All federal prisons have some form of educational programming for the inmates housed at their institution.  Typically, the prison’s Education Department is where educational programming is centered.  This could be a stand-alone building, a wing of a larger building, or a special room that is used for educational purposes.  Regardless of the department’s structure, educational programming is available to all inmates at the institution.  Most forms of education provided through this department are available at no cost to inmate participants.  The four general forms of education available in all Federal Bureau of Prisons’ facilities are GED preparation, English-as-a-Second Language (ESL), Adult Continuing Education (ACE), and Correspondence Education.  Program offerings will depend upon the local institution.  What follows is an overview of each form of education.


The GED is the official high school diploma equivalent and, as such, is the primary educational offering within the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  GED classes usually consist of a single staff educator who oversees several inmate tutors, who handle the majority of one-on-one teaching.  Since GED classrooms are divided by general academic ability (e.g., 1st-5th grade, 6th-8th grade, 9th-12th grade), instruction is not performed on a collective basis, but on an individual basis.  Each student works out of their own textbook (targeted to their personal academic level), and completes assignments on a personal assignment sheet.

All inmates who have not previously earned a GED or a high school diploma are required to participate in the BOP’s GED program.  Generally speaking, inmates are required to take GED courses until they earn their GED, or complete 240 hours of instruction and opt to sign out of the program.  In the latter situation, they will receive some internal restrictions (e.g., lowest pay grade in prison), but they will not be sanctioned for a disciplinary infraction.  If the inmate elects, they can stay enrolled in the GED program after reaching the 240-hour mark of instruction.  If an inmate without a GED refuses to even complete the 240 minimum hours of instruction, they will receive an incident report and be formally sanctioned for “refusing to program.”

English-as-a-Second Language (ESL)

The English-as-a-Second Language program is much like the traditional GED program, except that it is focused on assisting inmates in becoming English proficient.  The same model of supervisory staff educator and inmate educators is employed.  After an inmate becomes English proficient, they are tracked into the traditional GED program.  There are facilities within the BOP that offer Spanish-language GED programs, but such classes are rare.

Adult Continuing Education (ACE)

Adult Continuing Education (ACE) is an umbrella grouping that includes a variety of lower-supervision classes.  These classes tend to be between 8 to 12 weeks in duration, meet once a week for an hour or two each session and are inmate instructed (without direct staff supervision).  Sometimes this level of study is referred to as Adult Basic Education (ABE), particularly when the elementary subject matter is being covered (e.g., reading, writing, spelling, etc.).

While program offerings differ between institutions, courses like basic algebra, basic math, personal finance, writing and publishing, Spanish (various levels), HVAC, business planning, legal basics, and auto repair are included.  The modality of these courses at most institutions includes a traditional textbook (if available), lectures by an inmate instructor, and class discussions and testing.  These classes tend to subscribe to the Socratic method of instruction.

A twist to the traditional ACE course is that of Self-Paced Adult Continuing Education.  Self-Paced ACE utilizes either texts or videos as the primary method of instruction.  In this educational modality, the inmate takes the course individually, completes and submits lessons as they progress through the chapters of their textbook or DVD/VHS videos, and sits for a proctored final examination.  After passing the final examination — much like the traditional ACE course — the inmate will have been deemed to have completed the course.  Self-Paced ACE is an innovative way to utilize existing resources and expand education programming offerings.

Upon completion of an ACE course, inmates are issued a Federal Bureau of Prisons’ certificate of completion.  These courses are non-accredited and do not count towards college credit.

Correspondence Education

Perhaps the best form of education available in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, correspondence education is education which is completed via correspondence (the U.S. Mail).  These courses can include true high school diploma programs, career and vocational programs, paralegal programs, and college programs.  While there are a significant number of program offerings from dozens of schools (e.g., Louisiana State University) and training centers (e.g., Penn Foster Career School), the cost is a factor since the BOP does not pay for correspondence courses, and the cost burden is placed upon the inmate.

All federal prisons are required to have a College Coordinator.  This is an Education Department staff member who, while also a teacher, has the collateral duty of assisting inmates who enroll in and complete correspondence education courses.  This staffer assists inmates in gaining authorization to receive education courses through the mailroom (since authorizations are required), proctoring examinations (if required), and ensuring that a record is made of correspondence education studies.

At some institutions, the College Coordinator is a Godsend who assists inmates with even locating correspondence education programs and counseling them on how to stay on top of their studies.  At other prisons, this person will not assist inmates with locating a correspondence program or other troubleshooting when problems occur but will ensure that the inmate does not violate any rules or regulations as they attempt to find a correspondence education program, enroll in it, and complete it all on their own.

A Lackluster Performance

While some allege that the Federal Bureau of Prisons is truly innovative when it comes to educational offerings, they might be stuck in the past.  Since 1996, when the Violent Crime Control Act and the Higher Education Reauthorization Act were passed, prisoners became ineligible for federal student aid.  Many states shortly followed and barred inmates from receiving scholastic financial aid.  With this reduction in funding, prison-based college and vocational programs across the country died.  Within several weeks of the passing of these laws, the 350+ in-prison college programs — which were largely free or low-cost for participants — reduced to a mere several dozen programs.  Today, there are fewer still.

While educational offerings are not what they used to be, or what they could be with administration support, there are still a few options available to federal prisoners who have financial resources.  After an inmate earns their GED (or if they already have a high school diploma) they can enroll in correspondence educational courses.  Inmates can earn everything from an Associate Degree to a Doctoral Degree through correspondence study, though the most popular courses are probably those leading to a certificate or diploma in paralegal studies, as interest in the law is always high in prison.  Regardless, there are quite a few options for the enterprising federal prisoner which can lead to a brighter tomorrow.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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