A Quick Explanation of Prison Education

Many people don’t realize how the concept of school in prison works. We thought it would be helpful to explain the structure of pursuing an education while in the system. Remember, all state and federal prisons have slightly different setups, but this should serve you and your loved one as a useful information piece.


A quick explanation of prison education usually starts with the featured education program, the General Equivalency Diploma (GED). A prison will have an entire building, often called the education building/school, that houses the classrooms that students utilize. There are officers assigned to that post all day. 


The school has state-certified teachers who have a master’s degree or master’s equivalent that most often have transferred from working in public and private elementary, middle and high schools. Certified teachers also offer Career Technology Education (CTE) courses. 

These teachers often have worked many years in carpentry, automotive, masonry, and other industry fields. CTE teachers are required to take at least 16 collegiate courses to keep their certification. In some cases, contracted employees have specific skill sets to teach computer skill courses. There is also a school library that can be used by students and nonstudents and is operated by a certified state librarian who also has to have a master’s degree. 

Class Structure

The classes run from elementary education all the way to senior-level high school courses. Full-time students usually attend a half-day, either in the morning or afternoon although some do attend all day. 

All students go to the dining hall for lunch and then return to their cells for a count before afternoon sessions begin. Units are called to school separately, but it is common for units to mix in the classrooms in a school setting. Like in a regular school, the library runs by periods with specific units alternating days they can come. 

Each state differs in what inmates are permitted to bring to school and whether they can take back homework. Usually, school supplies are given out in class and collected and counted after class. Testing is how the process of schooling is conducted in prison. The student’s take a test to determine what grade level they will start their education. They test to move up and then ultimately focus and take the GED test.

Career Technical Education

Individuals who earn their GED or already have a high school diploma are eligible for CTE classes. In most cases, due to the number of people interested, an incarcerated individual can only take one CTE class during their stay. 

CTE programs provide prisoners with specific trades instruction, technical skills, and soft-skill competencies critical to finding and maintaining employment. These skills are transferable into community employment or community college programming through state and/or federally recognized certifications upon completion. Trades programs are responsive to labor market demands. 


Many colleges are finally coming forward and offering prisoners collegiate opportunities for certificate programs, associate degrees, and even bachelor’s degrees. Access to the Pell grant helps make this possible and gives those that qualify a chance at those opportunities. Often the education building classrooms are used for those courses in the evenings so that professors can come into the prisons and provide instruction. 

Having a simple understanding of the prison structure and its accommodating education is useful as a support person for a loved one. It allows you to envision a bit about the design and strict rules that these students must overcome.