College Educations in Prison: Misleading the Public?-Updated/Corrected

Old prison jail cells

College Educations in Prison: Misleading the Public?-Updated/Corrected

We strongly support programs in prison that offer a chance to end the monstrously high rate of return to the criminal justice system either through arrest or reincarceration.

According to US Department of Justice data, two-thirds (sixty-seven percent) of offenders were arrested for “serious” crimes. Fifty-two percent of the offenders were returned to prison for “serious” crimes and technical violations (they didn’t follow the rules of their release after prison).

Three-quarters (77 percent) were arrested within five years per the latest DOJ data.

The fundamental question is efficiency of tax paid dollars and something, anything that will keep people from returning to the justice system. If educational, vocational, drug and mental health treatment programs work, it saves thousands of citizens from further victimization while reducing taxpayer costs.

Who would be opposed to government being more efficient? Who would be opposed to better protecting citizens while saving them money?

You would be surprised.

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A Citizen Uprising

I was the director of Public of Public Information for the Maryland Department of Public Safety (a combined law enforcement and correctional agency) for 14 years. We routinely made announcements of college graduations for inmates from one of our three correctional systems.

Every press release was sent out to media and they dutifully ran the story. What happened next is something that everyone seeking a “better” correctional experience needs to keep in mind.

There was little to nothing we did that created more public comment. The spokesperson for the Division of Correction came to me with hundreds of negative comments from citizens. I stayed in the office late into the evening on several days and called many of those expressing dismay to understand their objections.

To a person, they were outraged that we were giving college educations to “criminals, rapists, murderers,” and people who inflicted incalculable harm on their victims and society, and “we” were rewarding them with something they could not afford to give to their own children. To them it was the personification of unfairness. Keep in mind that Maryland is one of the most liberal states in the country.

My explanations or justifications weren’t enough to change their minds. It was simply a matter of fairness. They could not afford to pay for the college educations of their children and “we” were providing this privilege (at no charge) to people who did not deserve it.

“At least tell me that these college programs work,” several would say. I told them what was told to me, that they were the most effective programs in our modest arsenal of efforts to reduce recidivism. I inadvertently mislead the callers. I told them something that was untrue.

Is There Evidence That College Programs in Prison Work? -Updated/Corrected

Editor’s Note-Readers sent material refuting my original statement that there was no data providing the effectiveness of college education in prison. They are correct. This is what I said,

Throughout my public affairs-correctional career, I was told that college programs in prison were the most effective form of intervention, and research stated that they had the lowest rate of return to the criminal justice system. I looked for data and called experts to find the research proving this. There is no data supporting collegiate programs in prison. None. Zero. Zip.

It was a myth promoted by the reform community. But to this day, if I read something about college programs in prison, I am often exposed to the same statement.


My original statement is factually incorrect. There are studies showing reductions in recidivism of those participating in college education programs in prison. They are generally decades old with small numbers of participants, but they exist.

I then went to CrimeSolutions.Gov and found the following:

“Postsecondary correctional education (PSCE) is academic or vocational coursework taken beyond a high school diploma or equivalent that allows inmates to earn credit while they are incarcerated.”

Overall, three meta-analyses found that there were significant reductions in recidivism (including reoffending, rearrest, reconviction, reincarceration, and technical parole violation) for inmates who participated in postsecondary correctional education (PSCE) compared with inmates who did not participate. Wilson, Gallagher, and MacKenzie (2000) examined the outcomes across 13 studies and found that those who participated in PSCE programs were significantly less likely to recidivate than those who did not participate (odds ratio=1.74). This means that, for example, if the comparison group had a recidivism rate of 50 percent, those who participated in PSCE programs would have a recidivism rate of 37 percent. Similarly, when analyzing the results from three studies, Chappell (2004) found a significant, but small effect on recidivism for inmates who participated in PSCE programs (mean r=0.24). PSCE participants recidivated at a rate of 22 percent, whereas inmates who did not participate in PSCE recidivated at a rate of 35 percent. Finally, Davis and colleagues (2013) looked at the results from 19 studies and found a significant odds ratio of 0.49, indicating that the odds of recidivating among inmates participating in PSCE programs are 49 percent of the odds of recidivating among similar inmates not participating in such programs.”

