Investing in prison education: New approaches to improving educational outcomes and reducing re-offending

Nigel Banks
Principal Adviser, Education Programmes Team, Department of Corrections

Author biography:
Nigel studied Criminology and Sociology at Victoria University and has held previous investment and operational policy roles at the Tertiary Education Commission and Ministry of Education


International and domestic evidence demonstrates that prison education can contribute to reductions in re-offending (Davis, Bozick, Steele, Saunders & Miles, 2013; Kim & Clark, 2013; Department of Corrections, 2015). Therefore, the Department of Corrections, following a similar path to that of other developed countries, continues to invest in prison education.

This has resulted in large-scale literacy and numeracy initiatives and vocational training programmes, aiming to better prepare prisoners for community reintegration, qualification progression and employment.

Further building on this, in recent years the department has implemented significant changes to respond to a more diverse range of learners. Central to these changes is an increased focus on developing education programmes and learning plans for on- going progression that are aligned to individuals’ needs and aspirations, while recognising the important role language, identity, and culture play in improving educational (re)engagement and achievement.

The department also recognises that literacy challenges may prevent those in prison from engaging in rehabilitation programmes that address their criminogenic needs.

To help realise these changes, the department has collaborated with other government agencies and education providers to identify new areas for development and innovation, and has targeted investment accordingly. This has enabled the department to lay the foundations for a new prison education infrastructure that will lead to improved programme and qualification access, and clearer progression pathways into higher-level qualifications, industry/vocational training and employment.

Prior to discussing the department’s approach to prison education, it is important to review what we know about learners in prison.

Educational disparity within the New Zealand prison population

People in New Zealand prisons reflect the international trend (incl. United States, United Kingdom and the European Union) of having higher levels of educational disparity than the general population. This disparity means people in prison often have higher literacy and numeracy needs and fewer qualifications at both secondary and tertiary level.

The department currently estimates[1] that for those in prison:

  • 60% have literacy and numeracy below that of National Certificate in Educational Achievement (NCEA) Level One competency, and further, approximately 25% are at, or below Steps One and Two on the Adult Literacy and Numeracy Learning Progressions[2]. This means the majority of those in prison face significant to severe literacy and numeracy challenges in their everyday lives. If left unsupported these challenges will likely impact on their successful engagement in entry- level qualifications[3] and meeting basic employer expectations.
  • 66% have no formal[4] qualifications, leading to reduced labour market competitiveness, constrained transferrable skills and reduced re-training potential, all essential for sustainable employment outcomes. This disparity is particularly evident when compared to the wider New Zealand population, of whom 23% have no qualifications (Statistics New Zealand, 2016).

Educational disparity amongst Māori and Pasifika (who together make up 62% of the prison population) is further pronounced. For literacy and numeracy, while 48% of Pakeha are below NCEA Level One competency; 62% of Māori and Pasifika are below this level.

In terms of qualifications, 77% of Pasifika have no previous qualifications, compared to 65% for Māori and Pakeha. It is reasonable to suggest that learners for whom English is a second language may face additional barriers to achieving qualifications in mainstream settings.

Educational disparity amongst those in prison may have started at a young age, and can pose a barrier to on-going re-engagement with education, particularly if delivery is seen as a replication of previous experiences, as international (Hawley, Murphy & Souto-Otero, 2013) and domestic (Sutherland, 2011) evidence demonstrates that prison learners have poor compulsory school experiences.

Finally, prison learners may face a number of additional factors that may act as barriers to educational achievement. While no comprehensive diagnostic study exists of special education needs in New Zealand prisons, the following is worth noting:

  • One study of 253 Texas prisoners (Moody, Holzer, Roman, Paulsen, Freeman, Haynes & James, 2000) demonstrated that 48% of the sample was dyslexic, with a UK study estimating that the incidence of dyslexia in the prison population is between three to four times that found in the general population  (The Dyslexia Institute, 2005).
  • In the UK, studies estimate that 45% of youth and 30% of adults who are dealt with by the criminal justice system have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) (Young & Goodwin, 2010). A meta- analysis of the prevalence of ADHD in incarcerated populations (Young, Moss, Sedgwick, Fridman & Hodgkins, 2014) found that compared with the general population there is a five-fold increase of ADHD in youth prison populations (30.1%) and a 10-fold increase in adult prison populations (26.2%).
  • Literature suggests that prevalence of Autism- Spectrum Disorders (ASD) may be higher within the prison population than the general population.

