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What Are Inmates Learning in Prison? Not Much

A new survey of 2,000 federal prisoners paints an ugly picture of education behind bars, where one inmate said his geology class consisted of 'Planet Earth' episodes.
Inmates attending class at a state (rather than federal) prison. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

This article was published in partnership with the Marshall Project.

Crocheting. How to play bridge or the game show Jeopardy. Tips on reviewing movies.

Those are the continuing education options one inmate described in a new survey of 2,000 federal inmates that offers an inside look at how US prisons fail to teach useful skills to help ease the path back home.

"No one ever fails any class," said another inmate. "Everyone receives a certificate, whether you attend every class/study for hours or just come in at the beginning, sign in, and leave. The certificates really don't mean anything when you do it that way."


A report released Thursday by the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums provided an inside look at educational opportunities within the federal prison system that inmates say suffers from a glaring lack of trained instructors and a scarcity of classes.

The survey found that nearly all continuing education classes are led by fellow prisoners with little teaching experience. Job skills programs are only available to inmates who are nearing release, and college courses are too expensive for inmates whose incomes rely on the few dollars they earn from prison jobs. Very few respondents said they had access to a computer. In one case, a survey respondent said his prison geology class consisted of watching episodes of the BBC television show Planet Earth.

"Is that really preparing for a crime-free life outside in the real world?" Molly Gill, FAMM director of Federal Legislative Affairs, said.

The Bureau of Prisons did not respond to a request seeking comment.

Check out our look at what amounts to debtor's prison in modern America.

The survey is the first of its kind for Washington, DC–based FAMM, which opposes rigid sentencing requirements. The impetus for the poll was a failed bipartisan effort in Congress last year to pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which would have included incentives for reduced sentences for time spent in academic classes, recovery programs, or job training sessions.


Discussions around the bill lacked specifics on what programs federal prisons are already offering, said FAMM president Kevin Ring, who spent more than 15 months in a federal prison camp for his role in a lobbying scandal. To learn what was available, FAMM sent out six surveys over six weeks last summer to 37,000 inmates on the group's mailing list. The advocacy group received responses back from about 2,000 people through the prison-email system CorrLinks or through the mail.

Responses showed:

  • Many prisoners desire job training classes, such as welding, cooking, and auto repair, but sessions are limited to prisoners nearing their release dates.
  • Programs differ from prison to prison, requiring inmates to make transfer requests if they are interested in a certain topic or skill set.
  • Fellow inmates taught adult continuing education classes 93 percent of the time. Survey respondents complained that most classes lacked rigor and substance to help them upon release.
  • Earning a college degree in federal prison is nearly impossible. Classes that are available cost too much, prisoners said. Federal inmates are ineligible for Pell Grants or federal loans, other than a small pilot program launched last year under the Obama administration. Most college courses do not come from accredited schools.
  • Just 3 percent of survey respondents said they had computer access, a necessity for many online colleges. "There are a lot of online programs offered that are accredited… but you have to have computer access," Gill said.


The survey also revealed other aspects of prison life. Ninety-one percent of respondents said they had some type of prison job. Fifty-five percent said their jobs in sanitation, food service, maintenance, landscaping, and other important areas were necessary to keep their prison running.

Prisoners who held apprenticeships or jobs in trades that included HVAC, woodworking, plumbing, welding, and commercial driving lauded their opportunities, signaling that job skills training was prized and in high-demand.

Ring said the adult continuing education classes offered during his time in prison were frivolous. He added that the classes helped provide structure and a schedule but could better focus on the future.

The survey demonstrated that prisoners were trying to enrich themselves by teaching each other any real-world skills they knew.

"It was laudatory that these people were doing anything they could to pursue their educations," Ring said.

The Trump administration is proposing a budget that calls for eliminating 14 percent of the Bureau of Prison's positions, and Ring said he fears the loss of some of those 6,100 jobs will have a direct impact on already scarce educational programming.

"You won't even have sufficient staff to oversee classes," Ring said. "A staff cut like the one the president is proposing is a disaster for rehabilitation services in prison."

This article was originally published by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the US criminal justice system. Sign up for the newsletter, or follow the Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.