The “Win-Win-Win” of educating incarcerated Texans

Expanding educational opportunities for incarcerated Texans is one of the few policy solutions in the criminal justice space that can have measurable impacts on crime, employment and the state’s budget. Texas lawmakers will be forced to grapple with this and other serious criminal justice issues over the next couple of years as the state’s prison system undergoes a Sunset review.

The main agency under review this cycle is the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the agency responsible for the adult correctional system. Also under review is Windham School District, a closely related entity that provides the majority of education services to the adult prison population.

As policymakers take a hard look at both TDCJ and Windham, they should prioritize improving access to a broad range of education and vocational training programs. Doing so is a win for incarcerated Texans, a win for the communities they come back to, and a win for Texas taxpayers.


An estimated 95% of inmates will be released back into communities and reenter society. Individuals who have been impacted by the criminal justice system face significant challenges in getting employment as they reenter society. Where the national unemployment rate sits at 3.8%, the unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated workers is closer to 27%. To put a finer point on it — more than half of unemployed American men in their 30s have a history of being arrested or convicted of a crime.

Providing education while Texans are incarcerated is a key strategy to improve their odds of success when they reenter society. These education programs are fiscally responsible investments that lower recidivism and improve employment. According to a meta analysis on studies of correctional education programs:

  • Inmates who participated in correctional education programs had 43% lower odds of recidivating than those who did not participate.
  • The odds of obtaining employment post-release among inmates who participated in correctional education was 13% higher.
  • Relying on conservative estimates, every $1 invested in prison education reduces incarceration costs by $4 to $5 during the first three years after an inmate’s release.

Other research points to the same conclusion — adding that even where secondary-education programming shows promising reductions in recidivism, the effects are even stronger with postsecondary education. Consistently, research shows that these programs improve employment outcomes and represent a significant return on investment for taxpayers.

A Shifting Workforce and Present Challenges

Unfortunately, Texas inmates are starting far, far behind from an academic perspective. One early insight from Windham’s self-evaluation report to Sunset is the educational deficit of the average inmate when they enter their programs as a student. At entry, the average student functions at the fifth grade level. It already takes significant work for many Texas inmates to catch up and obtain their GED.

Even where Texas inmates are otherwise eligible to take postsecondary coursework, there are often challenges to access. Financial access should be easier with the reintroduction of “Second Chance Pell Grants,” but many bureaucratic and practical challenges remain. These issues are most pronounced among female Texas inmates, who have significantly less access to this kind of higher education programming than do male inmates.

As my colleagues at Texas 2036 have emphasized, the state’s workforce needs have been changing dramatically and will continue to change moving forward. In 2011, 51% of jobs paying at least $65,000 annually were held by Texans with a high school diploma, GED, or below. In 2019, that plummeted to 11%. We expect over 70% of Texas jobs will require a postsecondary degree or credential by 2036.

Looking Forward

Expanding access to prison education programs must anticipate the changing Texas workforce. In addition to supporting and improving the delivery of basic and remedial education, the Texas correctional system should also increase partnerships with institutions of higher education to provide more postsecondary education opportunities. It should also explore ways to expand the availability of industry certifications, short-term credential opportunities and other important signals for prospective employers.

Not only will this improve post-release opportunities for incarcerated Texans, but it will meet the state’s workforce needs, improve public safety and save taxpayer dollars otherwise spent on incarceration.

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