Analyzing and Improving Additional Education for Incarcerated Women

by Sarah Cheney


Academic works about incarcerated women and additional education (education including and beyond the GED) in prison have made massive advances in the last two decades. However, there is still much work to be done in understanding how the marriage of the two: incarcerated women’s experience with additional education, can truly better the lives of women. There is also work to be done in improving these women’s experiences in order to equip them with the most efficient techniques to academically and emotionally better themselves and increase their human capital.

In this paper, there will be a brief background discussing additional penal education legislation and policy which attempts to make additional education more financially and mentally accessible to both male and female prisoners. In discussing the history of these topics, this will better set up the discussion of the problems associated with the current availability, setup, and state of additional education for incarcerated women. There will also be recommendations made to better the experiences of incarcerated women and educate them in their options in a criminal justice system that can seem overwhelming and unwelcoming.

Policy Background

In discussing incarcerated women’s access to higher education, we will look at some legislation and policies which would allow for expansion of these programs. There are different pieces of legislation that have been introduced which could help build on efforts to expand higher education in prisons (for men and women) at the federal and state levels (specifically, expansions related to degrees or industry-recognized credentials). Some of these bills include the Restoring Education and Learning Act of 2019 (REAL Act) and the Promoting Reentry through Education in Prisons Act of 2019 (PREP Act). The REAL Act of 2019 amends section 401(b) of the Higher Education Act of 1965 to reinstate Pell Grant eligibility to incarcerated people in federal and state prisons[1]. As of December 2020, a bipartisan deal has been finalized which passes this legislation.[2]. This deal could mean that incarcerated individuals have more and better access to financial aid which could potentially increase the number of prisoners, both male and female. interested in and participating in additional education. The PREP Act of 2019  set up the Office of Correctional Education within the Bureau of Prisons to improve correctional education programming[3]. This bill was structured to provide incarcerated people with resources needed to more efficiently integrate into society after their releases. A major reason behind this bill was that incarcerated individuals who participated in educational programs had 43 percent lower odds of reentering the prison system than others who had not [4].

Furthermore, through the Second Chance Act of 2008, there were more funds given to government reentry programs for people who were formerly incarcerated[5]. The act apportioned nearly $90 million for a range of education programming, including a portion which went toward prison education programs. Congress enacted the Workforce and Community Transition Training for Incarcerated Youth Offenders (IYO) Program, which apportioned funds to cover the cost of postsecondary education and employment and counseling for incarcerated youth[6]. This program was incredibly useful in pushing forward a large scale program that prevents previously juvenile incarcerated individuals from adult recidivist tendencies.


In order to discuss additional education for incarcerated women, we can use present data including both men and women to get a general idea of what levels of interest are present in prisoners. This is because there is still a lack of focus in academic research that focuses on women and education. Oftentimes, this research is branched off of research on the total penal population (male and female population) that focuses on women’s experiences as whole in penal institutions, not specifically their educational experiences.  We can also get additional information on how much of their time and jobs in prison prepare them for lives outside of prison walls. In a think tank study, policy focused authors found that among all prisoners (both male and female, interest in education programs was high, with 42 percent having completed some level of additional education in their prison time[7]. The study also found that 21 percent were currently studying for a formal degrees or credentials. Of those who were not enrolled in additional education programs, 79 percent had interest in doing so. Additionally, the authors focused on the fact that many prison jobs do not help prisoners use and improve their literacy and numeracy skills which could help them find employment once out of the criminal justice system. Furthermore, although 61 percent had a prison job, many were never able to use those literacy or numeracy skills. Additionally, 47 percent reported never reading instructions or directions, and 82 percent reported never using a calculator or fractions, decimals or percentages for their jobs within prison walls. This study shows that while there is clearly interest among incarcerated people in attaining additional education in prisons, there are more individuals interested in it than have actually received educational instruction; in other words, demand exceeds supply. Furthermore, there is work to be done in changing and developing prison jobs in order to include skills that can best benefit prisoners outside of a prison atmosphere so that they can experience employment, financial stability, and better life quality outside of the criminal justice system.

