The Prison Education Project


This article briefly compares the prison system in the United States with progressive correctional systems in the world, before pivoting to discuss the lessons learned from the author’s development of the Prison Education Project (PEP). PEP has expanded educational opportunities for inmates in 12 Californian correctional facilities. With the assistance of 800 university student and faculty volunteers, PEP has serviced approximately 5,000 inmates in these facilities since 2011. By providing academic, life skills and career development programming, PEP aims to educate, empower and transform the lives of incarcerated individuals. This article is a summary of the development of PEP, examining programme outcomes and highlighting implementation, fundraising and branding strategies. The robust spirit of volunteerism is also a central component of the discussion, with the phenomenon of “reciprocal reflex” at the heart of the PEP volunteer experience. This reflex ignites the passion and gratitude of both volunteers and inmates. The volunteers learn just as much as they teach, and the inmates teach just as much as they learn. The fact that each group shows deep gratitude to the other for the learning experience creates an exciting symbiotic loop and an esprit de corps which inspires and empowers all involved. The “reciprocal reflex” leads to lifelong learning. This article captures the intricate dynamics of how PEP has evolved into the largest volunteer-based prison education programme of its kind in the United States.


Projet d’éducation en prison – L’article aborde brièvement le système pénitentiaire des États-Unis d’Amérique par rapport aux systèmes carcéraux progressistes de la planète, avant d’approfondir les enseignements tirés lors de la réalisation par l’auteur du projet d’éducation en prison (PEP). Ce dernier a dispensé des mesures éducatives dans 12 structures carcérales de la Californie. Avec le concours de 800 étudiants et professeurs bénévoles, il a desservi depuis 2011 environ 5 000 détenus dans ces structures. À travers des programmes de compétences classiques et pratiques ainsi que de développement de carrière, le projet vise à instruire, à autonomiser et à transformer la vie des citoyens incarcérés. L’article synthétise l’élaboration de ce projet en en présentant les résultats et en détaillant les stratégies de mise en œuvre, de financement et de promotion. L’esprit puissant de volontariat est une autre composante centrale de l’analyse, le phénomène de « réflexe réciproque » se trouvant au cœur de l’expérience de bénévolat. Ce réflexe génère un enthousiasme et un sentiment de gratitude tant chez les bénévoles que chez les détenus. Les premiers apprennent seulement ce qu’ils enseignent, les seconds enseignent seulement ce qu’ils ont appris. Chaque groupe exprime envers l’autre une profonde reconnaissance pour l’expérience d’apprentissage, ce qui engendre un cercle symbiotique stimulant et un esprit de corps qui inspirent et autonomisent toutes les personnes impliquées. Le « réflexe réciproque » mène à l’apprentissage tout au long de la vie. L’article capte la dynamique complexe au cours de l’évolution de ce projet, qui est devenu le programme d’éducation en milieu carcéral porté par des bénévoles le plus vaste de ce type aux États-Unis.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 3
Figure 4
Figure 5


  1. 1.

    For more information on CARE, see [accessed 22 November 2017].

  2. 2.

    “Mandatory minimum sentencing laws require prison terms of a particular length for people convicted of certain federal and state crimes. They are inflexible and prevent judges from using their discretion” (Gunn 2016).

  3. 3.

    PrisonIndustrial Complex (PIC) is a term used to describe the interlocking of government and corporate interests in the rapid expansion of prisons in the United States.

  4. 4.

    Richard Nixon served as 37th President of the United States 1969–1974; Ronald Reagan served as 40th President of the United States 1981–1989.

  5. 5.

    Originally (up to 1980) known as the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant, the Pell Grant programme is named after US Senator Clairborne Pell (1918–2009). He was instrumental in creating the grant in 1973 and one of its main sponsors.

  6. 6.

    The project has its own website at [accessed 23 November 2017].

  7. 7.

    A general population programming facility is a facility where inmates serve their time without special protections or treatment. By contrast, a special needs facility, for instance, houses inmates who need protective custody, e.g. convicted police officers, celebrities, gang dropouts, rapists, child molesters and homosexuals.

