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Career and technical education in United States prisons: what have we learned?


This essay examines the effects of Career and Technical Education (CTE) in U.S. prisons by looking at research that has conflicting results and inferences. Although the opposing positions are mainly represented by two studies, this essay includes literature review of historical studies representing opposing views regarding the effects of CTE in U.S. prisons. Historical studies are used to present a timeline and demonstrate CTE's reliability and validity as one of the most successful methods of prison rehabilitation. The term CTE will be used instead of "vocational education" although the latter is primarily used in the referenced literature. I am taking liberties with using the term CTE, recognizing that although the term did not exist or was not common usage during the period the studies were published; it is fundamentally the same discipline as vocational education.

The two main publications of interest are: "What Works? Questions and Answers about Prison Reform" (Martinson, 1974) and the "Prison Education Research Project Final Report" (Criminal Justice Center [CJC], 1994). These studies were chosen because of the different conclusions regarding the effects of CTE in U.S. prisons. As previously stated, although these two published reports are the featured sources of comparison, there positions are supported by other studies as well. In most cases, the other studies cited in this essay are also cited in both reports.

Martinson's report was a catalyst for the discussion on prison reform and stirred up much debate at the time it was published. In spite of it being published 33 years ago, it is still regarded as one of the most referenced and relevant published criticisms of prison education. Outside of the realm of education, Martinson's work was used by prison program critics who argued that rehabilitation should not be a primary justification for incarceration.

In Texas, the Comptroller's Office issued a report on the performance of the Windham School System (WSS) in December 1992. The WSS provides education programs and prison instruction. One recommendation from the report was that WSS take a closer look at the effect of prison education programs on recidivism. WSS asked for the Criminal Justice Center at Sam Houston State University to perform an independent evaluation of WSS programs. The "Prison Education Research Project Final Report" details the findings of the independent evaluation. The report examined the impact of inmate participation in Windham academic and vocational programming on return to prison and disciplinary infractions while incarcerated (CJC, 1994).

The body of this essay will summarize the opposing positions and the bulk of this discussion is divided into four main themes: a brief history of career and technical education (aka, vocational education) in prisons, description of studies, critiques, and practical applications for Workforce Education and Development (WF ED) professionals. The essay will conclude with a summary that reviews the main literature and related writings, as well as make recommendations for future research.

The hypotheses that are being addressed are whether CTE correctional education programs lead to few disciplinary violations during incarceration. Furthermore, does CTE lead to reductions in recidivism, increases in employment opportunities, and increases in participation in education upon release (CJC, 1994)?

Brief History of CTE in Prisons

CTE education programs have existed since the 1800s (CJC, 1994). Initially, they were focusing on religious instruction because it was believed that rehabilitative efforts could be enhanced if the incarcerated offender sought spiritual enlightenment (Linden & Perry, 1983). Academic and vocational education programs began to play a primary role in the inmate rehabilitative process in the 1930s. The notion that vocational education could have an effect on offenders began to receive wide acceptance during this period (CJC, 1994). In the 1970s and 1980s vocational education was thought to be the best method for reducing recidivism because it would: eliminate inmate idleness; provide inmates with marketable skills that would ensure post release employment; and lower correctional costs through cooperative arrangements with private industry (Schlossman and Spillane, 1995).

Prison Education Research Project and Others

The Prison Education Research Project (PERP) is a cooperative research program of the Criminal Justice Center, Sam Houston State University, and the Windham School System of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice--Institutional Division. The purpose of the project is to assess the impact of prison-based education programs on prison behavior. In addition, it examines the effects of academic and vocational program participation on recidivism. The report reviewed over 60 studies in prison education. This essay will focus primarily on results that identify CTE as an intervention.


The studies included a sample of 14,411 inmates released between March 1991 and December 1992 from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice--Institutional Division (TDCJ-ID) (CJC, 1994). Released parole violators were not included in the sample. The sample was limited to inmates who were classified as newly received on the sentenced offense (CJC, 1994). Because they completed their sentence, the educational and disciplinary experiences throughout their prison stay could be investigated.

Return to prison was used as the primary outcome variable for follow-up. TDJCJ-ID provided prison admissions from January 1991 through March 1994. Inmates who had returned to prison (i.e. recidivists) were identified in the sample by matching identification numbers of the released inmates against the admissions file.

PERP selected and evaluated studies based on the following criteria: studies reporting empirical data, studies using control groups, studies using statistical controls, and studies that test statistical significance. These criteria was used to rate each study under review.

