Getting a GED while incarcerated


Ella Steere, Staff Writer

In 2018, the National Former Prison Survey recorded that of the two million people incarcerated in the United States, and those who were formerly incarcerated, more than half obtain a high school or GED diploma. Still, a quarter of incarcerated people hold no credentials at all.

According to Northeastern University, the average annual salary for someone without a GED diploma is $32,565, whereas those with a GED diploma annually make $42,081 on average. Although California has a compulsory education law that requires all residents between the ages of six to 18 to attend school and all prisons in California are required to provide some form of GED education, there are still many without a GED diploma.

The option to receive a GED education is mandated in California prisons, but most institutions do not offer in-person classes, and learning and tutoring are done through correspondence courses. Correspondence courses are self-paced and almost entirely independently accomplished.

Learning in solitude, as compared to a classroom setting, is a very different process. Voices of Incarceration Teacher Courtney Rein highlighted how San Quentin State Prison is trying to support education efforts within the prison. “At San Quentin [State Prison], there’s a whole roster of outside volunteers and inside volunteers who are assisting people who want to get their GED [diplomas],” she said.

Instead of having inmates learn through self-paced courses, San Quentin works to create a support system surrounding education. “It ends up being a community and a space of liberation and connection that is hard to come by,” Rein said.

As of 2014, San Quentin was the only prison in California that offered in-house instructor-led collegiate classes to inmates. Over the past few years, this has increased, but it is not yet mandated. Despite GED courses being available at nearly all prisons and jails, most incarcerated people do not have a high school level education. A main reason for this is that it requires a significant amount of motivation to take these courses regardless of them being required.

In an interview with The Urban Legend, Alyssa Maanao, the program associate at The Beat Within, an organization that shares writing and art from incarcerated youth, said, “The individuals are battling mental health. They’re battling depression. They’re battling [a] lack of support from loved ones.”

Receiving a GED education, or any degree while incarcerated, is not simply beneficial for employment upon being released. There are also many personal benefits. “It’s not just having the GED [diploma] or the degree on paper,” said Maanao. “It’s the fact that you applied yourself in an undesirable situation and you held yourself accountable and achieved a goal that you set forth for yourself.”

Beyond a personal sense of fulfillment, getting a GED also has benefits for employment post-release. In 2022, Prison Policy Initiative reported that about 60 percent of formerly incarcerated people were unemployed, and the correlation to a lack of education is not a coincidence. The National Center for Education Statistics in the United States reported that only 53 percent of male-identifying individuals and only 38 percent of female-identifying individuals without a GED diploma are employed.

Broadening and improving education systems in prisons requires effort, but implementing systems such as San Quentin’s is one way to enhance education for incarcerated individuals. There is immense value in the personal development that comes with getting an education. Maanao said, “[Receiving an education] allows you to be personally proud of yourself as an individual.”