Criminology Prison Education Exchange Programs
Cassandra Philippon, Kevin A. Wright
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0254


In 1870, reformers from across the nation traveled to Cincinnati, Ohio, to discuss best practices in the correction of criminal behavior. Education for incarcerated individuals was included among the thirty-seven principles adopted by the National Congress on Penitentiary and Disciplinary Reform. The reformers wrote, “Education is a vital force in the reformation of fallen men and women. Its tendency is to quicken the intellect, inspire self-respect, excite to higher aims, and afford a healthy substitute for low and vicious amusements. Education is, therefore, a matter of primary importance in prisons, and should be carried out to the utmost extent consistent with the other purposes of such institutions” (Transactions of the National Congress on Penitentiary and Reformatory Discipline, edited by Enoch C. Wines [Albany, NY: Argus, 1871], p. 542). Nearly a century and a half later, education within correctional facilities is again at the forefront of national discussions. Now the discussion has changed some, and included in the conversation is the education of civilians behind the walls of the prison. The Scared Straight Program is probably the most well-known example of citizens “learning” from incarcerated individuals. Take wayward youth into a correctional facility, expose them to individuals fueled by vitriol, and watch the magic happen when terrified youth are set back on the straight and narrow. Anecdotally, the program is a success—with modern-day scared-straight television programs amounting to entertainment. From an evaluation standpoint, the program is a failure—with no benefit, and perhaps some detriment, from one-time exposure to the assumed deterrent value of those who once walked among us. But asking whether Scared Straight works or not, and whether it should be embraced or discarded, provides a missed opportunity to consider correctional facilities as a learning environment—both for those in front of and behind bars. Prison exchange programs bring nonincarcerated and incarcerated students together to learn about everything from criminal justice to nursing. The most well-known prison exchange program is the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, developed by Paul Perry and Lori Pompa of Temple University in 1997. This article provides a review of the growing literature on these programs. It begins by discussing the prison education literature more broadly, with a focus on the potential benefits of education for incarcerated individuals. Next, it grounds the civilian prison education experience in the literature on experiential learning. The Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program is then discussed in detail by tracing its origins and presenting its impact. Finally, the article concludes with some works that discuss prison exchange program expansions. Taken altogether, it presents an account of the emerging literature on this innovative learning experience for those inside and out of prison.

Education in Prison: Incarcerated Students

Much of the prison education literature examines the ways in which correctional education programs, including adult basic education, GED, vocational, and postsecondary education programs, may benefit incarcerated populations and reduce recidivism. While various studies find that certain education program types differentially affect specific outcomes, in general, this body of literature finds that participation in prison education programs reduces recidivism. One of the most well-known and often-referenced works in this area is Davis, et al. 2014—this Rand report documents that across fifty-eight empirical studies between 1980 and 2011, individuals who participated in correctional education programs had 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than those who did not. These findings complement an earlier meta-analysis, Chappell 2004, of fifteen studies from 1990 to 1999. Individuals who participated in postsecondary education while incarcerated had a recidivism rate of 22 percent as compared to 41 percent of individuals who did not participate. Importantly, Wade 2007 points out that differences in the measurement of recidivism make it difficult to draw firm conclusions on the relationship between correctional education and reoffending. Pompoco, et al. 2017 documents that educational programs decrease violent prison misconduct, and Wilson, et al. 2000 finds that such program participation results in greater employment rates upon release. Additionally, scholars have explored ways in which the classroom can be a means of “escape” from the harsh and oppressive prison environment. Rule 2004 and Conti, et al. 2013 discuss dialogic spaces in prison. These spaces encourage learning and dialogue in a space that has been transformed to be culturally different from the surrounding correctional facility. The need for such “insulated spaces” is evidenced in Earle 2014, wherein the author discusses the pains of imprisonment from an insider’s perspective. Wright and Jonson 2018 discusses the importance of transformative experiences and connections between incarcerated populations and the outside world.

  • Chappell, Cathryn A. 2004. Post-secondary correctional education and recidivism: A meta-analysis of research conducted 1990–1999. Journal of Correctional Education 55.2: 148–169.