In a case study focused on  understanding why incarcerated women dropped out of high school, researchers determined that 56% of women incarcerated in state prisons entered without a high school diploma [8]. They found two main themes as to why women dropped out prematurely: (1) lack of familial involvement in child’s education, and (2) lack of support from school environments. Through these two themes, they developed five subthemes: (1) substance abuse by familial figures, (2) dissonance from familial figures, (3) institutional alienation due to adolescent pregnancy, (4) institutional alienation due to learning disabilities, and (5) institutional alienation from oppressive peer interactions. The study found that women were highly affected by their families involvement and opinions of education. Their enrollment was also highly affected by school attitudes and social alienation. Clearly, there are environmental and educational changes that need to be made for women to feel more comfortable and motivated to attain higher education in prison since they faced similar challenges outside of a prison setting.

In a 2004 study, researchers found that women’s participation in additional education in penal institutions was affected by the elimination of Pell Grant funding for incarcerated people[9]. They found that many of these women came into prison unemployed and living in affordable housing. They also found that the Pell Grant funding elimination not only led to lower involvement in additional education, but also a reduced number of additional education programs in correctional facilities. Although the elimination of Pell Grant funding had an effect on women’s participation in penal additional education, there were still cyclical declines in women’s participation in elementary, high school, and college programs prior to the limitations placed on Pell Grant funds. One reason this may be the case is because of the rising population of female prisoners. To put this into perspective, although the male population rate has increased over 207 percent over the past 20 years, the female population rate has increased 344 percent in the same period of time. The increasing number of female prisoners has put a significant amount of pressure on services provided by women’s prisons – most of which were already inadequate and below standard. Although male prisoners have their own difficulties in attaining additional education, female prisoners have fewer available programs to choose from and generally the programs are of lesser quality than the male additional education programs [10]. 

Another structural characteristic that explains these cyclical patterns of decline in participation in additional education for female prisoners is that needs beyond health care and educational needs are not addressed. For many female prisoners, separation from children is one of the worst aspects of incarceration [11]. For many mothers, their mental health in prison is dramatically determined by anxieties surrounding the welfare of their children. These anxieties arise from aspects of their children’s lives that they have little to no control over because of the physical separation. Their worries also revolve around whether they will be able to reestablish custody of their children after their release. These types of anxieties are much more underdeveloped in male prisoners because, generally, male prisoners are not as dedicated as mothers in being reunited with their children [11]. Although there are a number of programs in prisons made to address these types of issues for mothers in prison, they are few and far between.  [11].Furthermore, these programs have been on the decline with less of these programs available than they were twenty years ago. The positive behavior of women in prison is contingent on the presence of these types of programs. Furthermore, if they are not present, they can increase the likelihood of incarcerated women refraining from participating in other forms of prison programs including additional education.


First, we found that many prisoners’ jobs had little to nothing to do with bettering their literacy or numerical skills. Many were given jobs where they did not need to read or use a calculator or a computer to do their work. In order to make their reentry into society easier, particularly in terms of job attainment and financial security, it should be important to pair prisoners up with jobs or mentors that can teach them professional skills so that they can have some sense of real work experience once they are beyond prison walls. Examples of this could range from having experience doing basic calculations so that they can do their own tax calculations, or working in the kitchens if they have interest in being a cook.

Additionally, we learned of the reasons why female prisoners prior to incarceration cut their high school education short. Two of the main reasons behind this were familial issues and institutional alienation. In order to better women’s experience in additional education in prisons, we must make sure to address these reasons to make sure women have strong emotional support within prison walls (potentially through counselors or mentors) and also make sure that they have feel less alienated and more secure in academic environments where they feel that teachers truly care for them and their futures.

