How Education Changes Lives Behind Prison Walls

"Doing time" is a synonym for "incarceration." Too often, it means wasting time—and wasting opportunities to change lives through education.

"This is a story about me when I was blinded from life. . . . At the age of 17, I was making and doing bad sins working and doing for the Divor [devil] robing people for they goodies sell illegal drugs to my people. God introduce me to a place where the divor can’t mess with me . . . this place is called Jail as you heard that Jail is a Bad Place. . . . But God can turn around Something Bad to something good. . . . He first put me in a unit [where] people was doing some Big Jail time like . . . life in Prison . . . that made me wake up and smell the coffee saying to myself that I have to get my life right. . . . I seen a lot of blesses. I got bless by getting in the educational program to pick up where I drop out of school [so] I can be a successful person. When I was in the world I was Blinded from a lot of good things. But my father God Brough[t] me to the light."
—From "The Blinded Environment Life"

The two-and-a half page, single-spaced essay represented a stunning breakthrough for the 22-year-old fifth grade dropout. Tyrone’s (not his real name) previous submissions during the nine weeks I’d been his tutor at the Prince George’s County (Maryland) Correctional Center had seldom been longer than half a page.

It was as though he had realized for the first time that, through his own written words, he could burst the barrier of inarticulate reserve and project his thoughts into the mind of another person.

Charged with armed robbery, Tyrone met with me one-on-one to improve his reading and writing while also attending basic education classes.

Advocates of the "tough on crime" policy might dismiss my efforts with Tyrone and other prisoners as "pampering," "frills," or "a waste of taxpayers’ money." In the 1990s, this mindset resulted in drastic cutbacks for the education of inmates. In 1994, Congress passed legislation making felons ineligible for Pell grants, which provide federal assistance for post-secondary education.

A recent report, however, provides convincing evidence that inmate education significantly reduces recidivism, thereby actually saving money. In Maryland, the cost of incarceration per prisoner is almost $20,000 per year.

The "Three-State Recidivism Study" is based on data obtained by tracking the behavior of 3,200 inmates for three years after their release in late 1997 and early 1998 from prisons in Maryland, Minnesota, and Ohio.

Of those not enrolled in education programs while incarcerated, 31 percent were back in prison during the three years. Only 21 percent of those who had taken  classes were re-incarcerated.

In addition to the monetary savings, correctional education benefits the public by providing a safer environment, since participants are less likely to commit crimes after release.

The study was conducted by the Correctional Education Association with a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.Dr. Stephen J. Steurer, executive director and author of the report, describes the project as "one of the largest and most comprehensive studies ever conducted assessing the impact of correctional education on post-release behavior."

The study was also designed to determine whether in-prison education affected the participants’ employment record after release. Slightly more of those who had not attended classes were employed during at least part of the three years (81 percent compared with 77 percent). Steurer does not consider the gap wide enough to be significant, partly because jobs were plentiful during the period. Each year, however, those in the education programs earned higher wages.

The report states, "Investments in correctional education programs have been confirmed as a wise and informed public policy."

Steurer is encouraged by the effect the report has had since it was issued on September 30, 2001. For instance, in Maryland, inmates sometimes had to wait many months for openings in classes. As a result of the report, Governor Parris N. Glendening authorized the addition of 30 new positions in the state’s Division of Correctional Education and lifted a freeze on filling vacancies.

Budgets in Florida and Illinois have been adjusted to provide more support for such programs. The study influenced the governor of Illinois to reverse a plan to eliminate secondary education classes for inmates. Asked what concerned Friends can do, Steurer replied, "Be very demanding of political officials when they make budget decisions. If they favor cuts in funding correctional education, ask ‘Why?’ Ask for data to support their position. Cite the report to prove your point."

He believes support for prison education is increasing. "The public likes to see people turn their lives around."

To this end, the report recommends "closer attention to vocational education/training and job readiness to assist in a smooth and successful transition back into the workplace after release."

For many, the road will be rocky. The report lists characteristics that put the participants in the study (and the prison population in general) at "high risk of recidivism." Seventy percent of participants had friends in prison. Family members of more than half had served time. Many had previously been committed to juvenile detention facilities and prisons. Less than half had finished high school, and most had a literacy competency below ninth grade. They had experienced long periods of unemployment.

The recently retired section chief of inmate services at the Prince George’s County Correctional Center where I volunteered adds another set of "high risk" characteristics. Over the years, Della Donaldson has "seen people coming in who are scared, immature, damaged. They feel they’re trash. Ninety percent have been abused. They’ve chosen inappropriate ways to cope, such as drugs and alcohol."

She cautions against jumping to the conclusion that "education alone will transform a lawbreaker into a responsible citizen. Acquiring a GED can’t cure an underlying problem."

What the program can do, Donaldson says, is offer the students a positive experience they’ve never had before. "It can show them that success is possible, and give them a look at possibilities they’ve never seen.

"The routine of attending classes and studying can be valuable in itself. They learn that setting a purposeful goal, with hard work, can lead to success."

My four years of tutoring men and women at the jail confirms Donaldson’s observation. For instance, when I first met Tyrone, he was slouchy, sullen, and monosyllabic. He avoided eye contact. But over the weeks, his demeanor changed dramatically. He confided in me about his family and told me about the latest happenings in his unit.

Soon after submitting "The Blinded Environment," he smiled shyly and handed me a two-page, single-spaced, penciled manuscript. (Inmates are not allowed to have pens.)

"This’s a story about a boy who got lose in some woods."

What follows is a suspenseful narrative. Ten-year-old Tim falls into a "really big hole [while] playing by hisself with a Bat and Ball." When his mother discovers that he’s missing, she calls the police. They find a clue, his blue bat. The story ends with Tim’s rescue and a sweet reunion with his mother.

We used the story as a basis for instruction in punctuation and spelling. A couple of weeks later, he submitted a 13-page rewrite with additional dialogue and vivid details about the police search.

I’ve lost track of Tyrone since he was transferred to a boot camp and eventually paroled. I like to think he’s on his way to becoming the "successful person" of his vision.

Regardless of where he is, however, I’m totally convinced that his months in the education unit were not a waste of the taxpayers’ money.

As for myself, "I seen blesses" when I found I could be a channel for light into a blinded environment.

Dorothy Kinsman Brown

Dorothy Kinsman Brown is a member of Annapolis (Md.) Meeting. For further information on the Correctional Education Association, call (800) 783-1232 or visit