A common thread through the American incarceration system is a widespread inmate education deficiency. Education needs to be a priority in reforming the system and reintegrating inmates into society.
By the numbers: Educational backgrounds of prisoners
The most recent report conducted nationally by the U.S. Department of Justice about prisoners’ educational backgrounds was in 2003. This national report states that of all incarcerated citizens in the United States, about 65 percent had not received a high school diploma, with just over 41 percent having dropped out and 23 percent obtaining a GED. Almost 23 percent had obtained just a high school diploma, and 13 percent had a postsecondary education.
More recent reports at the state level seem to corroborate these earlier findings and hint at how little progress has been made on prison reform in the past decade, A 2014 report from Minnesota’s corrections department shows that over 74 percent of incoming prisoners did not have a high school diploma and only 17 percent had a postsecondary education. Meanwhile, a 2016 report from Georgia shows that over half of incoming prisoners did not have a high school diploma or a GED, and only around 8 percent had attended some college.
Why did so many prisoners leave school?
There are several reasons that inmates are less likely to have been educated, but a primary factor may be found in the fact that prisoners have a disproportionately high rate of learning disabilities. Among those who had not completed high school or the GED in the national study, 59 percent had a speech disability, and 69 percent had a learning disability.
Another huge issue is the social and economic inequality that contributes to fewer quality educational opportunities being available to prisoners pre-incarceration. According to a Prison Policy study, before they went to prison, incarcerated citizens had a median annual income over 40 percent less than the median income for non-incarcerated people similar to their age.
Living in a poor area often means access to lower-quality schooling. The U.S. Department of Education reports that over 40 percent of low-income schools don’t get a fair share of state and national educational funding, meaning that they get less money to spend on supplies, infrastructure and teachers.
There is also a psychological connection between living in poverty and struggling in school, according to a 2013 American Psychological Association report.
Additionally, because young students in low-income families can feel pressured to contribute to their struggling family financially, they are more likely to drop out to do so. A 2015 study by the Urban Institute reports that, on average, working youth contribute almost 22 percent to the family budget while about 10 percent of these teens contribute more than half.
What happens in between leaving school and entering prison
After leaving school, the chances of incarceration increase drastically, and there are many reasons for this. Primarily, it can be challenging to find a steady job after dropping out of school. Due to the lack of job experience and the lack of academic skills, over half of high-school dropouts are unemployed, according to a study by Prison Policy and Northeastern University.
Since the average yearly earnings of high school dropouts is just over half of the earnings of high school graduates, leaving school can either put people into poverty or perpetuate the poverty in which they were already living.
From here, the profiling and criminalization of homelessness and poverty cement the relationship between poverty and imprisonment, according to a 2015 study by fellows at the Institute for Policy Studies. The result of all of these factors is that high school dropouts are 47 times more likely to be incarcerated than similarly aged peers with a four-year college degree.
The disproportionate impact on minorities
Following the cycle from poverty to lower-quality education to incarceration, people from particular minority communities are disproportionately impacted at every step of the way.
First of all, certain minority communities are significantly more likely to live in poorer areas. Studies have tracked neighborhoods by ethnicity and found that white and Asian neighborhoods have a much higher median income than other races. And the median wealth of white neighborhoods was 13 times the median wealth of black neighborhoods as recently as 2013.
Since minorities are more likely to live in low-income areas and we know that low-income areas have lower-quality education, this means that access to education is highly racialized. Additionally, minority students are more likely to be held back, drop out or be suspended or expelled, all of which push students out of the school system.
Therefore, it makes sense that, in the 2003 report, ethnicity played a huge role in educational background pre-incarceration. By ethnicity, 27 percent of white people, 44 percent of black people, and 53 percent of Hispanic people had not graduated high school or completed the GED.
Takeaway: What the lack of education means for prisoners
There is a lot of statistical evidence that shows how prisoners have significantly less education than other citizens.
This means that all the same factors that led to their initial incarceration — lack of academic experience, little employment experience and high poverty level — will make them likely to continue to be incarcerated throughout their lives.
So without educational reform, both inside and outside of prisons, the cycle of unemployment, poverty and mass incarceration will continue.
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