  8. 8.

    As explained in the previous footnote, a special needs yard is a protective custody area where ex-gang members, high notoriety inmates (celebrities etc.), sex offenders, mentally impaired inmates and old and infirm prisoners are accommodated.

  9. 9.

    Functionalist theory considers society to be a system of interconnected parts which work together harmoniously to maintain a balance of the whole.

  10. 10.

    In The US, compulsory school attendance varies by state. In general, pupils complete elementary (primary) school at the end of grade 6 at about age 12; middle or junior high school at the end of grade 8 when they are about 14 years old; and senior high (secondary) school at the end of grade 12 at about age 18. Individuals who have dropped out of high school can take the General Education Development (GED) exam. If they pass the exam, they receive a diploma, which is equivalent to a high school diploma.

  11. 11.

    A millennial is a person born between 1980 and 2000.

  12. 12.

    A prison captain is a senior-level supervisor.

  13. 13.

    The General Education Development (GED) test; for an explanation, see footnote 10.

  14. 14.

    “The purpose of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) personality inventory is to make the theory of psychological types described by C. G. Jung understandable and useful in people's lives. The essence of the theory is that much seemingly random variation in the behavior is actually quite orderly and consistent, being due to basic differences in the ways individuals prefer to use their perception and judgment” (Myers & Briggs Foundation 2017).

  15. 15.

    The Strong Interest Inventory (SII) was initially developed in 1927 by psychologist Edward Kellog Strong, Jr. to help people leaving military employment in finding new jobs suited to their inclinations (Strong 1927). In the 1960s, the Inventory was revised by David Campbell (1966). The modern version is based on psychologist John Holland’s “typology of six personality types, six corresponding occupational environments, and their interactions” (Holland 1980).

  16. 16.

    For more information about PEP’s Reintegration Academy, see [accessed 3 December 2017].


  1. Campbell, D. P. (1966). SVIB, Strong vocational interest blank: Manual. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Candia, S., & Lumu, D. (2014, October 30). Uganda prisons best in Africa. New Vision. Retrieved 21 November 2017 from

  3. Clary, E. G., & Snyder, M. (1999). The motivations to volunteer: Theoretical and practical considerations. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 8(5), 156–159.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Clear, T. R., & Frost, N. A. (2014). The beginning of the end of the punishment imperative. In T. A. Clear & N. A. Frost (Eds.), The punishment imperative: The rise and fall of mass incarceration in America (pp. 1–16). New York: NYU Press.

    Google Scholar 

  5. CSL (California State Legislature). (1994). Assembly Bill (AB) 971, Chapter 12 Statutes of 1994 (chaptered 7 March). [“Three strikes and you’re out law”] Introduced by Assembly members Jones and Costa. An Act to amend Section 667 of the Penal Code, relating to sentencing, and declaring the urgency thereof, to take effect immediately. Sacramento, CA: California State Legislature. Retrieved 1 November 2017 from:

  6. Davidson, J. (2017). Reconviction rates in Scotland at lowest level for 18 years. Holyrood Magazine, 2 May [online article]. Retrieved 4 December 2017 from

  7. Davis, L. M., Bozick, R., Steele, J. L., Saunders, J., & Miles, J. N. V. (2014). Evaluating the effectiveness of correctional education: A meta-analysis of programs that provide education to incarcerated adults. Santa Monica, CA: The Rand Corporation.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Durlak, J. A., & DuPre, E. P. (2008). Implementation matters: A review of research on the influence of implementation on program outcomes and the factors affecting implementation. American Journal of Community Psychology, 41(3–4), 327–350.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Enns, P. K. (2014). The public’s increasing punitiveness and its influence on mass incarceration in the United States. American Journal of Political Science, 58(4), 857–872.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Fabing, J. (2017, October 12). The American obsession with revenge affects prisons. The Journal. Retrieved 5 December 2017 from

  11. Freeman, A. (2012, August 13). 10 of the world’s most luxurious prisons, and one wild card. Takepart. Retrieved 21 November 2017 from

