Incarceration can put education out of reach for life, report says

A new report explores the lasting effects of educational exclusion among formerly incarcerated people, who face numerous barriers to degree attainment during and after their time in prison. Published by the Prison Policy Initiative, the report draws on data from the National Former Prisoner Survey to show how formerly incarcerated people “rarely get the chance to make up for the educational opportunities from which they’ve been excluded — opportunities that impact their chances of reentry success.”

This relegates formerly incarcerated people to “the lowest rungs of the educational ladder,” writes report author Lucius Couloute, noting that more than half of formerly incarcerated people reported a GED or high school diploma as their highest level of educational attainment. One-quarter had no educational credential, reports Colorlines, calling attention to downstream career implications: Formerly incarcerated people without a high school diploma or equivalent are two to five times more likely to be unemployed than their peers, disparities that become even more pronounced when factoring in race and gender.

Many factors keeping college out of reach after incarceration

Those who can earn their GED in prison often find the degree less valuable than GEDs earned outside prison. “Without supplemental educational experiences, [in-prison GEDs] are insufficient to prepare students for further education,” writes the Prison Policy Initiative. Less than 10 percent of people with in-prison GEDs go on to complete college coursework—compared with nearly half of GED holders in the general public—and less than 1 percent graduate from college.

There’s “a vast system of barriers to entry into higher education” for formerly incarcerated people, the report says. Those include the limited number of prison-based college programs, ineligibility for Pell Grants and federal student loans, occupational license restrictions based on criminal history, and college admissions officers’ inquiry into applicants’ criminal history. “These barriers signal to formerly incarcerated people that they are unwelcome in institutions of higher learning, prevent their economic integration, and contribute to the revolving door of release and re-incarceration,” writes Couloute.

The report also looked at “whether these educational disadvantages would eventually disappear,” finding that formerly incarcerated people’s educational attainment still lagged well behind the general public’s even four or more years post-release.

A policy framework for improving K-12, prison education, and reentry programs

To increase incarcerated people’s and at-risk youth’s access to educational opportunities, the Prison Policy Initiative makes four recommendations:

  • Fix K-12 school inequalities, such as those arising out of zero-tolerance disciplinary policies.
  • Ensure that incarcerated people have access to robust educational services.
  • States should immediately “ban-the-box” (for questions about criminal history) on all applications for admission.
  • Restore Pell Grants to incarcerated people and remove other barriers to financial aid.

Learn more about Georgetown’s Prisons and Justice Initiative

Georgetown University’s Prisons and Justice Initiative brings together leading scholars, practitioners, and students to examine the problem of mass incarceration from multiple perspectives. By hosting a series of academic and policy events, and by supporting faculty and student research projects, the initiative seeks to create a prominent and lasting platform to address the evolving challenges of criminal justice and prison reform. Learn more on the Prisons and Justice Initiative website or watch the video below about Georgetown University’s Prison Scholars Program at the DC Jail:

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