PDF PDF    printable version of page Printer-friendly page

Focus On Basics

Volume 7, Issue D ::: September 2005

The Pendulum Swings

65 Years of Corrections Education

by Dominique T. Chlup
Twelve women sat around the gracefully curved table while the autumn sun streamed through the high-arched library windows. In the late afternoon setting, the shadows of the tree limbs danced long and tall against the spines of the books, countless books that lined the shelves like companions waiting to be addressed. Some women scribbled notes furiously while most listened as the teacher read the line, “October has come again…” from Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River.The scene appears no different from those that take place in many adult literacy classrooms in operation across the United States, except that these women were not adult learners attending classes in the year 2005; instead, they were inmates at the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women at Framingham and the year was 1941.

Some women scribbled notes furiously while most listened as the teacher read the line, “October has come again…” from Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River.The scene appears no different from those that take place in many adult literacy classrooms in operation across the United States, except that these women were not adult learners attending classes in the year 2005; instead, they were inmates at the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women at Framingham and the year was 1941.

At the time, the institution operated 26 other correctional education classes. This number would continue to grow into the late 1950s and included classes in the visual arts, beginners’ English, poetry, typing, Bible study, metal craft, arithmetic, folk dancing, and a biography class run by the superintendent’s (warden’s) mother. This list does not include the correspondence courses, which were procured from the University Extension Division of the State Department of Education and included courses in chemistry, biology, Spanish, and Latin. In a span of 25 years, nearly 90 different classes would be offered. In addition to the classes, the well known and well-to-do contributed significantly to the prison, including Robert Frost, Thornton Wilder, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eunice Kennedy, and the entire Boston Symphony Orchestra (Chlup, 2004).

Legislative Changes in 1994

Enter that same institution today and you will find that its educational department offers far fewer classes, the majority of which focus on basic education. Classes now include adult basic education (ABE), communications lab (designed for graduates of the English for speakers of other languages [ESOL] who have a diploma or a certificate of General Educational Development [GED] in their native language), ESOL, GED, pre-GED, mandatory literacy, and special education. This situation differs markedly from the 26 classes available in 1941.

To its credit, Framingham is one of the prisons that still offer inmates the opportunity to obtain a college degree. (A variety of academic classes are available to inmates via Boston University.) Many of the country’s corrections college education programs were eliminated with the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1993 and the Higher Education Reauthorization Act of 1994. The acts, which repealed Pell Grant funding for prisoners enrolled in college programs, significantly reduced the number of postsecondary programs available for inmates. Michele Welsh, who surveyed corrections directors from the 50 states and the District of Columbia about the effects of the elimination of Pell Grants, found that they perceived “a significant decrease in access, quality, and success due to the elimination of Pell Grant eligibility for inmates.” She concluded that “the loss of Pell Grant eligibility has reduced correctional education” (Welsh, 2002, p. 157).

What’s Being Offered Now?

Unpublished policy data from the Institute for Higher Education indicate that of the 44 states that responded to their Prisoner Access to Postsecondary Education Survey, 685 facilities offer inmates postsecondary education of some type (Contardo, personal communication, 2005). In general, it was offered by community colleges and often one college would offer courses to multiple facilities. When the Institute for Higher Education study is completed, it should provide a more comprehensive picture of the access that prisoners currently have to postsecondary programs across the country. In 1994, some corrections directors predicted that the financial commitment to postsecondary education in the future would significantly increase due to replacement or supplemental funding for programs (Welsh, 2002) — that is, funding procured by organizations and individuals who would see the value of inmates’ access to an education while incarcerated.

One example of this can be seen in the agreement among Boston University, Partaker’s Inc. (a nonprofit, faith-based organization), and several of the correctional institutions in the greater Boston area, including Framingham. This collaboration provides tuition and mentoring for inmates enrolled in a college program.

The amount and type of education offered in corrections seem to change depending on the approach and philosophy to corrections that are dominant at the time. Historic links between prison reform and corrections education show that when a punitive approach (“lock them up and throw away the key”) is ascendant, educational programming is de-emphasized. Instead inmates may spend 17 hours a day locked in their cells, with one hour a day outside for exercise (Prison Activist Resource Center, retrieved May 16, 2004). At present, this approach is followed by several correctional institutions. This model differs from a rehabilitative approach in which sentencing is viewed as the punishment and time spent in correctional institutions focuses on rehabilitation, counseling, overcoming addictions, acquiring vocational skills, and academic learning. Earlier reformatory models sought to take a Progressive Era, rehabilitative approach (Gehring, 1995).