  12. Gerber, J., & Fritsch, E. J. (1995). Adult academic and vocational correctional education programs: A review of research. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 22(1–2), 119–142.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Goldblatt, D. (2015, May 28). The prison where murderers play for Manchester United. Guardian. Retrieved 21 November 2017 from

  14. Gunn, S. (2016, May 8). Letter: War on drugs. Indiana Daily Student. Retrieved 21 November 2017 from

  15. Holland, J. L. (1973). Making vocational choices: A theory of careers. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Holland, J. L. (1980). This week’s citation classic. Current Contents, 20, 200. Retrieved 3 December 2017 from

  17. Huiwen, N. (2016, September 5). Bringing change with Yellow Ribbon Run: Prison officer who organized first run 2009 looks back with satisfaction at its growth. The Straits Times. Retrieved 21 November 2017 from

  18. Knowdell, R. (2017a). Knowdell card sorts™ User-friendly career assessment instruments. Retrieved 3 December 2017 from

  19. Knowdell, R. (2017b). Career Development Network homepage. Retrieved 4 February 2017 from

  20. Lee, M. Y. H. (2015, July 7). Yes, U.S. locks people up a higher rate than any other country. The Washington Post. Retrieved 21 November 2017 from

  21. Lockwood, S., Nally, J. M., Ho, T., & Knutson, K. (2012). The effect of correctional education on postrelease employment and recidivism: A 5-year follow-up study in the State of Indiana. Crime & Delinquency, 58(3), 380–396.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Messemer, J. E. (2003). College programs for inmates: The post-Pell grant era. Journal of Correctional Education, 54(1), 32–39.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Moraff, C. (2014, June 19). Can Europe offer the U.S. a model for prison reform? Next City, 19. Retrieved 21 November 2017 from

  24. Myers & Briggs Foundation (2017). MBTI Basics. Retrieved 4 February 2017 from

  25. Obama, B. (2015, July 14). Remarks by the President at the NAACP Conference. Pennsylvania Convention Center, Philadelphia, PA. Washington, DC: The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. Retrieved 5 December 2017 from

  26. Palta, R. (2013, August 23). Study: Educational program in prison work (update). 89.3 KPCC. Retrieved 21 November 2017 from

  27. PEP (Prison Education Project). (2016). PEP program outcomes, Spring 2016 semester: Evaluation report. Pomona, CA: Prison Education Project. Retrieved 1 November 2017 from

  28. Pierce, L. D. (2016, May 25). VICE World of Sports Episode Guide: Luzira Upper Prison. Vice Sports. Retrieved 3 December 2017 from

  29. SPS (Singapore Prison Service). (2016). Enhancing inmates’ employability to prevent re-offending. 2016 Singapore Prison Service Annual statistics release. Singapore: SPS. Retrieved 5 December 2017 from

  30. Sterbenz, C. (2014, December 11). Why Norway’s prison system is so successful. Business Insider. Retrieved 21 November 2017 from

  31. Strong, E. K., Jr. (1927). Vocational interest blank. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  32. USDoJ (United States Department of Justice). (1994). Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. H.R. 3355, Public Law 103–322. Washington, DC: United States Department of Justice. Retrieved 1 December 2017 from

  33. USDoJ. (2017). Prisoners and re-entry. United States Department of Justice webpage. Retrieved 4 December 2017 from

  34. Vice. (2016). Luzira Upper Prison. In Vice World of Sports, TV documentary series. Brooklyn, NY: Vice Media

  35. Walmsley, R. (2013). World prison population list. 10th edn. London: International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS). Retrieved 22 November 2017 from

  36. Webb, J. (2009, March 29). Why we must fix our prisons. Parade. Retrieved 21 November 2017 from

  37. YRP (Yellow Ribbon Project). (2017). Welcome to the Yellow Ribbon Project: Help unlock the second prison. Retrieved 3 January 2017 from

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Renford Reese.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Reese, R. The Prison Education Project. Int Rev Educ 65, 687–709 (2019).

Download citation


  • Prison education
  • Lifelong learning
  • Volunteering