Positive Effects of CTE in Prisons

PERP reports that CTE programs in prison lowers recidivism rates, lower parole revocation rates, better post release employment patterns, and better institutional disciplinary records for participants compared to nonparticipants (CJC, 1994). The impact of vocational programs in Texas was studied by Alston (1981) and found evidence for lower recidivism rates among inmates who participated. The participants also broke fewer rules while incarcerated.

Anderson and associates (1991) studied determinants of parole success in a Midwestern state and showed that participation in academic and CTE programs was correlated positively with successful parole--among several other factors. The same researchers also found that prisoners who completed CTE programs had better employment rates and fewer arrests following release, than former prisoners who did not complete CTE programs (Schumacher, Anderson, & Anderson, 1990). Similarly, CTE trainees had better post release employment patterns and fewer disciplinary prerelease problems (Saylor & Gaes, 1992). Saylor and Gaes (1992) also reported very similar findings in research on federal penitentiaries. They found that inmates who received vocational training while in prison broke fewer rules than those who did not receive such training. Moreover, Saylor and Gaes (1992) reported that inmates who received vocational training while in prison were more likely to complete stays in a halfway house, were less likely to have their paroles revoked, and were more likely to be employed.

Most of the research conducted in recent years shows a correlation between vocational training and a variety of outcomes generally considered positive for either society or correctional institutions: lower recidivism rates, lower parole revocation rates, better post release employment patterns, and better institutional disciplinary records (CJC, 1994).

The Martinson Report and Others

As an adjunct assistant professor at the City College of New York, Robert Martinson, published an article that summarized the results of a 3-year project called Effectiveness of Correctional Treatment (ECT)--which reviewed the effectiveness of 231 offender rehabilitation programs that had been evaluated during the prior 30 years. He is synonymous with the "nothing works" cliche that came from his often cited report that prison intervention programs do not help rehabilitate prisoners.


Martinson reviewed studies and research reports on the effectiveness of correctional treatment that were published between 1945 and 1967. Only those studies that met the following methodological criteria were included:

[They] had to employ an independent measure of the improvement secured by that method, and had to use some control group, some untreated individuals with whom the treated ones could be compared (Martinson, 1974 [1976]).

Negligible Effects of CTE in Prisons

The Martinson report paints a dim picture of the effects of educational prison intervention methods. After thoroughly reviewing 231 studies of prison programs aimed at rehabilitation, Martinson stated, "... with few and isolated exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism" (Martinson, 1974 [1976]). Martinson gave attention to CTE directly by citing a 1967 study by Gearhart and associates (1967). Gearhart and associates only found a correlation between CTE and lower recidivism when a trainee found a job related to his area of training (Martinson, 1974 [1976]). Therefore, Martinson concluded that CTE types of training (i.e. skill based) that is offered in prisons does not prepare the prisoner for the skills that are needed outside of prison. A deduction of Martinson's conclusion leads to criticism of the administration and implementation of CTE programs in prison and not a condemnation of CTE in general.

Martinson is not the only prominent critic of CTE programs in prisons. Two other well known studies produced similar findings, with arguably stronger evidences than Martinson's work. A study involving inmates released from correctional facilities in Oklahoma showed that the graduates of CTE programs recidivated earlier than members who did not participate in any of the educational programs (Davis & Chown, 1986). Unfortunately, they did not provide results from statistical significant tests; therefore, the validity of their study is questionable.

However, Markley, Flynn, and Bercaw-Dooen (1983) conducted a similar study and made tests to determine the significance of differences between groups (i.e. experimental group and control group). Their control and experimental groups were more closely matched than those in many other studies (CJC, 1994). For example, the experimental group included inmates who completed at least three-fourths of the skills training program for which they were selected. The control group was inmates who were selected for CTE training, but unable to participate because the classes already reached the maximum participants. The authors were able to control for differences in the study participants' backgrounds more precisely by using the chosen control group (Markley, Flynn, and Bercaw-Dooen, 1983). They were attempting to eliminate some of the factors that could alter the outcome of the research and its inferences. These factors will be addressed later in the essay. Nonetheless, Markley and associates found that CTE training did not increase post release employment success, nor did it reduce recidivism rates. The study also found that only 40 percent of the training participants found work related to their training (Markley, Flynn, and Bercaw-Dooen, 1983).


