A college education for inmates?

by Stephanie Chasteen on November 16, 2008

One of the great travesties of this nation, I think, is the complete lack of logic in how we treat criminals. Our criminal justice system sucks people in and makes it very hard for them to reintegrate back into society. We stick them in jail, where they lose their connections to community and become enmeshed in criminal culture. When they get out, it’s very hard for them to get a job, and much easier to cycle back into jail. Most incarcerations nowadays are actually due to parole violations rather than new crimes. I found out about this when I did a piece on prisoner recidivism (“Life Beyond Bars”) for Science & Spirit (a neat but now defunct magazine focusing on the intersection of science, religion and life). Here is an excerpt from that article:

The United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate, with one of every seventy-five American men in jail or prison. There are more U.S. inmates now—2.1 million—than at any other time in history. This increase isn’t due to a crime wave; crime rates have actually fallen. Instead, criminals are serving longer sentences, and many return to prison to finish those sentences when they violate their parole. Two-thirds of parolees are rearrested within five years of their release. Most are rearrested within the first year, some within days. The end result is a huge surge in the prison population—a twofold increase per capita over the past twenty years.

There are also more prisoners being released than ever before: More than 600,000 will come home this year, the equivalent of the city of Boston being turned out onto America’s streets. The majority will have had no access to education, job training, or drug rehabilitation. They will exit the prison gates with a bus ticket and a few hundred dollars in gate money, and maybe a list of apartments or shelters. Most will return to crime-rich neighborhoods, and while they will likely be released into some sort of supervision, they won’t get as much help as in the past. Many parole officers act more like cops than social workers nowadays.

In 1984, Reagan eliminated Pell Grants for prisoners. Since this was the primary way that prison education programs were funded, this effectively ended all higher education opportunities for prisoners, making the road to reintegration really difficult (read more here). So instead of funding education and other programs to keep prisoners out of jail, we’re spending huge amounts of money on housing and feeding prisoners, to the tune of $32K per year.

Anyway, in the course of writing that article, I found out about a unique program in the country, the Prison University Project at San Quentin. A shoestring operation, it provides college courses as an extension of Patton University in Oakland. It’s the only degree-granting higher education program in all of California state prisons. All instructors are volunteers, and I volunteered for a few semesters as a math tutor. What an experience — to go through a half-hour of security clearance every time you entered, and classes could easily be canceled for a security lockdown.

Two inmates in the Prison University Project

Two inmates in the Prison University Project

Once inside we were in a room of, frankly, primarily Latino and African-American men, trying to teach basic arithmetic skills so that they could go on to take pre-algebra. I tried to teach fractions, and it was hard. We used fraction tiles (which are a physical representation of the different fractions, using pieces of squares or circles to represent 1/3, 1/4, etc.) I was impressed by these mens’ determination to learn, and willingness to be humble. They often wanted to be able to help their kids with their homework when they came to visit them at the prison. We didn’t know what it was that they had done to be sentenced (and were not supposed to ask), but the men in these classes had to earn it as a special privilege. These were well-behaved prisoners, and this was their only chance to do something intellectually challenging during their day — the rest of which was filled with a full-time job. Night classes for them were just as tiring, if not more so, as for the rest of us working stiffs who take night courses.

I write this because I just got a copy of the latest newsletter of the Prison University Project and, as always, they are in need of funds. They get no state or federal funding and rely entirely on individuals and foundations for support. I know times are tough, but if you are able, I highly recommend any small gift you can manage. It’s a wonderful program, and just it takes just $1000 to educate a single student for a year. Or, if you know of a private foundation that may be interested in this endeavor, please let us know! You can donate directly here, or email director Jody Lewen at info(at)prisonuniversityproject.org.

But of course the Prison University Project only serves those inmates at San Quentin, which is only one fish in a big sea of prisoners who want access to education.  Inmates who do manage to receive a degree join the lofty ranks such as Nelson Mandela and other famous inmates who completed a degree from prison.  Most of those were sponsored by a local university, though it’s not clear to me just how such an arrangement would work without an intermediary like the Prison University Project.


Amanda June 9, 2009 at 5:46 pm


My name is Amanda. My mother is currently in prison. She is in Carswell Federal Medical Prison in Texas. She has been asking me if there is a way she can begin college courses. I am in school myself so I was wondering if you had any advice for me. I just want to know where to start. I don’t have much time to research as good as I need to. Thank you for your help!


sciencegeekgirl June 10, 2009 at 1:03 am

HI Amanda,

I’m sorry I don’t have anything particular to suggest to you! I contacted the director of the Prison University Project at San Quentin and she didn’t have any ideas either, but is contacting some of her colleagues in NY to see if they have any ideas. I wonder if any of the distance education programs allow inmates to enroll?

Kevin July 30, 2009 at 12:48 am


Although some prisons do not have college courses, but you should have you mother ask the warden if it is possible for her to take correspondence course. If she is allowed, then you can find courses for her and to make sure those credits are able to be transferred to a college out in society, make sure the correspondence course and the colleges in your area are accredited by the same association. I really hope this is helpful for you and good luck to your mom.

Kevin July 30, 2009 at 12:58 am

P.S. If it is possible, your mom will have to have some one on the inside that is qualified to proctor her test for her.

