Formerly Incarcerated Continue to be Imprisoned by Low Education: Study

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Formerly incarcerated people are often relegated to the lowest rungs of the educational ladder, according to a new study released by the Prison Policy Initiative.

Author Lucius Couloute, a Policy Analyst with the Prison Policy Initiative and a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, found that more than half of formerly incarcerated individuals hold only a high school diploma or GED, and a quarter hold no credential at all.

“While incarcerated, and even after release from prison, we find that 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,” said Couloute.

Significantly, Couloute found that inequalities between the general public and formerly incarcerated people begin early and accumulate at each level of education.

For example, formerly incarcerated people are nearly twice as likely to have no high school credential at all, she noted. And, more than half of formerly incarcerated people hold only a high school diploma or GED — credentials which have diminishing value in today’s job market.

Data showed that unlike the general public, people who have been to prison are more likely to have GEDs than they are to have traditional high school diplomas. And three-quarters of those GED certificates are earned in prison.

More, formerly incarcerated people are eight times less likely to complete college than the general public, according to the report.

However, the educational exclusion does not stop after prison.

“As our analysis shows, formerly incarnated individuals educational exclusion persists during and after incarceration.”

“We find that a quarter of formerly incarcerated people do not have a basic high school diploma or GED. And at least an additional third (33%) obtain GEDs as their highest level of education in lieu of traditional diplomas.”

 Together, these two groups make up the 58% of all formerly incarcerated people whose traditional high school educations were cut short, the study said.

Further, such a low rate of high school completion among formerly incarcerated people adds to the body of evidence that overly punitive disciplinary policies and practices contribute to the criminalization — and ultimately, incarceration — of large numbers of youth, the study continued.

Couloute concluded that the severe educational barriers that formerly incarcerated people face reinforces their broader exclusion from society and harms the social and economic viability of the communities to which they return.

To remedy this exclusion, she said, we need a new, evidence-based policy framework that addresses K-12 schooling, prison education programs, and reentry systems, which would yield measurable economic and public safety rewards.

The Prison Policy Initiative made the following policy recommendations:

  1. Fix K-12 school inequalities, such as those arising out of zero-tolerance disciplinary policies. Students — particularly students of color — should not suffer from a lack of educational resources or overly punitive school policies that funnel them into prisons simply because of the neighborhood in which they live. In order for education to truly be the “great equalizer” it first has to operate equally.
  2. Ensure that incarcerated people have access to robust educational services that prepare them for both higher education and 21st century jobs. Educational opportunities should be conceptualized as a means to begin the reentry process, not as a frivolous “extra.”
  3. States should immediately “ban-the-box” on all applications for admission to state funded colleges and universities. Postsecondary educational institutions should give everyone a fair opportunity to pursue their educational goals, not further punish criminalized people looking to get their lives on track.
  4. Restore Pell Grants to incarcerated people and remove other barriers to financial aid for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. Like public education, Pell Grants and other sources of student aid should be seen as public goods, available to everyone and enhancing both public safety and the social and economic mobility of all people.

A full copy of the report can be found here.

This summary was prepared by TCR staff writer Megan Hadley

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