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Education as a Tool for Social Justice in America’s Prisons

Readers, I am excited to introduce to you what I hope to be the first of many more guest posts. 

A big thanks to the folks at for helping make this happen about such an important topic, and for Sheldon Soper for all his work.

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A guest post by Sheldon Soper from

Incarcerated persons in the American prison system lose access to numerous rights and privileges.  In the face of these restrictions and limitations, there must still be genuine pathways toward reflection and growth.  Even when freedoms are taken away, the personhood of incarcerated individuals must not be.

Whether it is in juvenile detention centers or adult penitentiaries, one of the most powerful tools in promoting life-changing reform, reducing costly recidivism rates, and making strides toward social justice is giving people access to quality education. Here’s why, and how you can help.

Prison education provides a purpose

Prison can be an isolating place. By design, people are cut off almost entirely from the usual trappings of daily life – family, friends, home, career, a self-guided daily routine. In contrast, life on the inside is rigidly regimented and structured; activities, meals, wardrobe, bedtimes, and rules of conduct are all codified with little (if any) agency granted to the incarcerated persons themselves.

In many cases, prison education programs are often treated as incentives to break the monotony of prison life while, at the same time, providing people an opportunity for reflection, agency, and self-improvement.

As Sharon, a former educator in a U.S. juvenile detention center recounted,

My students saw school as a privilege. It got them out of their cells, gave them opportunities for individualized care and attention, and created a real opportunity for the boys to improve themselves. Missing or losing access to school time was not an acceptable option to them and actually helped to keep them on the right track.

Sharon’s experience is not uncommon. Many former incarcerated students refer to their education experiences as not only positive, but also more meaningful than their previous education experiences. She explained,

[My students in the prison education program] genuinely liked and looked forward to school. They almost all had special needs of some kind, but the fact that someone was there for them – ready and willing to work with them – made education matter.

Prisons by their very nature often dehumanize the existence of their inhabitants. In contrast, well-designed and well-staffed educational opportunities allow for incarcerated persons to have a personal purpose.

Teachers can provide individualized experiences and attention that might otherwise be nonexistent in an incarcerated student’s daily routine. Furthermore, the very notion of education itself can cultivate a belief in a person’s own self improvement potential.

Adult prison education programs produce similarly purpose-driven motivations. Whether it is through parent-child literacy programs, high-school equivalency programs, vocational training, or even access to higher education coursework, education proves to be as positive a force in serving older incarcerated individuals as it is to younger ones.

Education can be a vehicle of empowerment. Any number of personal, emotional, and/or practical reasons may drive the quest for self-betterment, but fostering an innate drive to learn can provide a lifetime of benefit. As Alice, an educator with over two decades of experience teaching adult students in prison attests in an interview with

I’ve found that many [adult] students are very agreeable to school from the beginnings. Most of them, at some point, feel that education is relevant and important to them and their future. Many of [my students] have children, and oftentimes feel ashamed that they don’t have basic skills. They feel very proud that they can go home and help their kids with schoolwork. Teachers use that as a motivator for them.

With 1 in every 50 children having a parent in prison in the US, mass incarceration is something that touches almost every American classroom. While the reality is grim, there are ways to help. Learn why supporting prison education is critical to alleviating collateral damage, and what teachers can do to help. #socialjustice #equity #teachingforsocialjustice #prisoneducation

Prison education benefits more than just students

One of the costliest challenges faced by the United States prison system is the high rate of recidivism – incarcerated persons who, after release, return to prison.

That said, a 2013 RAND study concluded that “correctional education reduces postrelease recidivism and does so cost-effectively.” In this study, the per person costs of prison education programs were found to be four to five times less than the per person costs of re-incarceration.

Other studies have also shown that correctional education programs not only reduce crime, but also lead to greater employment opportunities and higher wages for participants upon release.

This means that while there are costs associated with prison education programs, in the long run they can be cost-saving measures for institutions, and have much better outcomes for formerly incarcerated people.

