College and Employment During Incarceration

The critical importance of higher education in prison systems cannot be overstated, particularly in its capacity to aid workforce development and prepare individuals for successful careers post-incarceration. The integration of higher education into prison settings is not merely a rehabilitative or transformative tool, but a necessary one, with far-reaching implications for individuals, communities, and the economy.

Educational Opportunities and Workforce Development

A fundamental tenet of this argument is the undeniable link between education and employability. Individuals who participate in any kind of educational program while incarcerated are 43% less likely to recidivate than those who do not (Davis, Bozick, Steele, Saunders, and Miles, 2013). This striking statistic underscores the role of education in reducing recidivism, however, its significance extends beyond mere reduction in reoffending. Education, especially higher education, equips individuals with critical thinking skills, knowledge, and qualifications that are highly valued in the workforce and the broader ecosystem of our communities.

Impact on Employment Post-Release

The stigma of a criminal record is a formidable barrier to employment. A study by Holzer, Raphael, and Stoll (2006) found that a criminal record significantly reduces the likelihood of a job offer or callback. Higher education, however, can counteract this stigma. Possessing a degree signals to potential employers that an individual has the skills, discipline, and commitment necessary for professional roles. This is particularly important in an era where the labor market increasingly favors skilled over unskilled labor. 

Economic Benefits

From an economic perspective, the benefits of educating incarcerated individuals are twofold. Firstly, it leads to a reduction in recidivism, which translates to decreased costs in the criminal justice system, which frees up money for other areas of need. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, annually it cost in the United States approximately $31,286 per individual (Kyckelhahn, 2014). Reducing recidivism rates through education, therefore, has the potential to save millions in taxpayer dollars.

Secondly, by preparing incarcerated individuals for the workforce, higher education in prisons contributes to a more skilled labor pool, driving economic growth and productivity. A report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (Schmitt, Warner, & Gupta, 2010) estimates that the reduction in employment caused by convictions and imprisonment cost the U.S. economy between $57 and $65 billion in lost output each year. Furthermore, According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the manufacturing industry alone is projected to face 2.1 million unfulfilled jobs by 2030 due to a lack of skilled labor. 

The Alliance for Higher Education in Prison: Education in Action

Here at the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison (AHEP), we are aware of the lack opportunities for incarcerated individuals to apply their education in professional work environments, but due to COVID, the landscape of employment has changed drastically. With the emergence and normalization of remote work opportunities, employment during incarceration can now be reexamined, especially since Pell Grants have been reinstated for incarcerated learners and since many prisons are expanding access to internet and technology for those who are incarcerated. We know that approximately 95% of those who are incarcerated will be released at some point in their lives (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2002), at which point they will be faced with finding employment amongst other things critical to their successful reintegration, yet we know since they have been removed from the workforce they may experience hurdles while seeking meaningful employment that provides a livable wage. 

To bridge the divide between the acquisition of knowledge and its practical application, AHEP is has launched Education in Action (EiA), an initiative that focuses on the development of a sustainable infrastructure capable of supporting the implementation of high-impact learning practices during incarceration. High impact learning practices are a common part of quality postsecondary education. With EiA, we seek to lay the national foundation for what employment can look like for the incarcerated population, beyond prison industry jobs where wages are typically .30 cents - 2.00 per hour, and in many cases, uncompensated under (which is legal under the 13th Amendment) . We believe that giving people the opportunity to work during incarceration will make for a smoother transition upon release. Currently, AHEP has 2 incarcerated individuals on staff, who are completing 18 month long remote fellowships, where they are each paid $25.00 per hour. We are also working with a handful on employers such as Jobs For the Future, Unlocked Labs, Vera Institute of Justice, and more, to create paid positions for incarcerated individuals. 

A few perks of employment during incarceration include but are not limited to: 

1. It allows a person to obtain transferable job skills  
2. It allows an individual to make money during incarceration thus they can feel less dependent on social services and reentry programs (who’s budgets are already stretched thing) upon their release
3. They are immediately able to contribute to paying for their own housing, transportation, food, and other basic needs
4.They are able to send money home to their families, kids and loved ones for things like rent, school, food, bills, and other expenses that might burden a household due to a portion of income missing as a result of incarceration

Psychological and Societal Benefits

Beyond economic implications, higher education in prisons has profound psychological benefits. Education enhances self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-concept – crucial factors for successful reintegration into society. It fosters a sense of purpose and achievement, which has proven to be a positive force for individuals who have been marginalized. From a societal standpoint, individuals who are educated and gainfully employed contribute positively to their communities. 


In conclusion, the integration of higher education into prison systems is a critical investment in human capital. It is a strategic approach to workforce development that benefits individuals, society, and the economy. By providing educational opportunities to incarcerated individuals, we not only prepare them for meaningful careers post-release but also contribute to a more equitable and prosperous society. So why release someone back into society after doing 5, 10, 15+ years with little to no real world work experience and less than $20 to their name, when that time could be used to build an individual into one that is much more prepared to make smoother transition into their community? The benefits span way beyond what is outlined here in this short essay. 


Bureau of Justice Statistics. (n.d.). Reentry trends in the U.S. Retrieved from

Bushway, S., Stoll, M. A., & Weiman, D. F. (Eds.). (2007). Barriers to Reentry?: The Labor Market for Released Prisoners in Post-Industrial America. Russell Sage Foundation. (pp. 117-150).
Davis, L. M., Bozick, R., Steele, J. L., Saunders, J., & Miles, J. N. (2013). Evaluating the effectiveness of correctional education: A meta-analysis of programs that provide education to incarcerated adults. RAND Corporation.
Holzer, H. J., Raphael, S., & Stoll, M. A. (2006). The effect of an applicant’s criminal history on employer hiring decisions and screening practices: Evidence from Los Angeles. 
Kyckelhahn, T. (2014). State Corrections Expenditures, FY 1982-2010. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Schmitt, J., Warner, K., & Gupta, S. (2010). The high budgetary cost of incarceration. Center for Economic and Policy Research.
U.S. Census Bureau. (2023). Manufacturing Faces Potential Labor Shortage Due to Skills Gap. Retrieved from


Learn more about the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison (AHEP) here.