Kevin July 31, 2009 at 12:01 am


I am doing some studies on criminal recidivism and would like to know how much does college decrease an ex-con’s chance of going back to prison. I am actually trying to write a paper for the Dept. of Parole in NYS because it has came to my attention that some parole officers will make a parolee quit college and get a job instead. Please send me any links you would have of statistics of criminals.

Thank you,
Kevin Li

TJ August 17, 2009 at 7:43 pm

Great info thank you for your what you are doing.


george kammerer September 1, 2009 at 5:26 pm

My son is in prison in Bishopville, South Carolina. He just passed his GED and would like to know how he could continue to go to school to get his degree. He want’s to further his education while incarrserated so when he does get out he’ll have something to use to find a job. He was thinking on the lines of a Doctor or even maybe a Lawyer.
Is there anything out there to help inmates move foward in their quest to educated themselves?

SS September 5, 2009 at 5:12 am

Prison Legal News (prisonlegalnews.com) an organization for human rights, publishes a book for inmates on college correspondence courses: Prisoners’ Guerrilla Handbook to Correspondence Programs in the U.S. and Canada, 3rd Edition, by Jon Marc Taylor and Susan Schwartzkopf. I recently sent it to my boyfriend and he’s very excited to get started.

Jim Rose September 12, 2009 at 1:32 am

Prison Legal News (prisonlegalnews.com) an organization for human rights, publishes a book for inmates on college correspondence courses: Prisoners’ Guerrilla Handbook to Correspondence Programs in the U.S. and Canada, 3rd Edition, by Jon Marc Taylor and Susan Schwartzkopf. I recently sent it to my boyfriend and he’s very excited to get started.

Jim Rose September 12, 2009 at 1:36 am

SS, I meant to reply to your post to let you know I greatly appreciate the information. My son is incarcerated in California and with the budget in such a mess, the community college courses offered have been cancelled. He was given a list of colleges that offer correspondence courses, but as I have checked those, they are far more expensive than outlined in the information available to them. I will take your advice and get the handbook.

Donna December 21, 2009 at 6:57 pm

I have a unique perspective on inmates. My son is currently an inmate, violated for fighting with his brother (one year sentence) I am also retired from working at a prison. It saddened me to see young men with 30 year sentences. I agree the only way to change the down hill spiral of human beings through incarceration, is through education. There is very little rehabilitation in prisons, they are housed and grow older in most cases, then released. I have seen many inmates released with a bus ticket and 30.00.

Crystal Jessen February 8, 2010 at 4:02 am

Very interesting article and informative, but i need additional help here. I have a friend that’s incarcerated in Salinas Valley State prison in Soledad, CA who would like to further his COLLEGE EDUCATION while in prison. Is there any other way? Any information, websites, links that would assist me in getting the right information that i need to determine if it’s possible for my friend to continue college at Salinas. If you can help please let me know. THANKS.Crystal

Prison Ed December 4, 2010 at 3:04 pm

There are several prisons in Louisiana that are receiving free, regionally accredited (SACS)correspondence classes. The Prison Education Directors receive study guides and exams by email. They set up a study group for those taking the classes. Books are loaned to the offenders. Rayburn Correctional offers an Associate Degree and Angola has a Bachelor of Arts in Religion.

sciencegeekgirl December 6, 2010 at 6:20 am

Also just got this nice set of links:

10 U.S. Prisons With Impressive Libraries: http://www.onlineuniversities.com/blog/2010/12/10-u-s-prisons-with-impressive-libraries/

scorpio24 December 14, 2010 at 4:59 pm

Yes my boyfriend is currently in prison and he wanted to take some correspondence courses does anyone know of any schools that still do the old fashioned correspondence courses where they mail in there work . im having so much trouble locating any schools.

scorpio24 December 14, 2010 at 5:00 pm

Yes my boyfriend is currently in prison and he wanted to take some correspondence courses does anyone know of any schools that still do the old fashioned correspondence courses where they mail in there work . im having so much trouble locating any schools.

ment to say he is incarcerated in Georgia

Linda June 28, 2011 at 2:09 pm

Does anyone have any current info on education programs/grants for released inmates in South Carolina? All my online research is dated and just confuses the issue of what is available now in 2011.

EBONIQUE August 28, 2011 at 6:34 am

Hello my name is ebonique & my boyfriend is an inmate @ s.v.s.p. soledad. A& I’m trying to see what programs they have for him so he can take up a trade if u can help find out any information in any way please let me know thank u!

Carol September 20, 2012 at 1:57 am

Hi, my name is Carol. My son is currently an inmate in Orange Co., CA. He is a first (and hopefully last) time offender. He is 38 and has a BA in Business Admin and a MA in Leadership and Organization. He would like to find out about doctorate courses that could possibly be available. He would also like to find out about possibly offering his services in tutoring or teaching other inmates in exchange for being able to advance his own learning. Any ideas?

pam October 17, 2012 at 5:08 pm

Hello, my name is pam, my son is an inmate in beattyvilllle,ky.He is taking a college cousre through blackstone career for law,but he wants to take another cousre for science but he is trying to find another school that works with inmates and the cost is not so much.The cousre he is taking right now cost over 700.00,so if there is any other good schools that he can go through could you mail him some bourchers to him so he can check them out,this is his address Casey Hadcock 332279,CCA/Lee Adjustment center,168 Lee Adjustment center drive,Beattville,Ky 41311.Thank you Pam

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