Since Martinson's publication, there have been few studies that do not show a correlation between prison education and recidivism. This suggests some flaws in Martinson's conclusions. Examinations of Martinson's work from his adversaries brought attention to the flaws. Critics argued the work was flawed for two major reasons. First, the methodology that had been used in most of the research was sub par and only a few studies led readers to interpretations that are unambiguous. Second, the majority of studies examined programs that were poorly implemented. Such programs could hardly be expected to assist in curving future criminal behavior. Martinson would later acknowledge his flaws and recant some of his earlier conclusions.

The two studies of focus faced the same problem of measuring recidivism rates due to differing definitions of recidivism. There is not a standard classification of recidivism for the purpose of conducting studies. For instance, recidivism can be measured by new arrests, new convictions, or new incarcerations (CJC, 1994). Moreover, former inmates may be followed for three months, six months, one year, or several years. In generally, the longer it takes to study a population (i.e. longitudinal), the more reliable the results.

Another loophole regarding recidivism that PERP could not control was the omission of using rearrest as a criterion variable in the community follow-up. Collecting rearrest data is much more difficult to obtain, yet recidivism has occurred. Researches of PERP attempted to obtain some arrest information on the sample of released inmates from the Texas Department of Public Safety (CJC, 1994). Unfortunately, the unique identifier they attempted to use could not match prison records accurately with arrest records. They resorted to using names instead which only yielded a relatively small number of arrest records. The results went against the better judgment of the researchers. Therefore, the analysis only used reincarcerated information which may have a considerable amount of error when looking at recidivism.

Practical Applications for WF ED Professionals

A key ingredient for positive results of CTE prison programs is for inmates to complete the training. Prisoners who completed vocational programs had better employment rates and fewer arrests following release, than non completers (Schumacker, Anderson, & Anderson, 1990). WF ED professionals who are leading CTE prison programs should have a well designed completion component within their CTE program. In other words, the program should emphasize completion by having an appropriate timeline and schedule of classes. The CTE administrator should examine factors that may hinder completion (i.e. funding constraints, lack of support, inadequate staffing, and length of sentence).

Selecting the right participants is also a factor to program completion. Programs that identify and attract a target population are more likely to achieve intended goals and objectives. Therefore, WF ED administrators of CTE prison programs must identify individuals who will be incarcerated for at least the length of the program and will not be relocated to another facility. This is referred to as the "window of opportunity." The PERP defines the "window of opportunity" as the time necessary for an inmate to achieve a one grade level increase in an academic program or receive CTE certification (CJC, 1994). Findings indicate that the window of opportunity for inmates in CTE programs most often has been closed. The time it takes to effect a one grade level change or to achieve CTE certification often surpasses the average time served in prison (CJC, 1994). Not only should inmates be targeted who will be incarcerated long enough to complete the program, but inmates with impending release dates should also be preferred. This will allow for the soon-to-be-released inmate to make use of their CTE training shortly after completing the program.

One of Martinson's strongest claims was his criticism of prison CTE training being irrelevant to the "real world". This conclusion was repeated by other researchers as well. WF ED professionals in CTE leadership positions must offer CTE programs that provide marketable skills. Providing such programs are more likely to be successful and achieve stated goals and objectives. A flaw in the PERP study was that post release data was missing from the analysis. Examining the post release employment data could help determine whether or not employment corresponds to the CTE training received in prison. This information could help silence (or amplify) critics view of CTE prison programs being of no benefit.

Over 75 percent of the inmates in TDCJ-ID had less than a high school education. Nearly half of the inmates scored below the sixth grade level on a standardized achievement test. CTE training, literacy skills, and GED preparation are emphasized the most to enhance the probability of inmates becoming gainfully employed upon release from prison (CJC, 1994). The data from PERP show that inmates at the lowest levels of educational achievement benefit most from participation. The data also suggest that the recidivism rate can be reduced by about one-third if extensive services are targeted at inmates at the lowest level of educational achievement (CJC, 1994). A WF ED administrator of a CTE prison program should consider factors that yield the greatest return on investment. For reasons that are not quantifiable, it appears the biggest "bang for the buck" (and time invested) is clearly in providing training for inmates at the bottom end of the educational ladder.


