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Education in Prison Declines

In a special report issued in January 2003, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found that participation rates in prison education programs declined 5% from 1991 through 1997, although the total number of prisoners in education programs rose with the prison population in the United States. The report surveyed prisoner education programs nationwide in state and federal prisons and in local jails.

The BJS found that about 40% of all State prisoners have neither a high school diploma nor a General Educational Development (GED) certificate despite the fact that 9 out of 10 State prisons, all Federal prisons, and 6 of 10 jails provide high school or GED programming. Twenty-six percent of State prisoners completed the GED in prison, as did about 23% of Federal prisoners; however, literacy levels were not studied.

The report stated that U.S. prison populations are seriously undereducated compared to the general U.S. non-incarcerated population. State, Federal, and jail prisoners fail to complete high school or a GED program at more than twice the rate of the general population. College or post-secondary vocational education participation was much lower. The report, however, fails to note that prisons, especially State prisons, have drastically slashed, or even eliminated, college programming.

From 1991 to 1997, prisoner education programs grew at a slower rate than the overall prison populations of State and Federal prisons and local jails. Thus, BJS found, prisoner participation in any prison education program declined from 57% in 1991 to 52% in 1997 for State prisons, and from 67% in 1991 to 57% in 1997 for Federal prisons. This, however, is a measure only of classes attended, not programs completed.

The report noted that males between the ages of 20 and 39 years constitute two-thirds of the population of State prisons. This group, the BJS found, "consistently stated lower academic achievement than their counterparts in the general population." Moreover, prisoners with lower education levels are more likely to have been unemployed prior to arrest between 22% and 38% unemployment by different measures and more likely to be repeat offenders.

The report is titled "Education and Correctional Populations," and is report number NCJ 195670, published January 2003. One copy of the report is free by writing National Criminal Justice Reference Service, Post Office Box 6000, Rockville, Maryland 20849-6000. The report may also be downloaded from the BJS website at

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