Ending the costly cycle of mass incarceration has everything to do with education.
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The majority of people in American prisons had significant education deficiencies upon arrival and would greatly benefit from educational services while incarcerated. The first step to this is granting all prisoners access to prison GED and high school courses, which would greatly improve post-release outcomes and reduce recidivism rates.

The benefits of GED and high school courses in prison

On a basic level, education teaches basic math, communication and logical reasoning skills. These skills are necessary to be functioning members of society, and the majority of prisoners have deficiencies in these areas.

Further, any level of education improves the chances of gaining employment, which is a necessity in our society.

So, GED and high school courses can significantly increase an inmate’s chance at a successful future after incarceration, and help keep him or her out of prison for good. Studies indicate that this especially true for young people. A 2003 New York study concluded that obtaining a GED while in prison reduced the chances of those under 21 from returning to prison after release by 14 percent. For those over 21, it was 5 percent.

The efforts so far

There has been a lot more headway in reform aimed at GED access than other criminal justice efforts.

The ball really got rolling in 2003 when the Federal Bureau of Prisons recognized education’s potential to decrease recidivism rates, and began requiring federal inmates without a high school diploma to study at least 240 hours toward getting their GED. The BOP followed this up by increasing financial support for GED programs.

"Between 2002 and 2010, the number of federal inmates taking the GED while incarcerated doubled."

Between 2002 and 2010, the number of federal inmates taking the GED while incarcerated doubled. Many states and cities followed suit with the Bureau of Prison’s (BOP) efforts and saw similar increases. Over the same time period at the state level, the number of inmates taking the GED went from 18,000 to over 45,000. Locally, the increase was 4,100 to almost 13,000.

There have also been some recent efforts to increase access to high school classes. San Francisco created the first-ever charter school inside of a county jail, which won a school of the year award in 2014 and is spearheading programs that are being used in schools all around the state.

What still needs to be done

First, the BOP’s requirement that federal inmates work toward their GED should be adopted by all facilities across the United States. The tremendous increase in inmates taking their GED following this legislation is proof that the mandate works well to boost educational experiences in prisons.

Next, GED courses need to be offered wherever possible, and the current programs need to be expanded because they are currently unable to accommodate everyone who wants to take them. A study released this year found that 18 percent of incarcerated adults specifically wanted to take high school or GED courses but could not, and 70 percent wanted to enroll in some form of education. Of those who wanted to enroll in a program, 25 percent were on a waitlist for services.

Ideally, correctional facilities should be providing high school courses for inmates as well. But it is difficult enough to find funding for GED courses with the high demand, and it is unlikely that high school classes will become common in prisons anytime soon.

So for now, the focus must be on making sure that all prisoners across the country work their way toward a GED if they do not have a high school background.


It’s good news that more inmates have been granted access to GED services in the past decade, but we need to make sure that all inmates have this access. And, it would be even more ideal if inmates had access to actual high school courses as well.

Ending the costly cycle of mass incarceration has everything to do with education, and it starts with advancing literacy rates and job preparedness through basic high school level schooling. If this isn’t being done before people enter prison, then it needs to happen during or the cycle will just continue.


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Posted 12.09.2016 - 11:02 am EDT