The trade-offs of online prison education

Corrections departments and colleges in some U.S. regions are turning to online courses as an economical way to provide higher education to incarcerated populations, writes Inside Higher Ed. Research has shown that prison education can improve prisoners’ chance of finding employment after release and reduce their recidivism risk by 43 percent. But online programs have received a mixed reception, as critics point to logistical challenges, limited outcomes data, and the potential for predatory practices that take advantage of vulnerable incarcerated students.

Investing in community outcomes

Advocates of increasing access to higher education in prisons point out that imprisonment costs taxpayers at least $30,000 per inmate every year—costs avoided by preventing repeat offenses.

“It’s important to realize that 95 percent of the people who are incarcerated will eventually come back to your community,” said Lois Davis, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation who researches criminal justice and prisoner re-entry. “If you invest in rehabilitation, then you have a chance that when they return they don’t return to crime, but instead they are able to get employment, they’re able to support their families.”

There are “so many benefits that extend from prison education for a very, very small price tag,” said Professor Marc Howard, director of Georgetown University’s Prisons and Justice Initiative. “Prison education is the solution that will stop recidivism. We just need to implement it and support it and expand it.”

Related: Georgetown’s Prisons and Justice Initiative is changing the narrative about mass incarceration >

Reaching new students through online education

While the exact number of online prison education courses is unknown, some states and colleges are pursuing digital models for their scalability and their geographic flexibility, given that many prisons are intentionally located far from population centers. Eastern New Mexico University, Roswell, provides online classes to inmates at nine correctional facilities in New Mexico, funded completely by the state’s Department of Corrections.

To participate, incarcerated students must have a high school diploma or GED, 10th grade level reading and math skills, and a clear record of conduct. Once enrolled, they use a prison computer with a “lockdown browser,” which offers access only to ENMU’s Blackboard website. Instructors can communicate with students via the portal, and students can communicate with the instructor through a facilitator who works at the prison. Students can take up to two classes per semester in general education and business, with the potential to obtain an associate degree in universities studies. Upon release from prison, any credits earned through ENMU are eligible for transfer to any ENMU campus.


Georgetown’s credit-bearing prison education program

Learn more about the Prison Scholars Program, which brings higher education opportunities to students incarcerated in D.C. and Maryland.

Drawbacks to the digital approach

Online programs have their drawbacks, especially the lack of face-to-face interaction. “What incarcerated people need more than anything is outsiders coming in, people to connect with, people who are aspirational role models, people who treat them with respect, who see their humanity and their dignity,” says Howard. “Online programs can’t provide that. And if anything, they really enforce the isolation and the separation.”

They also face some of the same hurdles as in-person programs, including difficulty bringing course materials into correctional facilities, limited research opportunities, and the potential for interruptions due to lockdowns or transfers to other facilities.

“Just because you start a program at one facility doesn’t mean the Department of Corrections won’t transfer you because of things like cuts or you’re up for parole,” said Meagan Wilson, a senior analyst at Ithaka S+R. “That can completely block any education that you started.”

Incarcerated students also risk becoming targets of predatory private companies. Inside Higher Ed recounts one program that gave incarcerated students “free” tablets but charged high prices for their use. “This is a historically exploited and vulnerable learning community,” said Wilson. “We have to make sure, just like we do with for-profit colleges, that there isn’t going to be area for exploitation and a situation where students don’t have choice.”

Noting the dearth of outcomes data on digital prison education programs, experts are calling for more information. “We don’t know things that we know for nonincarcerated students, like rate of completion, engagement, transfer,” said Wilson.

Learn how Georgetown University brings together leading scholars, practitioners, and students to examine the problem of mass incarceration from multiple perspectives. Visit the Prisons and Justice Initiative website.

Topics in this story

Next Up

What will it take to close career achievement gaps?

Even when they hold the same college degree, low-income students, students of color, and first-generation students still find it more difficult to land a good job after graduation than wealthier, white peers.