Incarcerated Women’s Educational Experiences

Incarcerated Women’s Educational Experiences

Mageehon, Alexandria


This article presents the results of a study in which five women in a detention facility were interviewed and asked about their prior educational histories and their experiences of GED education in jail. Three central themes emerged from the interviews. The women in the study had positive academic experiences in their early school years which were often the result of the positive influence of compassionate teachers at these early levels of schooling. The women had a traumatic, life-changing event that affected their continued ability to succeed at the middle school or high school levels. Finally, the women had a keen awareness of the learning environment in jail and its compatibility with their own comfort levels in education. The implications of these themes for the correctional educator’s practice are discussed.

Teachers and researchers working with women in correctional settings are often aware of the impact of early schooling experiences on incarcerated women’s perceptions of jail or prison learning environments. For many women, subjugation of knowledge (e.g., school knowledge privileged over street knowledge or common sense) is a common theme in their experiences (Gubar and Hedin, 1981; Tilley, 1998). Often, this means that women perceive institutional control wielded by the corrections environment as a replication of many of the institutional controls found in the larger society, thus creating discomfort for them in the jail or prison classroom. On the other hand, when correctional educators make an effort to create a safe environment in which women are free to explore who they are and learn to express themselves, these same women thrive (Tilley, 1998; Stino and Palmer, 1999; Fine, et. al., 2001; Trounstine, 2001; Shafer, 2001).

Most of the research on women and education in prison and jail, however, focuses on women and college courses or vocational/life skills programming (Carlson, 1995; Gray, Mays and Stohr, 1995; Schram, 1998; Valentine, 1998; Kilgore, 2001). There is still a paucity of research about women and jail education, especially regarding how jail teachers can affect change in women when they are able to participate in a program for only a short period of time. Understanding how women experienced school during childhood and early adolescence may help correctional educators foster an environment in which women feel positive about education.

The purpose of this research study was to explore incarcerated women’s prior educational histories and the relationship of those histories to current experiences of education in a county jail GED/Adult Basic Education program using semi-structured interviews conducted by the GED teacher acting as both teacher and researcher. The guiding research questions were to what kinds of educational experiences have incarcerated women been exposed, particularly in public school during the K-12 school years, and how did those educational experiences influence the way in which the women studied for their GEDs?


The sample group involved in this study was incarcerated at a county jail in one of the western states. The facility is in a small suburban neighborhood; however, detainees come primarily from a nearby metropolitan area. An announcement about the research was made at the beginning of the women’s GED class, which meets for two hours, three days a week. The researcher-teacher asked for volunteers. Seven women volunteered, but only five women actually participated due to the transient nature of the population. Interviews lasted for an hour to an hour and a half. The researcher asked a series of ten open-ended questions related to women’s educational histories, their relationships with staff in the jail and social supports outside of the jail, and their experiences within the jail classroom. Interviews were audio-taped and then transcribed.

Of the five women, three were white and two were African-American. The women ranged in age from twenty to forty-six. Two women were sentenced to the facility (for drug possession and DUI), two were sentenced to prison (for child-abuse/neglect), and one was sentenced to a halfway house (for drug possession). All but one of the women completed their GEDs either prior to or shortly after completing the interview.


Several important themes came out of the interviews. Three central themes include positive academic experiences in the women’s early school years coupled with an acknowledgement of the positive influence of compassionate teachers at these early levels of schooling; a traumatic, life-changing event that affected the women’s continued ability to succeed at the middle school or high school levels; and a keen awareness of the learning environment in jail and its compatibility with their own comfort levels in education.

Women who successfully completed their GEDs in this study had a strong degree of academic success early in their educational histories, especially in elementary school. For example, Christine spoke about learning to read at the “same time everybody else did.” She then qualified that statement by saying that she was “ahead of the other students…[that] they put me ahead one grade though” moving her from first grade to third grade.

Shawna also mentioned that she was a good student in elementary school but subsequent experiences in middle school proved to be detrimental to her ability to learn: having other girls in middle school “pick on” her caused her to be distracted in her classes. Shawna also had difficulties in middle school and high school because her family moved frequently, resulting in her being shifted from school to school. Swanson and Schneider (1999) found that students who experienced a high level of mobility in high school, especially, were more likely to drop out than their peers who had stable living arrangements. Such was the case for Shawna.

All five of the women had strong reading comprehension skills. Each attributed their skills to voracious habits in reading. Although Dolores and Denise were not able to point to a specific literacy moment that caused them to become life-long readers, both women acknowledged that they spent a good portion of their free time in jail reading for pleasure. Christine, Tamara, and Shawna all discussed a literacy moment that occurred in their early teen years that whetted an appetite for pleasure reading. For Christine, this occurred in a runaway shelter at the age of thirteen when she read her first Steven King novel, Carrie. Shawna was introduced to Judy Bloom’s book God, It’s Me, Margaret in the sixth grade and then went on to read V.C. Andrews with the assistance of her mother explaining vocabulary to her. A teacher loaned Tamara Maya Angelou’s book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings when she was thirteen. Each of these events caused a later craving for books and the subsequent interest in reading led to good comprehension skills for reading on the GED tests.

On the other end of the literacy spectrum, however, four of the five women mentioned that math caused particular anxiety. For Denise and Dolores, math was simply not a subject that had ever interested them; both of these women felt that the more a subject was interesting, the more likely they would be to try to learn in that area. For Tamara and Shawna, however, a strong aversion to math developed in high school, especially when they began to take algebra and geometry classes. Both women suggested that the teachers did not spend enough time explaining concepts to them and both were hesitant to ask for clarification for fear of looking stupid. All five women were able to pass the mathematics portion of the GED test after some instruction from the teacher in the learning lab.

Several of the women alluded to strong female or male teachers as mentors who influenced their early success in school. Tamara had an experience in sixth grade with a teacher who provided emotional sustenance by taking “a lot of time out for things I didn’t understand. She wanted me to understand.” Kindness and patience were cited by three of the women in being characteristics of elementary school teachers who nurtured the students’ desire to learn. In spite of other difficulties in focusing on school caused by unstable home situations, both Christine and Shawna described teachers at the middle school and high school level that stood out for them because of their persistence in getting the women’s attention and helping them learn. For the most part though, the women felt that whatever positive attention teachers had given them in elementary school and middle school had disappeared by high school.

In high school, teachers were perceived as uncaring and unconcerned. Particularly in reference to the women’s decisions to drop-out of school, each woman said that no one in either an administrative or teaching capacity at the high school they last attended either knew about the life problems the women were experiencing that motivated them to drop-out or seemed to care. Shawna best expressed the women’s perceptions of teacher’s attitudes in high school: “…the teachers were just like you’re just a number, kid, or whatever just come into my class and that’s about it. I’m not going to take the time to get close or anything like that.”

Each woman experienced some kind of traumatic, life-altering event that affected her ability to persist in high school. For several of the women, ongoing difficulties at home reached a moment of crisis or led to a crisis decision in middle school or high school that prevented the women from easily persisting in school. For one woman, the trauma involved repeated rapes by an uncle, and for another, physical abuse from her mother. In all cases, teachers/administration were unaware or were perceived as not caring about what happened or why the women dropped out of school. Denise exemplifies this situation when she says that it didn’t seem to matter to anyone that she stopped going to school: “I don’t remember anybody saying anything. I just didn’t go back.”

The theme of disengagement from school experienced by this population of women is consistent with previous research on why students drop out of high school (Jenkins, 1995; Alexander, Entwisle, and Horsey, 1997; Swanson and Schneider, 1999; Rumberger and Thomas, 2000). Disengagement occurred because of problems at home, disconnection from peers and teachers, or because of perceptions that the woman was a trouble-maker (Dolores was expelled for fighting in high school and found it easier to never return).

Two of the women attempted to continue their high school education through an alternative school. In both cases, the burden of trying to take care of children (for Shawna, a baby she had in high school and for Christine, two children of the man with whom she was romantically involved) prevented them from being successful in this environment as well. Regardless, both women suggested that the structural arrangement of an alternative school was a better learning environment for them than a regular high school classroom situation. Similarly, for all of the women, an environment in which they were allowed to work at their own pace with intensive one-on-one instruction from a teacher on an as-needed basis was the best way for them to learn.

Thus, for this sample of women, the self-directed learning environment in jail (and for several, experienced elsewhere prior to incarceration) was very positive and was a significant factor in helping them achieve their goals. Particularly because the women were aware of each other’s academic levels, most suggested that the self-directed learning situation worked better than a traditional teacher driven classroom because each had the freedom to work at her own level and to work on subject areas that were most difficult for each. At the same time, the women relied on one another for support and, occasionally, tutoring, both in the classroom and in the jail housing units. The women also used the teacher in the classroom as an available resource.

Women in the study were highly tuned in to the teachers’ perceptions of them and this seemed to also lead to their perception of how the GED classroom in the jail differed: women were particularly attentive to the level of compassion and patience shown to them by the GED teacher. For example, when Denise was asked what advice she would give to teachers working in jail with women, she responded: “The way you are doing it is good…you have a lot of compassion. You know, you care about the girls. You know, you’re at ease and stuff. Everybody’s real comfortable with you. You know, I think that matters, that matters a lot.” Similarly, Tamara suggested that a jail teacher had to have compassion, to “have a lot of concern, you have to have the will to want to help that person.” She goes on to say that, in a situation in which a student fails (in Tamara’s case, the math GED test) something, the teacher has to have “a lot of compassion, you’ve got to care.”

In addition to suggesting that a jail teacher needs to be compassionate, most of the women made comments that suggested that they are very aware of their own learning styles and could guide teachers in how to best assist them in the learning process. The women conceived of the jail teacher-student relationship as one of symbiosis. The women guide the teacher in finding appropriate materials and assist the teacher in adjusting his or her teaching style to fit the women’s needs, while the teacher provides patient understanding in coaching the women through the educational process. For most of the women, this echoes their sentiments on the one or two teachers who provided mentorship to them at early stages of their academic experiences. This also is part of the model of the alternative school or self-directed learning lab in which the women felt most comfortable at other points in their educational histories.


The women in this study grappled with many of the same issues that researchers have found for incarcerated women in general. Of the five women in the study, four completed her GED while in the teacher-researcher’s class. One of the women was only one test away from completing the exam prior to her transportation to prison. The results suggest that women who have positive schooling experiences at a very early stage in life may be able to use that memory of success to provide incentive to continue their education in their adult lives. Teachers in correctional settings may be able to actively trigger such memories, in context of the GED exam especially, by asking women to write about or talk about positive memories of schooling. This, in turn, may give women added impetus to continue with their education, particularly when, like Tamara who did not pass her math exam the first time, they meet with initial failure.

Although correctional educators are often encouraged not to get to close to their students or discuss highly personal matters because of the potentially manipulative nature of their pupils, it is possible, and, according to these women at least highly beneficial, for a teacher to be compassionate without giving in to inappropriate personal requests. Insufficient research has been conducted considering the nature of care or compassion within the correctional system; correctional educators are in a unique position to be concerned about both their students’ pasts and futures. Further, if a teacher is in a position to do so, understanding why a student dropped out of school and why a student is motivated to continue her education at this juncture in her life (while incarcerated) can help the teacher prepare more effective interventions.

Psychological issues also affect women’s ability to adjust to both prison and life after prison. Bonta, Pang, and Wallace-Capretta (1995) found that victimization experiences may be predictive of a woman’s chance of recidivism. Bill (1998), Heney and Kristiansen (1997), and Singer, Bussey, Song and Lunghofer (1995) all found that sexual or emotional abuse plays a large factor in women’s incarceration experiences.

Correctional educators who work with women must be aware of many of these problems. The incarcerated women Tilley (1998) interviewed frequently discussed the distance between themselves and educators in their public high school experiences. With large classes and teachers specializing in specific subject areas, this distance is easy to maintain, and in a jail or prison setting, the educator must be prepared to confront emotional intimacy with his or her students who bring all of the problems discussed above to class on a daily basis. The women’s experiences prior to incarceration, the histories of abuse and addiction, their relationships with the power brokers both within the institution and outside of the institution, mediate who they are as students. Correctional educators and researchers have a responsibility to be aware of these relationships. Ignoring them perpetuates a myth that these woman exist and experience jail or prison de-contextually, which leads to further de-humanizing-an atrocious transgression that has already been committed time and time again as the women struggle through the legal, legislative, political and incarceration system (see Furio’s [2001] discussion of female murderers).

Finally, in a county jail setting in which most of the students are short-term detainees, formal structured teaching can be a challenge. The self-directed learning lab in which these women were participants allowed them the freedom to structure their own studies with the teacher acting as a tutor on an as-needed basis. The women who participated in the study were aware of their own learning needs and styles, and as a result, were able to guide the teacher in how to most effectively teach them. When the students are in the classroom setting for such a short period of time (Christine had the longest county sentence at one year), it is vital that the teacher listen to them and allow them to test most quickly on the subject areas that they already know best and then provide appropriate guidance in helping them develop a plan to complete those subject areas that are not as strong.


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Biographical Sketch

Alexandria Mageehon is a GED instructor at a detention facility in Colorado. She is currently working on her doctorate in education with an emphasis on adult education at the University of Denver.

Copyright Correctional Education Association Dec 2003

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