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Research Questions

  1. What modifications to educational programs were made by departments of corrections to curricula, delivery methods, and types of programs provided in response to COVID-19?
  2. What were the impacts of COVID-19 on the availability and continuation of programs, student access, and program completion rates?
  3. How did these impacts vary by type of program?
  4. What are the long-term implications of program and policy changes on the types of education programs being delivered and the likely effects on incarcerated students' educational progression and attainment and skills development?

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic continues to have profound effects on U.S. society. However, one group that is often forgotten in the public health debate and that is especially vulnerable to the spread of the virus and its adverse consequences is the 1.2 million incarcerated adults in U.S. federal and state prisons. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative impact on rehabilitative programs, including education programs, that are provided in state prison systems. State and federal correctional systems implemented a variety of policies to prevent or contain the spread of COVID-19 within this population. As part of this response, many correctional systems ceased or substantially cut back on programming starting in 2020; this included shutting down ongoing education and workforce training programs, as well as other programs and activities, and preventing instructors and other staff from entering prison facilities.

This report presents the authors' findings on how COVID-19 has affected prison education programs within state correctional systems from 2020 through 2023. The overall goal was to collect critical information to help inform educators, colleges, corrections officials, and policymakers about the magnitude of the pandemic's overall impact and its effects on access to education programs.

Key Findings

  • The immediate effects of COVID-19 on instructional delivery included halting and/or suspending in-person instruction across program types in the first year of the pandemic. As late as 2023, instruction continued to be interrupted in different prison facilities because of new outbreaks of COVID-19 and staff shortages exacerbated by the pandemic.
  • COVID-19 negatively affected instructional quality early on in the pandemic. Ninety percent of state correctional education directors who responded to our 2022 survey reported short- or long-term gaps in instruction and an inability to administer assessments.
  • A key concern of state correctional education directors was that as a result of the pandemic, incarcerated individuals were being released quickly without high school credentials or without having access to educational programs in general.
  • At the height of the pandemic, 48.7 percent of Second Chance Pell (SCP) college administrators surveyed reported that COVID-19 resulted in college instruction being canceled and 40.8 percent reported a reduction in the number of courses that could be offered.
  • Approximately 40 percent of SCP administrators reported that the pandemic caused delays in the financial aid application process and in the enrollment process. Roughly one-third reported that the pandemic led to a reduction in the number of students who could enroll in the SCP program and in the number of students who applied for the program.
  • One of the most lasting changes as a result of the pandemic is the acceleration of the adoption of educational technology and the move toward hybrid and online learning for this population.

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by the Ascendium Education Group and conducted in the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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