I based my original conclusions on conversations with experts in the field who felt that methodologically sound evaluations of college programs did not exist or were either old or had small numbers of self-selected participants, yet CrimeSolutions.Gov gave the data a “Promising” (not “Effective”) rating.

My original statement was factually incorrect. I overreached based on my conversations. I regret the error.

Returning to my original article:

The truth is that educational programs in prison (collegiate or otherwise) lack a consistent, empirically sound history of success, which means that some programs will show modest success while others don’t.

The example from Stateline (below) is one example. “Even inmates who participate in high school or vocational education, let alone college, are 43 percent less likely to reoffend after they are released from prison, said a 2014 RAND Corporation analysis.”

So when I talk to people about the success of collegiate programs, I get the spiel that there is a 43 percent reduction in recidivism, which is completely untrue. The data shows “a reduction in the risk of recidivating of 13 percentage points.”

But keep in mind that while 13 percent is a hopeful return, what it means is that the overwhelming number of people exposed to educational programs return to the criminal justice system.

Thus the favorable data on college programs in prison doesn’t exist, and the track record for the remaining educational programs is either modest or inconsistent with other research.

We Need Better Programs and Better Data

None of this means we should stop trying a wide variety of programs and to readjust them as necessary to get the biggest return.

We offer educational programs in prison on the belief that they “may” work and, quite frankly, we have a moral obligation to try.

But claims of success are dubious at best. Advocacy for change is so ingrained into the criminological and correctional communities that people with impressive educations and lifelong commitments will oversell the effects of interventions.

There is a community of us who strongly support a continuation and expansion of correctional programs that believe that this “overselling” is detrimental to the cause of correctional reform.

So let’s continue to try and to evaluate and readjust where necessary, but let’s stop misleading the American public. They are the people who are asked to pay for all of this. The least we can be is honest in return.

Educator: Pell Grants Will Make Inmates “Pillars” in Community

Smiles crept across the faces of a dozen inmates at Michigan’s Macomb Correctional Facility last week as Heather Gay, education manager for the state prison system, told them that for the first time in over two decades, the federal government might pay their college tuition while they are incarcerated, reports Stateline. The group has been living and studying together for two years as part of the Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education Project, an experiment conducted in Michigan, North Carolina and New Jersey and run by the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice. The goal is to demonstrate that offering a free college education to prisoners approaching release can reduce recidivism.

Gay’s news that a pilot program will reinstate prisoners’ access to Pell Grants — federal educational loans used by low-income students — means they can continue to work toward degrees while in prison. The federal grants, which President Obama reinstated on a limited basis for prisoners, are intended to help inmates avoid becoming among the 40 percent of ex-offenders who return to state prisons within three years of release. Even inmates who participate in high school or vocational education, let alone college, are 43 percent less likely to reoffend after they are released from prison, said a 2014 RAND Corporation analysis. Proponents of Pathways hope that their program, which replicates on-campus programs in the prisons, will have even better results. “These guys are not coming back,” Gay said. “They’re going to get jobs. They’re going to be pillars in the community.” Stateline

Excerpt from “The Crime Report” at

An overview of correctional recidivism studies is at .

Cited Rand study at

Crime Solutions.Gov at

Contact us at 





  1. lucretiaaos says:

    Just an FYI, I looked at the articles in question and I don’t know that you were too off the first time: The Wilson, Gallagher, and MacKenzie (2000) study stated in their abstract that “The generally weak methodological character of these studies, however, prevents attributing this observed effect on criminal behavior to the activities of the programs.” The Chapell study was positive, but uses pretty out of date data. The Davis study includes GED and high school programs, not just college.

    • Hi Thanks for writing. That was the original dilemma when I wrote the article and I was assured by a variety of knowledgeable people that what existed was almost worthless. After readers objected, I went to CrimeSolutions.Gov and they gave the concept a “promising” rating. I should not have used absolutes and I overplayed my hand, but you’re not the only reader who contacted me suggesting that I was correct the first time. The bottom line is that college programs in prison are not the most effective strategy (based on current research) at our disposal. We are not opposed to college programs (we’re not opposed to any effort to improve rates of return) we just object to some (many?) overselling the effects of college programs in prison. Best, Len.

  2. Yes on prop 57 allowing opportunity for inmates to earn good time credits and reduce excessive sentencing practices for non-violent crimes. Say our tax dollars.

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