved in the criminal justice system. In 2007, Forman transported this model to DC’s juvenile justice facility, and he named the school Maya Angelou Academy. While the Academy has adopted technical changes to the curriculum of Maya Angelou Public Charter School (e.g. opting for month-long modules instead of a semester system in order to maximize credit acquisition in a tenuous prison environment), Forman believes it is important that “the philosophical commitment be the same” inside and outside the prison. When people assume that incarcerated students’ distinct circumstances necessitate different measures from those used outside prisons, he adds, often “that something different turns out to be something less.” Committing to replicating effective education practices from schools outside of prisons as much as possible is crucial to avoiding a compromised educational experience for incarcerated students.

Consistent with this approach, Forman uses the curriculum of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program to teach a Yale Law School class at two Connecticut prisons. Yale law students and incarcerated students take the course side-by-side as peers, and Forman prioritizes efforts to foster community and understanding between the “inside” and “outside” students. Why this program is important, Forman says, is that “university students are supposed to be our future, and people who are incarcerated are supposed to have no future… [in this program,] you put them together in a classroom and tell them they are the same.” He believes that running programs that imply a belief in the high educational ceiling of many incarcerated students, such as the Maya Angelou Academy and Inside-Out, “can undermine so many stereotypes and assumptions,” and they can lead incarcerated people to “become spokespeople” for productive alternatives to punitive incarceration measures.

Perhaps even investing in high-quality programs in prisons is insufficient. In order to maximize the benefits of education programs in prisons, Susan Burton argues it is necessary to focus on community development and to offer continued support in reentry programs. Neighborhoods with high incarceration rates often lack high-quality schools or plentiful models of positive and healthy life paths. Burton writes in her memoir, “You had to have decent options in order to make good decisions, and from my vantage point, I saw few opportunities for my life.” Investing in effective community resources is key to providing alternative paths to incarceration. The Maya Angelou Public Charter School for justice-impacted students fits this mold by positively impacting teenagers; “we make it clear there is another option [besides incarceration],” comments Forman.

Programs that offer support during reentry help in-prison services reach their full potential. “There needs to be a continuum,” Burton says, referring to opportunities offered to people before and after their release from prison. Otherwise, she explains, incarcerated people may not be able to capitalize on the work they accomplished while they were incarcerated and may lose the momentum they gained from in-prison programs. Formerly-incarcerated people face tremendous challenges in practically every niche of life, and Burton has remained committed to filling the many voids in the criminal justice system by sheltering, assisting, and empowering reentering women with her organization, A New Way of Life. Forman and Burton demonstrate that to direct our efforts exclusively towards currently-incarcerated people ignores the pressing need to strengthen prevention and reentry resources.

Photograph of Susan Burton by Dario Griffin, “This is how A New Way of Life rehabilitates women recently released from prison,”

Part V: Our Community

University student populations have become involved in the movement for prison education programs amid the recent heightened political awareness of mass incarceration. The Yale Undergraduate Prison Project (YUPP) contains both advocacy and direct-service branches, including a GED tutoring program (of which I am a member) at the nearby Manson Youth Institution in Cheshire, Connecticut. This program consists of both GED tutoring out of a textbook and post-GED discussions about a range of topics, such as music and current events.

YUPP’s GED tutoring program provides an apt lens through which to revisit the UN's guideline that education programs should “develo[p] the whole person, taking account of prisoners’ social, economic and cultural background,” and the specifics of this program allow us to consider ways in which to cultivate an education program in order to engineer certain desired effects. A unique characteristic of YUPP’s program is that the Yale volunteers are matched almost exactly with the Manson students by age, both groups ranging from around 18-22. Beyond age, however, the relationships are generally characterized by difference; YUPP participants often differ from the Manson students by race and gender, and they almost always experience divergent levels of power and privilege. Attempting to bridge these gaps raises questions about different people’s roles relating to prison education programs.