In addition to reducing recidivism, prison education can serve as a powerful way to challenge stereotypes people may have about individuals who are incarcerated. In a system designed to lock away and dehumanize, prison education can provide opportunities for incarcerated people to be more than just students, but teachers, as well.

How can YOU help?

According to a 2016 report from the Federal Bureau of Prisons:

The current education programmatic frameworks, instructional logistics, and support structures cannot meet the current education demand in BOP facilities. These frameworks and structures are unable to scale to increase the number of inmates served or improve educational and training outcomes.

We know these programs are effective, but there are currently multiple barriers preventing their positive impacts from reaching all those they could help. Thankfully, there are ways for all of us (educators and non-educators alike) to get involved.

    • Donate to prison education charities like the Prison Education Foundation or The Prison Scholar Fund, or better yet, a local organization near you. Supporting these life-changing initiatives makes it possible for more people to access opportunities ranging from skill building to post-secondary coursework. You can also get involved more directly by donating resources like books or by making financial contributions to the education programs of your local prisons.
    • Volunteer your time through prison-focused organizations like the Petey Greene Program. Offering your expertise in either a tutoring or a vocational capacity is a way to make a profoundly personal impact on those in need of support and guidance.
    • Get politically active through organizations like the Tufts University Prison Initiative, the Illinois Education Justice Project, and the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison and the many others like them that are bringing awareness to the value of prison education as well as pushing for legislative advocacy and activism. 

As with most policy issues, local actions tend to be the most effective. Reach out to and get involved with political action groups in your local municipality and/or state to get involved. The ACLU maintains an exhaustive list of organizations dedicated to the rights and support of incarcerated persons. You can find more at the bottom of this post, as well.

    • Teach! The most meaningful and well-intentioned educational programs get nowhere without quality educators at the helm. While teaching in prisons may not be for everyone, it can be a rewarding and satisfying service and career choice. In addition to the required degrees and certifications, patience and flexibility to work within institutional structures, a sense of compassion and tolerance for students of all possible backgrounds, and a confidence in curricular and classroom management skills. Since teaching in prisons is not for everyone, before committing to teach, Erin L. Castro, Ph.D. Director & Co-Founder, University of Utah Prison Education Project advises educators to start by volunteering and broadening their horizons about their local prison systems.

Yes we need teachers, but we also need academic tutors, librarians, people to facilitate workshops, and help improving access to books and reading materials. I encourage [readers] to meet with incarcerated people to find out what they want and go from there.


Learning has the power to be a truly transformative tool for bettering the conditions for convicted persons both during and after their incarcerations.

Beyond access to skills training and scholastic content, prison education is a way to empower those that are often times the most affected by social inequity. Supporting these efforts demonstrates to incarcerated persons that their voices, their lives, and their personhood matter.

A special thanks to Dr. Castro for providing guidance for this piece.

Interested in learning more?

Additional reading:

Ellis, Eddie. “An Open Letter to Our Friends on the Question of Language.”

Castro, Erin L.; Brawn, Michael; Graves, Daniel E.; Mayorga, Orlando; Page, Johnny; & Slater, Andra (2015) “Higher Education in an Era of Mass Incarceration: Possibility Under Constraint”

Ginsburg, Rebecca. (2014) “Knowing that we are Making a Difference: A Case for Critical Prison Programming.”

Stern, Kaia. “Prison Education and our Will to Punish.”

Lewen, Jody. “Prison Higher Education and Social Transformation.”

Additional Organizations:

Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project

Prison University Project in San Quentin

Freedom Education Project Puget Sound

About the author:

Education as a tool for Social Justice in America's Prisons

Sheldon is a teacher and content writer for a variety of education, technology, and parenting websites including You can follow Sheldon on Twitter @SoperWritings and on his blog.

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  1. Wow…this is really interesting and eye opening. I never thought about education programs in prison. I am pleased to read that students value these education programs and seek self improvement. The fact that this helps inmates be more successful upon release is fantastic. Thanks for sharing this.
    Christine Weis

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