Imprisoned in Low Wages

Limited access to education for people in prison leads to economic exclusion.

Will Goldberg

This article is from the Spring 2007 issue of Dollars & Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

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It's tough to get an education in prison. People in prison tend to start with lower educational levels than the general population, and spending time behind bars generally makes matters worse. Because schooling is a major factor in earnings potential, the incarcerated are being left farther and farther behind.

In New York State, 48.6% of people in prison do not have a high school diploma, as compared to 27.8% of the general population. From 1980 to 2000, the number of incarcerated black and white high school dropouts both tripled, and other disparities are immense. The rate of imprisonment among black men with college degrees has fallen, while a full 60% of black high school dropouts are now prisoners or ex-cons by the time they reach their mid-30s.

Lower levels of education already translate directly into lower earnings over a lifetime, as a 2002 Census Bureau study found. This is compounded by the worsened prospects for employment and greater obstacles to job success that result from incarceration.

The economic penalties of incarceration begin with the stigma of a criminal record and snowball from there. A study conducted by sociologist Devah Pager found that applicants are much less likely to receive callbacks from potential employers if their resumes indicate that they have been incarcerated. Furthermore, each month someone cannot work because of incarceration, he or she loses ground in experience and personal connections; research indicates that the people serving the longest sentences suffer the largest loss in earnings. Sociologist Bruce Western has found that important survival skills for prison—"suspicion of strangers, aggressiveness, withdrawal from social interaction"—are detrimental to success at work. Western also found that Latino workers' average hourly wages dropped from $12.30 to $10.31 following incarceration; black workers' from $10.25 to $9.25.

GED programs have helped offset some of these effects. The Florida Department of Corrections found that recidivism, or repeat criminal offending, was 8.7% lower among graduates of GED programs; the benefits of education extended to groups at greatest risk for recidivism, including prior recidivists, black prisoners, and young males. Florida calculated that its GED program prevented the recidivism of approximately 100 people in prison annually, saving that state about $1.9 million a year.

Post-secondary education has been shown to be even more effective than the GED in reducing recidivism. James Gilligan, a director of mental health for the Massachusetts prison system and a prison psychiatrist for 25 years, found that a program through which hundreds of people in prison earned a college degree was 100% effective in preventing recidivism. The N.Y. Department of Correctional Services found that only 26.4% of people in prison who had earned a college degree re-offended, far lower than the recidivism rates of people in prison who had never enrolled in the program (47.4%) or those who had not completed it (44.6%).

William Weld, Republican governor of Massachusetts from 1991 to 1997, previously unaware that college classes were available in prisons, responded to this news by declaring that Massachusetts should not grant the "privilege" of a college education to the incarcerated, or poor people would end up committing crimes in hopes of getting free higher education. This came at the same time as Jesse Helms and other "tough on crime" senators began to imply that awarding Pell grants to people in prison cut into federal funding set aside for unincarcerated students' education, though this was not the case. In 1994, Congress passed a crime bill that eliminated prisoner eligibility for the grants, a considerable setback for people in prison wishing to pursue a college education.

graph showing earnings by educational attainment

The alarmingly disproportionate levels of incarceration among black and Latino populations, in combination with all of these obstacles to future financial success upon release, result in troubling economic disadvantages. Giving people in prison, and released from prison, the tools they need to support themselves and to contribute meaningfully is both economically advantageous and morally necessary. Annette Johnson, member of the Board of Directors of the Prisoners' Reading Encouragement Project, testified in 2000 that education was an important part of criminal justice reform that would "make it more effective—indeed, more cost-effective—in preventing crime and restoring convicted persons to the community with a positive attitude and positive skills that will allow them to contribute to the economy and reclaim a wholesome place in family life."

Apart from the obvious advantage that education offers people who have been in prison in finding employment after release, quality educational programs help people in prison to have a better mindset both during and after incarceration. And prison education programs save money: the reductions in crime, incarceration, and social welfare costs, plus increased payroll and income tax revenues from employing people who would otherwise likely be re-imprisoned, more than compensate for their costs.

With the expansion of distance-learning technologies, it is easier and cheaper than ever to provide education to people in prison. The missing ingredient is the political will to view incarceration not just as punishment but also as an opportunity for recovery.

Will Goldberg is a policy analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative.

SOURCES: Devah Pager, "The Mark of a Criminal Record," American Journal of Sociology, 108(5), 2003; Bruce Western, Punishment and Inequality in America, Russell Sage, 2006; Follow-Up Study of a Sample of Offenders Who Earned High School Equivalency Diplomas (GEDs) While Incarcerated in DOCS; Annette Johnson, Testimony concerning the positive correlation between inmate education and reduction of recidivism.
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