    Participation in a postsecondary correctional education program reduces recidivism in studies conducted in the 1990s. The researchers note that then-recent developments, such as distance-learning opportunities, the role of community colleges, educational partnerships between higher-education and correctional institutions, and trends toward classes geared specifically toward prisoners may alter these results.

  • Conti, Norman, Linda Morrison, and Katherine Pantaleo. 2013. All the wiser: Dialogic space, destigmatization, and teacher-activist recruitment. Prison Journal 93.2: 163–188.

    DOI: 10.1177/0032885512472654

    Discusses how the Inside-Out program creates dialogic spaces in prison, wherein “the environment is temporarily transformed from a world of savage brutality to a place where people can openly communicate as equals” (p. 175). The authors note that the creation of think tanks is a means of maintaining this space outside the semester-long classroom.

  • Davis, Lois M., Jennifer L. Steele, Robert Bozick, et al. 2014. How effective is correctional education, and where do we go from here? The results of a comprehensive evaluation. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.

    DOI: 10.7249/RR564

    Meta-analysis. Correctional education for adult inmates (both academic and vocational curriculum) is cost effective in reducing the risk of reincarceration. The 2008 recession affected correctional education spending, emphasizing vocational education, and postsecondary education provided by many states in prisons is paid for mainly by the inmates and their families.

  • Earle, Rod. 2014. Insider and out: Making sense of a prison experience and a research experience. Qualitative Inquiry 20.4: 429–438.

    DOI: 10.1177/1077800413515832

    Perspectives about insider research, from a researcher who spent time incarcerated in the United Kingdom. He describes the exceptional qualities of prisons and how the “pains of imprisonment” can be felt after a short duration, and discusses how convict criminology can enhance the field of criminology research.

  • Pompoco, Amanda, John Wooldredge, Melissa Lugo, Carrie Sullivan, and Edward J. Latessa. 2017. Reducing inmate misconduct and prison returns with facility education programs. Criminology & Public Policy 16.2: 515–547.

    DOI: 10.1111/1745-9133.12290

    A study of male inmates in Ohio that found that completion of correctional education programing, particularly GEDs and college classes, reduces those inmates’ recidivism and violent misconduct in prison compared to inmates who did not participate in a correctional education program. No such outcomes were found for participants who did not complete the program.

  • Rule, Peter. 2004. Dialogic spaces: Adult education projects and social engagement. International Journal of Lifelong Education 23.4: 319–334.

    DOI: 10.1080/026037042000233476

    Examines adult education in South Africa as dialogic spaces, which are defined as “particular social and educational sites that enable dialogue” (p. 325). The author notes that the creation of these spaces encourages participants to engage in critical discourse and to learn in a space that is culturally different than the surrounding prison environment.

  • Wade, Barbara. 2007. Studies of correctional education programs. Adult Basic Education and Literacy Journal 1.1: 27–31.

    Meta-analysis. Participation in correctional education programs, including adult basic education, GED, vocational and college education programs, generally are related to lower recidivism rates. The author discusses the lack of consistent definitions of “recidivism” through the studies analyzed.

  • Wilson, David B., Catherine A. Gallagher, and Doris L. MacKenzie. 2000. A meta-analysis of correction-based education, vocation, and work programs for adult offenders. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 37.4: 347–368.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427800037004001

    Participants of education, vocational, and work programs in a correctional setting have higher employment rates and lower recidivism rates compared to nonparticipants. Reoffending rates were lowest among education program participants. Particularly, participants in postsecondary education had the lowest odds of recidivating (1.74 times less likely than nonparticipants), while adult basic education and GED program participants’ odds of recidivating were 1.44 times less likely than nonparticipants.

  • Wright, Kevin A., and Cheryl L. Jonson. 2018. Thinking outside the prison walls: The value of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program to solve old problems. In Criminology and Public Policy: Putting Theory to Work. 2d ed. Edited by Scott H. Decker and Kevin A. Wright, 321–340. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press.

    Discusses how correctional education programs, particularly Inside-Out, offer transformative experiences, social support, connections to the outside world, and insulation from the prison environment for prisoner-students.

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