Academic and vocational educational programmes for prisoners

Bozick et al. (2018) carried out a systematic review of academic and vocational education delivered to prisoners. The review summarises 81 recidivism related effects from 57 identified studies, and 26 employment-related effects from 21 studies. The 78 primary studies were all conducted in the United States and were published between 1980 and 2017. Although the review does not consider the cost of such programmes, the evidence clearly demonstrated their overall effectiveness in reducing recidivism. Findings relating to employment outcomes were inconclusive.

Studies reviewed

Average impact

Certainty of impact


System readiness


Positive effect


Not evaluated


What is it?

Academic and vocational education is delivered in prisons for prisoners to learn new skills and to be able to re-integrate into society more easily upon release. Whilst academic education is designed to address subject-specific knowledge and skills, vocational education teaches the knowledge and skills to help individuals to gain specific employment.

In their survey of prison education, the review authors differentiate four types of academic education:

1. Adult Basic Education programmes

2. High school diploma/GED programmes

3. Postsecondary education programmes

4. Vocational education programmes

The educational programmes included in the systematic review were assessed against criteria of having a clearly defined curriculum and leading to a recognised qualification. Consequently, the reviewers excluded many vocational training programmes which did not include these features (e.g. comprising solely of activities such as job coaching, interview skills training and CV/resumé writing). Whilst such programmes may undoubtedly lead to an individual learning, their outcomes are less clearly defined from the outset.

Should it work?

The review does not explicitly verify the mechanisms by which education is understood to reduce recidivism and increase the likelihood of post-release employment. However, it does offer an outline of the theoretical basis for education reducing reoffending. Academic and vocational education may help to reduce reoffending in several ways, broadly by addressing criminogenic needs. Foremost are the opportunities for cognitive and moral development, which may be provided by academic programmes. These programmes may provide increases in cognitive resources so that individuals have the skills to be able to think through the potential consequences of their intended actions.

Does it work?

The systematic review investigated two post-release outcomes: recidivism and employment. Concerning recidivism, the review found that from the combined findings of 32 robust studies (levels 3, 4 and 5 on the Maryland scale), prisoners who had participated in the educational programmes were 28% less likely to recidivate (OR 0.72, CI 0.65-0.80) than those who had not. This rises to 32% when all 57 studies are taken into consideration. Reductions in recidivism were also observed irrespective of the type of programme. It should be noted however, that the studies included in the review used a variety of definitions for recidivism, with re-incarceration being the most prevalent.

There were a number of ways of defining and measuring employment outcomes. The most common (12/21) was whether the inmate had either worked full- or part-time since release. The review found that the effects of education on employment outcomes are less clear than effects on recidivism, with a very small significant positive effect being observed for the 13 robust studies. This is equivalent to a 5% increase (OR 1.05, CI 1.01-1.10) in likelihood of post-release employment for individuals who participated in an educational programme. No significant effect was found on the 21 studies when taken as a whole.

How strong is the evidence?

The systematic review considered 57 studies which contained measures of recidivism (81 measures in total) and 21 studies which contained measures of post-release employment outcomes (26 measures in total). The analytic approach undertaken by Bozick et al. (2018) reported the effects of education by the varying research designs of the primary studies. This is a useful guide to help the reader to understand the strength of the evidence, and to compare overall effect sizes for groups of studies that represent different levels of causal inference. Restricting the included research designs to robust studies (as per the methodology of this website, e.g. randomized, quasi-experimental and matched treatment and comparison groups) highlights effect sizes based on which confident causal inferences can be made.

Is it worth it?

The review by Bozick et al. (2018) did not consider the costs of the programmes.

Can it be implemented?

The review did not specifically address the considerations to be made when implementing academic and vocational education in custodial settings. Nonetheless, the fact that these programmes exist, and are prevalent, suggests that implementation does not encounter significant barriers.

What’s missing from the evidence?

Despite the review synthesising evidence from a number of primary studies, it should be noted that the constituent studies were undertaken in the United States. In order to be more certain that the findings would generalise to other contexts, including the United Kingdom, it would be helpful to summarise a greater proportion of primary research undertaken in different countries. In addition, Bozick et al. (2018) note that the findings include only two randomized controlled trials, and suggest that future research should focus on undertaking more high quality RCTs.

As the review looks specifically at impact, and establishing the causal link between participating in education and employment and recidivism outcomes, the constituent studies therefore do not highlight some of the variables which might moderate any observed effect. For example, the amount, duration and frequency of an educational programme which is required to achieve positive effects. A further area of interest would be to understand how exactly the implementation of education in prisons leads to specific outcomes.

Graphic representation


Bozick, R., Steele, J., Davis, L. and Turner, S., 2018. Does providing inmates with education improve postrelease outcomes? A meta-analysis of correctional education programs in the United States. Journal of Experimental Criminology, pp.1-40.