Nationwide, there were 374 prison education programs operating in 522 facilities in 2019-2020
, according to data collected
by the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison. Those numbers include programs that offer certificates, associate’s degrees, and bachelor’s degrees, as well as those that offer college classes but not credentials, and require a high school diploma or equivalent for admission.
Most of those programs are offered at the 1,566 state prisons and 100 federal prisons in the United States.
People in the 5,000 some
local jails, juvenile facilities, immigration detention facilities, military prisons, and other facilities are even less likely to have access to higher education.
While the actual number of prison education programs is likely higher due to the expansion of Pell Grants and the fact the data is self-reported, those numbers indicate that the majority of people in prison do not have access to postsecondary education.
“If the government and its citizens really want to ‘rehabilitate’ prisoners, then education and job training should be a top priority,” wrote Shawn Bell, who is serving a life sentence at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, S.D. “If people don’t have something positive…like education, they find other, more negative ways to fill their time in prison.”
Too much time
Even within facilities that have postsecondary programs, some categories of prisoners, including lifers like Bell, are often excluded from higher education. Half of the states impose restrictions on participation in education based on the length of an individual’s sentence
, while 11 states have restrictions related to conviction, according to the Council of State Governments Justice Center. Many states also prioritize enrollment based on release date.
For example, people with life sentences
in Alaska are excluded from vocational education and individuals on death row
in Georgia are not allowed to formally participate in education programming. States like Colorado
, and Missouri
specifically prioritize those who have less than five years on their sentences.
Kamau Bentley, who is serving a life sentence in Wisconsin, has tried repeatedly to enroll in higher education programs. In the early 2000s, he tried to sign up for a college program, but was ineligible for state financial aid because he hadn’t registered for the Selective Service. He gave up on his education.
Almost 20 years later, Bentley heard about Pell Grant reinstatement and decided to apply to another college program. Although the Selective Service requirement had been waived, he encountered another obstacle.
“It was determined that I had too much time on my sentence to be enrolled at that time,” he said. “I was once again denied, and once again defeated. As of this writing, I am still trying to figure out a way to gain my degree, but in all honesty, every year I go without getting it done, the more unlikely it will be for me to do it.”
Although people with long sentences account for a relatively small number of state prison admissions, their numbers add up over time, according to a recent study
from the Council on Criminal Justice. At the end of 2019, 57 percent of people in prison had been sentenced to 10 years or more. More than 200,000 people
in the United States are serving life sentences.
Mary Ann Webb, who has been incarcerated at Anson Correctional in Polkton, N.C., for 18 years, said that the criteria to take college courses at her facility is to have a release date within 10 years. “Since I have life without parole, it’s impossible for me to grow mentally beyond trade classes,” she wrote. “The reason I’m offered trade classes is so I can keep the prison clean and running.”
Prison without opportunities for rehabilitation is “a life of stagnation,” she wrote. “I feel as if I have no purpose because I’m considered a waste of time and money to educate.”