To successfully evaluate the effectiveness of a prison program, the social environment must be considered. The interaction between social environment and program can be quite complex. Enocksson (1981) makes this point when looking at what factors cause recidivism:
   To measure the success of a program against the single variable of
   the absence of reconviction for a criminal act does not take into
   account the many other factors influencing an individual both
   during and after release. There appears to be a general agreement
   in the literature that factors such as the offender's previous life
   history, post release family and other socioeconomic connections,
   access to opportunity systems, physical and mental health, and a
   variety of other variables contribute substantially to his or her
   behavior upon release from incarceration ... Persons who have
   experienced correctional training may be favorably affected by the
   treatment only to have the good effects discounted by the fact that
   they are returned to the same family, the same neighborhood, and
   the same detrimental social groupings and influences which
   contributed to their antisocial behavior in the first place (p.

Other research suggests that the most stable predictors of recidivism may be age at first arrest, age upon release, ethnicity, gender, living arrangements, family ties, current income, and history of drug and alcohol abuse (CJC, 1994). These factors are beyond the scope of prison educators. Therefore, unrealistic expectations should not be placed on prison education to be a determinant factor for reducing recidivism.

Self-selection poses another problem when trying to determine the impact of CTE and other correctional intervention. For example, inmates who volunteer for vocational education may be more highly motivated than those who do not (Saylor & Gaes, 1987). If these inmates are better citizens following release from prison (i.e. have a lower recidivism rate), then how can researchers determine how much of it is ambition and how much of it is due to the prison's education program.

One of the findings of PERP is that CTE correctional education programs led to few disciplinary violations during incarceration. I am curious to know if "length of sentence", "time served" or "ages of inmates" are significant variables. The literature reviewed suggests that CTE participants are selected, but it doesn't identify all the criteria for selection.

All the studies under review mentioned the relationship between CTE prison education and finding work following release from prison. Research should be conducted to evaluate the effects of CTE prison education on further education attainment following release from prison. In addition, future research must employ more precise controls for non relevant variables that may have an effect on the various outcomes. Without adequate control techniques, it is difficult to speak definitively about the impact of correctional education programs.


Alston, J. G. (1981). Preparation for life after incarceration. ERIC Microfiche ED 202 559.

Anderson, D.B., Anderson, S.L., & Schumacher, R.E. (1991). Releasee characteristics and parole success. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 17, 133-145

Criminal Justice Center (CJC). (1994, September). Prison education research project final report. Retrieved December 3, 2007, from data/ericdocs2sql/content_storage_01/0000019b/8 0/14/84/4b.pdf

Davis, S. & Chown, B. (1986). Recidivism among offenders incarcerated by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections who received vocational-technical training: A survival data analysis of offenders released January 1982 through July 1986. Oklahoma City, OK: Oklahoma State Department of Corrections.

Enocksson, K. (1981). Correctional programs: A review of the value of education and training in penal institutions. Journal of Offender Counseling, Services and Rehabilitation, 6, 5-18.

Gearhart, J.W., Keith, H.L., & Clemmons, G. (1967). An analysis of the vocational training program in the Washington state correctional institutions. Research Review 23. State of Washington, Department of Institutions.

Linden, R. & Perry, L. (1983). The effectiveness of prison education programs. Journal of Offender Counseling, Services and Rehabilitation, 6(4), 43-47.

Markley, H., Flynn, K., and Bercaw-Dooen, S. (1983). Offender skills training and employment success: An evaluation of outcomes. Correctional and Social Psychiatry and Journal of Behavior Technology Therapy, 29, 1-11.

Martinson, R. (1974, [1976]). What works? Questions and answers about prison reform. The Public Interest, 35, 22-54. In R. Matinson, T. Palmer & S. Adams (Eds.), Rehabilitation, Recidivism, and Research (pp. 7-39). Hackensack: NJ. National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Saylor, W. G. & Gaes, G.G. (1987). Post release employment project: The effects of work skills acquisition in prison on post release employment. Presented at The American Society of Criminology Meeting, Montreal Canada.

Schlossman, S. & Spillane, J. (1995). Bright Hopes, Dim Realities: Vocational Innovation in American Correctional Education. Rand Corporation. Santa Monica, CA.

Schumacher, R.E., Anderson, D.B., & Anderson, S.L. (1990). Vocational and academic indicators of parole success. Journal of Correctional Education, 41(1), 8-13

Biographical Sketches

SHAKOOR A. WARD serves as a graduate assistant for the Penn State Workforce Education and Development Initiative in Penn State Outreach. Ward is also a volunteer chaplain for the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution (SCI) at Rockview.
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Author:Ward, Shakoor A.
Publication:Journal of Correctional Education
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2009
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Next Article:Perceived barriers and protective factors of juvenile offenders on their developmental pathway to adulthood.

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