Fortunately, Pell Grant subsidies to incarcerated individuals were reinstated by Congress’s REAL Act of 2019. However, there are still other financial aid and scholarship programs that can be more attainable and better funded considering we reviewed how financial aid can directly increase the amount of both male and female prisoners taking part in additional education programs. One such financial aid program is the FAFSA Simplification Act, which is part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. It will expand eligibility for the federal Pell Grant to include incarcerated students. These incarcerated students will be able to take advantage of the grants (which cater to need-based low-income households) by 2021 [12]. This act is different and just as important as the REAL Act of 2019 in that it will provide more stable and predictable aid because of specific guidelines it sets for prisoners to be able to receive financial assistance from federal funds. As there types of financial aid role out for incarcerated individuals, it is important to watch for increased participation in additional education programs in prisons in order to view the success rates between financial aid and interest/enrollment in additional education. 

The decreasing quality of additional education programs in prisons has not just been limited to additional education.  Many prisons decreased the availability of women’s access to programs addressing childcare anxieties. We saw that the connection between female involvement in one program can lead to female involvement in many other programs. Therefore, if prisons are having difficulty in trying to find what to prioritize in prisons for women, future policy should primarily focus on mental health because women’s anxieties for their family can heavily influence their behavior. Therefore, improving their mental health may lead to more women being interested in and thus requesting more access to additional education programs. So although these programs may not be available, their availability will not become a reality over time unless there is a real proof of need and interest by female prisoners in the first place.

In Summary

In this academic work, there was a discussion of some of the policy background, problems, and recommendations available based on what we know of incarcerated women’s attainment of additional education in prison. In the policy background, there was a discussion of the REAL Act of 2019, the PREP Act of 2019, the Second Chance Act of 2008, and the IYO Program. In the Problems section, there was a discussion of some the issues surrounding integrating literacy and calculation literacy into prison jobs, women’s deterrents to education outside of the walls of prison in the first place, women’s population issues in additional education programs, and the effect of mental health and family issues on women’s willingness to take part in additional prison programs (including additional education programs). In the Recommendations, we looked back at the Problems section and found applicable connections which would help alleviate some of the shortcomings discussed.

Works Cited

[1] Schatz, B. (2019, April 09). Text – S.1074 – 116th Congress (2019-2020): Restoring Education And Learning Act of 2019. Retrieved December 23, 2020,

[2] Green, E. (2020, December 21). Financial Aid Is Restored for Prisoners as part of the Stimulus Bill. Retrieved December 23, 2020,

[3] Kaine, T. (2019, March 12). S.752 – 116th Congress (2019-2020): PREP Act of 2019. Retrieved December 23, 2020,

[4] Cummings, E. E. (2019, May 20). Congressman Elijah E. Cummings Introduce the Promoting Re-entry through Education in Prisons Act. Retrieved December 23, 2020,

[5] Overview of Prison Education Policies. (2011, September 15). Retrieved December 23, 2020,

[6] Overview of Prison Education Policies. (2011, September 15). Retrieved December 23, 2020,

[7] Davis, Lois M., Higher Education Programs in Prison: What We Know Now and What We Should Focus On Going Forward, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, PE-342-RC, 2019. As of March 17, 2021: 

[8] Brock, K., & Brekken, D. (2019). “No One Cared”: A Case Study of Incarcerated Women’s Educational Experiences Resulting in Their Decision to Drop Out of High School. Journal of Correctional Education (1974-), 70(2), 31-48. doi:10.2307/26864181

[9] Rose, C. (2004). Women’s Participation in Prison Education: What We Know and What We Don’t Know. Journal of Correctional Education, 55(1), 78-100. Retrieved December 23, 2020,

[10] Robert R. Ross, E. (1988). Reasoning and Rehabilitation – Robert R. Ross, Elizabeth A. Fabiano, Crystal D. Ewles, 1988. Retrieved December 23, 2020,

[11] Pollock, J. (2002). Women, prison, & crime /. Retrieved December 23, 2020,

[12] Kerr, E. (2021, March 1). Financial aid options for incarcerated individuals. Retrieved April 01, 2021,

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