A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Using Correctional Education Data: Issues & Strategies, January 1997

1. Introduction

In 1995, 1.6 million adults were incarcerated in state and federal prisons and in local jails.

Currently, the nation's jail and prison populations are increasing at the same time that resources to serve inmates are tightening. Many states are still reeling from an economic slowdown in the early 1990s that reduced appropriations for many social services. Furthermore, public sentiment appears to be moving away from the rehabilitation of the nation's incarcerated population towards a more punishment-oriented approach; this is reflected in increased penalties, more rigid sentencing standards, and budget allocations directed more toward the construction of new correctional facilities rather than toward rehabilitation-oriented programs.

Most states currently have some type of correctional education in most of their prisons. These programs include academic, vocational, and life/job skills training. These types of correctional education programs can also be found in jails across the nation. Moreover, slightly over three quarters of the states responding to a survey on correctional education in 1995 reported that there were waiting lists for correctional education programs.1

Approximately 57 percent of all inmates in state prison in 1991 participated in correctional education.

Findings from a recent survey of prison inmates conducted by the National Institute of Justice indicated that approximately 400,000 inmates in state correctional facilities had participated in some type of correctional education program. This number represents 57 percent of all inmates incarcerated in state facilities. Nineteen percent of those who had participated in any type of correctional education program had taken vocational courses, 45 percent had enrolled in basic education courses, and another 36 percent had enrolled in both vocational and education courses.2


Information about various aspects of correctional education can be obtained from several large-scale surveys (Exhibit 1).

Exhibit 1

Surveys With Information About Correctional Education

  • Census of State and Federal Adult Correctional Facilities
    U.S. Department of Justice, 1990

  • Census of Public Juvenile Detention, Correctional, and Shelter Facilities
    U.S. Department of Justice, 1992-1993

  • Survey of Education in U.S. Prisons
    Corrections Compendium, 1995

  • Survey of State Adult Correctional Education Agencies
    U.S. Department of Education, 1992-1993

  • Survey of Inmates of State Correctional Facilities
    U.S. Department of Justice, 1995

  • Survey of Jail Inmates
    U.S. Department of Justice, 1995

  • Survey of State Juvenile Correctional Education Agencies
    U.S. Department of Education, 1992-1993:

  • Survey of State Correctional Education
    U.S. Department of Education, 1997

Several points should be noted about these surveys. First of all, the more general approach of these efforts seems to limit the ability to ask specific questions about education. Thus the data these studies yield are exceedingly general and focus on what is being offered, rather than on impacts and outcomes. Furthermore, most of these surveys that collect correctional education data focus on prisons and not jails.

Although correctional education has existed in various forms for over two centuries, not enough is known about the effectiveness and impact of these programs in either prison or jail settings. Do correctional education programs "rehabilitate" those who participate? Are participants more likely to obtain jobs once released and stay out of jail or prison than those who did not participate in correctional education? Do certain types of programs work better than others? These questions will continue to be raised until valid and reliable data are available to address these issues.

While national surveys provide much needed information on the participation of inmates in correctional education as well as the administration and funding of these programs, they do not provide local programs with the types of information they need to improve program operations and measure program impacts. National data collection efforts do not substitute for data collection at the program level. Given competition for limited resources at all levels of funding coupled with public sentiment that swings between the punishment of offenders and their rehabilitation, correctional education data at the program level have become more important than ever.

Why Collect Correctional
Education Program Data?

Data describing correctional education outcomes are more important than ever.

In the past, correctional education personnel could justify program expenditures with selected stories of inmates who turned their lives around after participating in correctional education programs. Today, program funders are more likely to question and request data on the overall effectiveness of correctional education programs. Decisions concerning the continued or increased funding of correctional education programs will be made on the basis of aggregated data that reflect the performance and behavior of inmates on a wide array of criteria. Consequently, correctional education programs must be proactive in anticipating the informational needs of program funders. If correctional education programs are not proactive, they risk appearing nonresponsive. We'll have to gather that information and get back to you," will no longer be acceptable when responding to requests for information about correctional education.

Having information about correctional education programs and participants readily available also serves program management needs. Determining the demand for specific courses, monitoring student progress, and scheduling can all be accomplished with good data.

A Few Basic Principles. . .

To make correctional education data accessible and useful, a few basic principles should be followed:

What Is a Correctional
Education Data

On a cursory level, a data system can be defined as information that is entered into a computer. These data are processed or summarized to produce institutional or individual level reports. However, this description does not represent the systematic approach to data collection that is necessary to manage and operate correctional education programs more efficiently. Program administrators must take a systemic approach when designing and implementing correctional education information systems. Exhibit 2 depicts the components of a correctional education information system. The intent of this exhibit is to emphasize the interdependence of all system components. All relevant data elements need to be collected efficiently and entered into a system with adequate computing power. This will allow the system to produce reports that can be used to improve program management and assess program outcomes.

Exhibit 2
A Correctional Education Information System

What Is This
Handbook About?

This handbook explores the use of data in correctional education programs. It provides information on collecting, processing, and reporting data in correctional education settings. It also examines the role of data in evaluating correctional education programs. It assumes that collecting information on programs, participants, and outcomes is vital and necessary to program planners and administrators. In addition, this information can be used by legislators and other groups, public and private, who might be interested in funding correctional education programs.

Currently, programs use data differently. Some programs only gather the most basic information about program participation to satisfy federal, state, or local reporting requirements. Other programs use data to plan for future program offerings. Other programs collect data to measure inmates' progress in different skill areas that are covered in classes. Still other programs have realized that data about correctional education participation can be used to demonstrate program effectiveness and to support arguments for the continued or increased funding of their programs.

This handbook is designed to promote a broad-based comprehensive collection of data on correctional education programs and participants. It is not a how-to manual, providing all of the steps required to develop a correctional education data system. However, it can function as a valuable resource when designing or upgrading a correctional education data system. The following sections of the handbook provide information about:

1Corrections Compendium, December 1995.

2Analysis of data from Bureau of Justice Statistics' Survey of Inmates of State Correctional Facilities, 1991.

[Preface] [Table of Contents] [2. Collecting Correctional Education Data]