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How Prison Vocational Training Could Effectively Fight Mass Incarceration

Introducing wide-scale prison vocational training courses could improve post-release employment outcomes and reduce recidivism rates.

High school and college courses aren’t enough

Offering high school and college classes in prisons is a great way to ease the transition out of incarceration and help prisoners post release. But, educational courses can be expensive and difficult to implement. And, just like we see for those in the general population, not all inmates want to get a formal education.

So another option is implementing vocational training programs instead of (or ideally, in addition to) traditional classes, which have proven to be enormously effective and may even be slightly more effective than other education.

What is vocational training?

Unlike traditional education, which aims to expand a person’s general knowledge and literacy, vocational training is focused specifically on getting a person the skills necessary to apply for jobs in a certain industry.

There are hundreds of vocational courses that train for industries like auto repair, health care, computer management, and food and beverage. Students in these courses learn the basics of these industries and the skills it takes to work in them, like general word processing for computer management or car maintenance for auto repair.

Most vocational courses either work toward an associate’s degree or a certification, both of which qualify students for positions.

The availability of vocational training in prisons

Currently, there aren’t a lot of inmates attending vocational programs in prison. A 2016 studyby the National Center for Education Statistics reports that seven percent of inmates receive a certification while incarcerated, while only two percent receive an associate’s degree.

But this isn’t necessarily due to lack of wanting to be in these programs. In the same study, it was found that 29 percent of inmates wanted to obtain a certification and 18 percent wanted to obtain an associate’s. When asked why they were not attending a desired program, a common response was that the program they wanted to attend was not available.

This makes sense considering that most recent census by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2005 reported that 52 percent of state and federally operated facilities offered vocational training programs.

How vocational training helps prisoners

Vocational training can make a huge impact for prisoners after release by qualifying them for jobs with reasonable salaries that stabilize their lives.

Various statewide studies have been showing this since 1980, so, in 2013, the RAND corporation compiled all studies regarding the effects of education in prison from 1980 forward to find more definitive conclusions. Their analysis concluded that inmates with vocational training were 36 percent less likely to be re-incarcerated and 28 percent more likely to be employed after release.

Further, their analysis found that vocational training while incarcerated appeared more successful for inmates post-release than traditional education (high school or college), since those who attended traditional courses were only eight percent more likely to be employed. It is important to note that there were far fewer studies on vocational training than on traditional education, so it is possible the results were skewed and we cannot definitively trust the difference in percentages.

However, studies comparing vocational training and traditional high school to employment rates for the general population appear to corroborate these findings. A 2016 analysis of 2009 statistics by the Department of Education found that those with an occupational credential were more likely to be employed than those with an academic credential (86 percent compared to 82 percent).


At this point, there has been enough research for us to conclude that vocational training in prison is quite effective in transitioning inmates out of incarceration, getting them jobs and keeping them away from prison. And though more research needs to be done, it looks as though vocational training may be a little bit more effective than traditional classes.

Unfortunately, the latest national census tells us that only a little over half of facilities offer vocational training. Although this number may be off because the census was in 2005, we know from a 2016 study that many inmates are still saying they are not able to access vocational programs despite wanting to participate.

So, since we know that vocational training is effective, and we know that more prisoners want vocational training than is available, implementing more vocational programs needs to be at the forefront of education reform in prisons.


This article was originally published on

Header image: Adobestock

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