Sep 22, 2017 at 12:00am ET By Alyssa Walker

Last week, we reported on the hope that technology offers inmates.  This week?  How online studies may offer another solution for education in prison. 

Prison education programs often face hurdles with the quality and types of education available to inmates.  The Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET), a UK-based organization, has been working to give prisoners the opportunity to build a better life after release by offering access to education.

According to PET, prisoners who have access to high-level education are 25 percent less likely to commit offenses after being released than those who do not have the same access.

In other words: prisoners are more likely to give back to their communities and less likely to re-offend after their release from prison, if they have the opportunity to earn an education.

The problem? The sense of discouragement prisoners feel when they apply to a school that requires them to disclose their personal history, including convictions and prison terms. 

PET is currently working in the UK with several universities to streamline the application process and to offer another solution for prisoners trying to make a better life—access to online education.b

Let’s take a closer look at how and why online education could be a solution for prisoners trying to make a better life.

Why should prisoners study and get a degree?

With the largest population of prisoners in the world, the US is responsible for over 2.2 million federal, state, and local prisoners. 

The 2014 US National Research Council Report, written by criminal justice scholars explained that many people enter the prison system with significant educational deficits.  The report notes that literacy rates are substantially lower than the general population and that the population of prisoners who have completed high school at the time of incarceration fluctuates.

What does this mean?  It means that large numbers of prisoners enter the prison system with below-average academic skills.

Here’s what’s interesting: a 2014 study by the RAND Corporation, “How Effective is Correctional Education, and Where Do We Go From Here” found significant benefits for those prisoners who participated in educational programs upon being released.  Those benefits include: a 13 percent higher likelihood of securing a job and a 43 percent lower chance of reoffending.

The RAND study also found that correctional education can be cost-effective—every dollar spent on prison education could save up to five dollars on three-year re-incarceration costs.

What does all of this mean?  Educating prisoners helps them re-enter the world when they get out of prison—and limits their chances of getting in trouble again.

Why could online studies help?

While correspondence courses have existed for a long time and prisoners have used them, they’re not the perfect solution.  Progress can be slow—and they can be tough to find.  There’s also the issue of accreditation.  For prisoners hoping to use their studies outside of prison, having completed coursework from an accredited program is helpful.

This is where online studies come in.  Prison Education Departments can vet accredited online programs, select the online options from which prisoners can choose, and establish relationships with online programs that are willing to work with prisoners. 

Online studies offer prisoners a way to connect with their education quickly—and often cheaply.  See challenges below.

What are the challenges?

1. Illiteracy

While advanced education reduces recidivism and helps prisoners contribute positively to society after serving time, it requires a level of literacy that many prisoners don’t have. 

Bottom line?  You can’t get a college degree if you’re illiterate. 

This means that some prisoners need to work first towards their GED, and then towards a college degree.

The good news? Prisoners can earn their GEDs online, too.

2. Internet access

Most prisons have limitations on internet access for prisoners, and with good cause.  Prisoners are in jail for a reason—access the outside world should be limited.

For educational purposes, though, more prisons are allowing inmates controlled internet access. 

3. Tuition and Fees

While the importance of education in prison is taken seriously, courses cost money. MOOCs and other free online course materials are available, but to earn credit and transfer that credit to an accrediting institution requires cash. 

Some prisons cover part of the cost, with the prisoner accepting a repayment plan after release.  Others offer loans and scholarships.  Regardless, for a prisoner to undertake education in prison requires a financial commitment—one that many are not in a situation to make.

Online education may offer prisons a viable solution to educating prisoners and helping them thrive after their release.

Stay tuned for more updates.

Learn more about studying criminal justice.




Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family.

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