Beyond Recidivism: The Value of Higher Education in Prison


  • Jill McCorkel Villanova University
  • Robert DeFina Villanova University



Higher Education in Prison, Prisons, Higher Education, Correctional Education, Prison Education, Democracy, Social Justice


In 2016, the Obama administration launched the Second Chance Pell Grant, a pilot program that provides funding to eligible state and federal prisoners as they pursue undergraduate degrees during the period of their incarceration.  The initiative represents the first meaningful effort to restore some of the educational opportunities eliminated from state and federal prisons in the mid 1990s.  The administration justified the restoration of education programs in prison in terms of recidivism rates, citing research that demonstrates that educational attainment decreases the odds that a prisoner is reincarcerated for new crimes or parole violations following his or her release.  While recidivism is a critical consideration in the restoration of prison higher education, it is not and should not be the only one.  In this article, we describe our experience as faculty and administrators of Villanova University’s undergraduate degree program at SCI-Graterford, the largest maximum security prison in Pennsylvania.  We argue that education is a fundamental right that is not comprised by criminal conviction or imprisonment.  Higher education in prison enhances self-knowledge and empathy, bolsters social capital and collective efficacy, and facilitates the development of just and democratic communities both inside and outside prison walls.

Author Biographies

Jill McCorkel, Villanova University

Associate Professor

Department of Sociology and Criminology

Robert DeFina, Villanova University


Department of Sociology and Criminology






Radical Departures: Ruminations on the Purposes of Higher Education in Prison