Can You Get a Degree In Prison?

Have you ever heard a person complain about inmates getting free education while they are locked up? I have come across quite a few people in my life who believe that inmates can get a free college degree while they are in prison, and then they say that “law abiding citizens” have to take out loans if they want to further their education.

To be completely honest, before I went to prison I thought all levels of education for inmates were free. When I received a sentence of 15 years in prison for marijuana possession and cultivation, I began doing the math to figure out the minimum amount of time I had to serve before I was eligible for parole. 

It turns out, I had to do four years before I could be released. Since I had a Bachelor’s Degree already, I thought I would spend my time behind bars studying for a law degree, so I could take the bar exam when I was released. Might as well make my time behind bars as productive as possible, right?

Well, when I got to prison, I was shocked to find out that it would be impossible to follow through with my plan. This leads me to today’s blog topic: can you get a degree in prison?

In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:

  • Can you get a degree in prison?
  • What are the education opportunities available in prison?
  • The value of prison education

Can you get a degree in prison?

When it comes to undergraduate degrees, the answer is yes. Inmates in both federal and state prisons can enroll in a degree program, but it’s a lot more difficult than it sounds. First, you have to find a university that has a program catering to prisoners via snail mail correspondence.

Twenty years ago, correspondence courses through snail mail were a lot easier to find before schools started to move those programs online. Since inmates don’t have internet access, online courses aren’t an option. In my opinion, this is a major missed opportunity. I understand why inmates aren’t allowed to have access to the internet for most things. But, when it comes to getting an education, internet access in a classroom environment with a supervisor should be considered. 

Some state prisons have partnered with a local college or university to provide degree programs for inmates, while others prisons force their inmates to find a college program on their own, and that’s not easy. Think about it: how in the world would you get information on a college degree program if you didn’t have internet access, couldn’t make phone calls, and had very limited opportunities to talk to people who are not in prison?

If the prison you are locked up in hasn’t partnered with a local school, then you have to write friends or family members to get help finding a program. Even if you’ve found a degree program you are interested in and have access via snail mail correspondence, there is another problem: money.

All college degree programs offered to inmates must be paid for by the inmate or their family, and there is no discount or access to grants or student loans. I don’t know many inmates who have access to thousands of dollars to pay for college, but there are some, and it does happen.

As for graduate degree programs – like my dream of going to law school while behind bars – that’s never going to happen. There are so few prison inmates who have an undergraduate degree that graduate degree programs aren’t even on a prison administration’s radar.

I was completely out of luck in my search to find a law school that would cater to someone behind bars. Even if I would have found one, I wouldn’t have been able to afford it since I never made more than $50 per month when I was locked up. 

What are the education opportunities available in prison?

Since a large percentage of prison inmates do not have a high school diploma or GED, both federal and state prisons have started to focus on this level of education in the past couple of decades.

Many states now require inmates without a diploma to attend school when they are locked up instead of working a prison job. These programs are subsidized through the federal government and state government, which is why they are free to any inmate who enrolls.

Other free education options behind bars include numerous vocational programs that help an inmate acquire skills they can use to get a job when they are released. There a ton of different vocational programs in prison, but it depends on which facility the inmate is locked up in. Where I was incarcerated, some of the vocational options were cosmetology, building trades, and horticulture.

There are also classes inmates can take that help them with things like parenting skills, financial planning, putting together a resume, and mental health.

The value of prison education

The value of an inmate getting an education while in prison can’t be underestimated. Prison education has been proven to reduce criminal recidivism and improve economic opportunities for individuals serving prison sentences, as well as former inmates transitioning into civilian life. 

Unfortunately, access to opportunities for education in prison are very limited, especially for inmates with college degrees. When inmates are released from prison, they have trouble furthering their education because of limited access to student financial aid.

Even though inmates have a number of limitations and obstacles, those who find ways to receive an education and earn a diploma or degree can dramatically improve their future prospects. 

Should inmates be forced to go to school while they are behind bars if they don’t have a high school diploma or GED? Let us know in the comments below.


Programs Let Inmates Earn University Degree While In Prison

Prison Education: A Guide to College Degrees for Inmates and Ex-Offenders

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