The Last Decade

In 1994, during the congressional hearings that debated the repeal of Pell Grant funding, a state judge denounced this generation of criminals as “dead to us.” She argued vehemently that they should all be locked in prison and the key be thrown away (Zahm, 1997). Unfortunately, this mentality still forms the basis of the current conservative attitudes toward criminal justice. Howard Davidson (2000), a sociologist and researcher on prison education, has argued that several prison administrators are in service to this ideologically slanted view as they engage in the concept of “new penology.” In this approach, mandatory corrections education classes are used to control idleness, manage risk, and “maintain order by keeping prisoners occupied at seemingly meaningful work” (p. 393). Missing in this new penology is the goal of actually educating prisoners.

Loss of Pell Grants for college education in correctional facilities was not the only change effected under the 1994 legislation. Under the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) of 1998, the requirements in effect under the Adult Education Act (1964-1998) — that, at minimum, 10 percent of federal ABE funds be set aside for corrections institutions — were changed. WIA allows only a maximum of 10 percent of ABE funds to be used for correctional facilities. Under the Vocational Education Act, the minimum requirement of one percent has likewise now become a maximum of one percent (Spangenberg, 2004, p. 5).

Future Directions

The pendulum may have begun to swing in a new direction. According to a recent report, Current Issues in Correctional Education: A Compilation and Discussion, the last few years have marked a shift away from the “lock them up” mentality. In the fall of 2003, the Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy (CAAL), in cooperation with the Correctional Education Association (CEA), surveyed 15 leaders in corrections and adult education. These leaders believed that most recently “attitudes have begun to turn back from punishment to rehabilitation with more emphasis being placed on education in corrections” (ibid, p. 5). These same individuals reported that “10 years ago, the trend was to cut off programs, including education, because the predominant impulse was toward punishment” (ibid, p. 6). Today, the impulse is shifting toward programming that will help rehabilitate and transition prisoners back into society. However, the report also reminds us that public policy is determined by the legislature. At both the federal and state levels, current legislatures are dominated by conservative members, who usually lean toward the punitive rather than reformative approach to corrections.


Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger once observed that prisoners should be allowed to learn their way out of prison. A surprising advocate of correctional education programs, this conservative justice, who served on the Supreme Court during the 1970s, felt that prisoners are entitled to education programs. He considered it an injustice not to try to rehabilitate inmates while they are in institutional care. In the current climate, in which some policymakers and political officials view correctional education as unfashionable and unimportant, the Critical Poetry Project at the Minnesota Correctional Facility Stillwater presents an example of what remains possible even when nationally the tide of support ebbs (see p. 15). This project seems to show that we have more reasons than not to support these programs. Earlier in our history, women’s reformatories, like the one described at the start of this piece, were credited with having educational work serve as “the backbone of the institution’s program” (MacCormick, 1931, p. 292). While we may seem a long way from that history, the project at Stillwater suggests that the legacy of our past focus on education still persists, informing the work of many corrections educators today.

See a Chronology of Corrections Education


Chlup, D. T. (2004). Educative Justice: The History of the Educational Programs and Practices at the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women, 1930-1960. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

Contardo, J. (2005). Personal communication with the author, 12 May.

Davidson , H. (2000). “Control and democracy in adult correctional education.” In A. Wilson & E. Hayes (eds.), Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education (pp. 392-407). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gehring, T. (1995). “Characteristics of correctional instruction, 1789-1875.” Journal of Correctional Education, 46 (2), 52-59.

MacCormick, A. H. (1931). The Education of Adult Prisoners: A Survey and a Program. New York: The National Society of Penal Information.

Prison Activist Resource Center, “Women in Prison,” Retrieved May 16, 2005 from http://prisonactivist.org/women/women-in-prison.html.

Spangenberg, G. (2004). Current Issues in Correctional Education: A Compilation and Discussion. Washington, DC: Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy.

Welsh, M. (2002). “The effects of the elimination of Pell Grant eligibility for state prison inmates.” The Journal of Correctional Education, 53 (4), 154-185.

Zahm, B. (Director). (1997). The Last Graduation. New York: Zahm Productions & Deep Dish TV.

About the Author
Dominique T. Chlup is an Assistant Professor of Adult Education at Texas A&M University as well as Center Director of the Texas Center for the Advancement of Literacy and Learning (TCALL). She worked in corrections education in New York and Massachusetts; in Texas she is on the Correctional Education Association Region V Conference Steering Committee.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL