The right to education in prison

All detainees should have access to a programme of educational activities aimed at their full personal development. This is part of respecting the inviolable right to education, which is not forfeited upon detention. It is also crucial for ensuring that the period of detention is used to improve the situation of the individual and assist their resettlement in society.

Ensuring this right means states should also provide educational programmes for non-sentenced prisoners, as recommended by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education. This is particularly important given the often long periods of pre-trial detention globally, but is often not ensured in practice.

What is understood by education?

Education in prisons should be understood in the broad sense to include formal and informal programmes aimed at the development of the whole person, taking account of the detainees’ social, economic and cultural background. This includes:

- Compulsory education at the primary and secondary levels. This should be obligatory for children of compulsory school age and also available for adults who have not completed compulsory schooling.

- Literacy and numeracy education. This should be compulsory for detainees who lack basic literacy and numeracy skills.

- Higher (tertiary) education: the optional stage of education usually provided by universities, colleges and institutes and that usually results in the award of academic degrees, certificates or diplomas.

- Vocational training, which prepares people for a specific job functions, trades, crafts and careers at various levels.

Prison education should also be understood to encompass broader activities contributing to the development of the person, including cultural, creative and sports activities.

Education for children

Children in prison have particular and often significant educational needs. In many contexts, they have lower than average education and often lack basic literacy and numeracy skills. Children are also more likely to respond positively to, and benefit from, education during their period of detention.

All children deprived of their liberty who are subject to compulsory education should have access to, and participate in such education. This should as far as possible be provided outside detention in community schools and in any case by qualified teachers through programmes integrated with the public education system.

Children and young people above compulsory school age who wish to continue their education should be encouraged and provided with the opportunity to do so. Children and young people who are illiterate or have cognitive or learning difficulties should have the right to special education. Education or training should not cause the continuation of their detention.

Benefits of prison education

Prison education has a number of recognised benefits for individual detainees, prisons and society, including:

- Providing a minimum level of compulsory schooling.

- Increasing detainees’ self-worth, morale and providing skills needed in society.

- Enabling individuals to increase their chances of finding gainful employment upon release.

- Reducing tensions and disruptive behaviour and breaking down barriers between different groups in prison.

- Preventing crime, improving public safety and economic benefits to society as reoffending is reduced.

Ensuring access to education

To ensure the right to education, education for people in prison should be guaranteed and entrenched in law. States should have a coherent policy on prison education which is available, accessible, adaptable and of the highest possible standard. Adequate public funds, teaching staff and equipment should be allocated to provide this. Compulsory education should be provided free of charge, along with as many additional education programmes as possible to avoid barriers to access based on resources.

Factors affecting the quality of prison education

The nature, provision, quality and participation rates in prison education programmes vary greatly between countries and institutions. Despite its recognised benefits, in many contexts, prison education is not prioritised in public policy and inadequate human and financial resources are allocated to it. Educational programmes are thus commonly limited or non-existent; and curricula are often too basic or irrelevant, with outdated teaching methods and equipment limiting the usefulness of programmes. The quality of teaching may be poor because of the working conditions of staff including lower salaries, lack of incentives and the fact that teachers may not be appointed by the Ministry of Education (with the associated professional standards and benefits).

Barriers to accessing education in prison

Where educational programmes are provided, detainees often face further barriers accessing these in the prison context, including:

- Education is seen as a privilege rather than a right, which can be awarded on discretion or withdrawn for disciplinary purposes.

- Systems of corruption or informal detainee hierarchies control access to educational programmes, based on payment or other discriminatory criteria.

- Security measures and other operational “imperatives” such as frequent transfers and lockdowns interfere with learning.

- Discriminatory access to education based on the place of detention, sentence length, and/or security category as well as discrimination against persons in situations of vulnerability.

- Prohibitory costs of education impeding access for detainees who do not have sufficient personal resources.

Integration within the education system

Education in prisons should be integrated within the outside education system (using curricula, materials and professionals from the community). This is important for normalising educational programmes and increasing the possibility for detainees to continue their education after release. As far as possible, children should receive compulsory schooling and other educational programmes (e.g. vocational training) in the community. This opportunity should also be available for adult detainees where possible. Educational qualifications gained by detainees in prison should not indicate that they were detained.

It is recommended that the government authorities responsible for public education (e.g. Ministry of Education) have responsibility for education in prisons, in coordination with the prison administration (UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education). In many contexts, the prison administration is given primary responsibility for this. It is also not uncommon that provision is subcontracted to community and voluntary sectors. 

What is important is that education is provided according to a coherent government policy, with coordination among relevant actors to ensure the highest possible standards. Each prison should have an education policy in line with government policy and outlining the values and objectives of education and how this is to be provided.

Individual education plan

Detainee populations have diverse educational needs. Detainees often lack basic reading and writing skills and face dispositional barriers to education linked to their experiences prior to detention, including low self-esteem, previous educational failure and the stigma of illiteracy.

Education should be tailored to the needs of each detainee as part of a balanced programme of constructive activities in prison. Each detainee should have an individual sentence plan, including educational goals and a programme of activities to achieve these. This should be monitored, evaluated and updated from entry to release.

Motivation and incentives

Prison authorities should actively encourage participation in educational programmes. Education should have no less a status than work in prisons and there should be no disincentives for attending educational classes. The prison authorities can provide incentives for participation in education, such as taking into account time in education for parole or conditional release. Schedules should be arranged to ensure detainees do not miss out on educational programmes due to other activities.

Cross-sectoral involvement

The participation of diverse actors, such as detainees, prison officers, the outside community, non-governmental organizations and families, in the design, delivery and evaluation of (non-compulsory) educational programmes has a positive influence on their quality and impact. Standards provide that the outside community should be as involved as fully as possible in the provision of prison education. For example, community organisations such as cultural and volunteer groups can be invited to provide educational activities in prison.

Detainees themselves are often an untapped resource for peer learning. For example, more educated detainees can be employed by the prison authorities to assist other detainees with developing basic reading and writing or other skills, under appropriate supervision (although this should never be a substitute for compulsory education by qualified teachers).


Every prison should maintain well-funded and accessible libraries, stocked with an adequate and appropriate range of resources and technology available for all categories of detainees. Links with outside libraries and support from civil society can help to ensure an adequate stock of materials, including for prisoners who do not speak the main language of the institution.

Even when libraries are well stocked, detainees can face a number of barriers accessing materials. Library opening times should be arranged to ensure that all detainees can have reasonable access given the schedule of other activities. All efforts should be made to ensure that detainees do not face discrimination in accessing libraries (e.g. through corruption or informal detainee hierarchies).

Detainees may also lack the skills to navigate the library and find materials of interest. Qualified library staff who can explain and assist detainees to access materials can increase the educational value of prison libraries. In some prisons lists of books are circulated for detainees to sign up to order a specific book. Such a system can increase access to reading materials but should not replace regular access to the library itself.

Children living with mothers in prison

Children living with their mothers who are serving a sentence in prison have the same right to education as children living in the community. In most countries, there is a legal mandate for the provision of preschool education for young children living in prison, but in practice there is often little or no implementation owing to a shortage of economic and human resources (lack of trained teachers and transport, no coordination between responsible bodies and limited awareness of children’s rights.


Girls should have equal access to educational programmes as boys in detention, taking into account their particular educational needs. If they are of the age of compulsory education, schooling should be obligatory and undertaken as far as possible in the community. Curricula and educational practices in places of detention should be gender sensitive, in order to fulfil the right to education of girls. In practice, there is often gender discrimination in respect to quality and breadth of education for girls detained in prisons. This can be due to a lack of funding, materials and teachers, and the fact that less educational opportunities are offered because there are less girls than boys in detention.  It is common that programmes offered to girls are of poorer quality and vocational training is related to gender stereotypes (such as sewing, kitchen duties, beauty and handicrafts).  Additional engagement and encouragement may be needed to ensure that girls can access and fully benefit from educational programmes in detention. 


Women detainees should have equal access to educational programmes as men, taking into account their particular educational needs. Curricula and educational practices in places of detention should be gender sensitive, in order to fulfil the right to education of female detainees. In practice, there is often gender discrimination in respect to quality and breadth of education for female detainees in prisons. This can be due to a lack of funding, materials and teachers, and the fact that less educational opportunities are offered because there are less women in detention. Prison education is therefore often of poorer quality and less accessible to women detainees, especially higher education. It is common that vocational training programmes offered to women are related to gender stereotypes (such as sewing, kitchen duties, beauty and handicrafts).  Additional engagement and encouragement may be needed to ensure that women detainees can access and fully benefit from educational programmes. 


Persons with physical and learning disabilities should have the opportunity to participate in accessible and relevant education in prison, adapted to their specific needs. This may require specialised teaching staff and programmes and/or adapted environments to remove physical barriers to access. In reality, prison systems are often not aware that they are detaining sometimes significant numbers of persons with learning disabilities. Stigma, discrimination and other barriers in accessing education mean that they are effectively excluded from the benefits of these programmes.


Foreign nationals and persons from minority groups have the same right to education in prisons as other detainees. In practice, foreign nationals are sometimes excluded from educational programmes (especially persons awaiting deportation). Language barriers can also mean unequal access to education. It may thus be necessary to develop special programmes for foreign nationals or members of minority groups who do not speak or understand the language used in educational programmes.