Photograph of Manson Youth Institution, “Design that Promotes Law-Abiding Youth,”

Can such a program setup be beneficial despite concerns about disparate experiences? Kauffman asserts that, for programs in juvenile facilities with volunteers who are the same age, often “the elitism just shows even more,” and programs with incarcerated adults or larger age gaps between students and program facilitators tend to be more successful. For Ralston, on the other hand, as long as outside educators are “committed to the dignity of the students, and they’re there not to take but to give,” then incarcerated people are typically “open to people coming to see us as human,” regardless of difference. Burton agrees, stating that, while she cannot specify “exactly what to do or what exactly is the magic bullet” for volunteers participating in programs in prisons, the crucial point is for outsiders to be “cognizant and conscious.” YUPP program coordinator Anna Milliken (YC `21) remarks that power dynamics in the program play out in YUPP volunteers’ control over the materials they choose for discussion. The room in which tutoring occurs, she adds, is “not a neutral space, so you can’t just bring in anything and expect [the Manson students] to read it in the same way we will.” Milliken encourages YUPP participants to interrogate themselves regarding how best to present materials, recognizing, for instance, that political discussions that often take on abstract qualities among the Yale student body could be more personally relevant to students at Manson. While this strategy neither erases YUPP volunteers’ elitism nor ensures a humanizing experience for Manson students, Milliken’s mindset aligns with a student-centered approach, rather than a self-serving volunteer endeavor.

Beyond questioning the validity of the program’s existence, are YUPP volunteers qualified to act as “tutors”? How does our lack of training influence our role in the program? Milliken believes that, because of YUPP participants’ proximity in age and lack of professional qualifications, the goal of the program is not primarily to provide academic instruction but rather to “creat[e] a space in the prison that isn’t disciplinary [...] or regimented in any way.” Milliken approaches the program “almost like a book club… and less of a teaching model.” Instead of a strict GED curriculum and tutoring model, Milliken encourages YUPP participants to create space for unrelated discussions while they are working on GED materials, and she urges the post-GED discussion group facilitators to ask Manson students what they would like to discuss and to plan lessons accordingly. As a result, the label of “GED tutoring” does not capture the essence of the entire program. “There’s not a lot of choice in the prison, so we want to make sure there is choice in our program,” Milliken concludes.

If the program is not strictly GED-focused, is it irresponsible to brand it as such? Forman cautions that a program should “be clear about what [its] orientation is,” and that, if he were a participant in a tutoring program, “it would be frustrating to me if my tutor didn’t have something to teach me.” Forman suggests that a document answering frequently asked questions could clarify the principles of YUPP’s program and avoid unrealistic expectations.

Additional responsibilities come with the adjusted role that is perhaps better characterized as peer or companion rather than tutor. Elaborating on Milliken’s point about abandoning a tutoring model in favor of a peer relationship, Burton recommends “understanding that you are learning as they are learning, and it is an exchange. It is not like welfare. Everybody is actually gaining in the exchange, and everybody is teaching.” Beyond a recognition of mutual learning, empowerment from people outside the prison is a critical element of exchanges between incarcerated and non-incarcerated students. Ralston explains, speaking about YUPP volunteers’ qualifications to serve as GED tutors, “You have the opportunity and the proximity to whisper in someone’s ear, ‘I can see you graduating from college,’ or ‘I can see you teaching that.’ That’s your responsibility: to see people at the next level and the next level, to see their potential and not their place. We’re all qualified to do that.” What matters in this case, according to Ralston, is not the labeled role of the outside service-provider, but rather the opportunity that such a program yields for sparking a relationship that could lead an incarcerated student to realize his potential.

YUPP’s GED tutoring program is by no means simple to implement. Various issues reveal that, even after addressing institutional barriers and concerns about who deserves an education, prison education programs require a lot of vigilance--and some degree of chance--to be what one might consider successful. And, in fact, success may take on unexpected forms; it may consist not of a coveted GED diploma but rather of a bond over a shared music taste or a student’s access to information about an interest he has. There is a need for both intense academic programs and less structured programs--just as there is outside of prisons. Programs in prisons must address the added difficulty of operating in a dehumanizing, inescapable system that extends beyond the point of formal imprisonment. In order to comply with the UN’s guidelines of offering programs that “develo[p] the whole person,” successful programs are worth the many challenges and ambiguities because the impact, as Ralston characterizes it, can be “indispensable.”


bottom of page