Research undertaken in the United States with 431 maximum security participants indicated 4.4% meet the criteria for ASD diagnosis, an estimated four times the rate of the general population (Fazio, Pietz, & Denney, 2012) This means an approximate 440 learners in New Zealand prisoners may be impacted by ASD.

As a complicating factor, New Zealand research (Indig, Gear & Wilhelm, 2016) indicates that those in prison are likely to have higher rates of mental health and substance use disorders when compared to the general population. Of the over 1,200 people in prison interviewed, nearly all (91%) had a lifetime diagnosis of a mental health or substance use disorder and 62% had this diagnosis in the past 12 months. The research showed that those in prison were three times more likely than the general population to have a 12-month diagnosis of any mental disorder (62% compared to 21%). Further, 42% were found to have a lifetime co- morbidity of mental health and substance use disorder.

It is clear that prison-based learners are unique, with complex needs, and a simple translation of community education services into a custodial setting is unlikely to provide the appropriate support needed for these learners to progress.

A new approach to prison-based education

Since 2014, the department has implemented a number of significant changes to prison-based education. These changes have aimed at building the prison’s overall capability to better assess and address the individual learner’s needs, while at the same time providing new educational pathways for progression, ranging from intensive literacy and numeracy support to trades and industry training and access to digital learning.

The department has:

  • Implemented a new Education Assessment and Learning Pathway Process (EA/LP). This process aims to provide an education assessment on arrival into prison and works to identify educational needs (including literacy and numeracy) and previous educational attainment (via NZQA’s record of learning). Following this, a learning plan is co- developed to address needs and realise long-term goals and aspirations, further supporting (re) engagement, achievement and progression. In the 2015/16 financial year, department education tutors conducted over 5,000 EA/LPs with prison learners.
  • Re-developed literacy and numeracy programmes to provide support intensity based on need, while lowering student to tutor ratios (6:1). With literacy and numeracy need being so prevalent within the prison population, this service acts as a crucial “entry-point” for initial engagement and progression to rehabilitation, education and reintegration opportunities. To ensure these services were most effective, the department set strong service requirements around culturally responsive practices, whereby the language, culture and identity of the learners is at the centre of service delivery. In 2015, Te Wänanga o Aotearoa (TWoA) was successful in securing a national service contract for the delivery of these services to approximately 1,200 prisoners per annum, with the Methodist Mission also successful for delivery in Otago Corrections Facility.
  • Signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) [5] in 2014. This allowed Tertiary Education Organisations (including Polytechnics and Private Training Establishments) to bid for funding for the delivery  of foundation qualifications in prison, resulting in funded enrolments rising from an approximate 900 per annum to 1,700. While volumes increased, learner choice also improved, with additional trades training, NCEA vocational pathways and programmes that included Te Reo.
  • Implemented prison-based Secure Online Learning (SOL) suites to facilitate e-learning and improve access to reintegration services. This includes access to literacy and numeracy support services, driver licence tutorials, and employment and community services. From April 2017, SOL suites were available across all 17 public prisons, providing a basis for the development of the department’s future e-learning capability.
  • Finally, and significantly, the department has embarked on a pilot to progress 450 learners (in prison and the community) through the graduated driver licence system. This aims to address traffic- related re-offending, and help learners get a job, since not having a driver licence is a well-understood barrier to employment.

Considerations and opportunities for further development

While recent changes have resulted in improved service sophistication and needs-based targeting, continuing to build pathways for educational and employment progression will be the primary future focus. This  aims to better realise the rehabilitative potential of education. To achieve this, the department’s education workplan focuses on:

  • Ensuring education services are well integrated both at a prison-level and nationally. Learners must have clear pathways to progression, where services “dovetail” into each other. To better support this, we are introducing a national service pathway from intensive literacy and numeracy to NCEA. This will enable more learners to progress from high literacy and numeracy need into foundation qualifications.
  • Ongoing development of the EA/LP process to capture a more comprehensive range of education need and planning information, including developing more gender and age appropriate strategies, and understanding how special education needs may impact on service requirements. The department expects that this will result in more consciously developed and targeted programmes for youth and women, who are demographic minorities within the prison population (i.e. most prisoners are male adults).
  • Improving services for those on remand, realising that while remandees may stay in prison for a shorter period (a constraint to longer duration programmes/qualifications), further services can  be provided in the areas of literacy and numeracy, community and work skills and re-engagement with education more generally.
  • Driving SOL use, since the department recognises that tertiary education delivery will increasingly move online and therefore we must provide e-learning platforms to future-proof service delivery. The department will explore how higher level qualifications can be accessed through SOL, further strengthening the overall pathway for progression.
  • Ensuring industry training meets labour market skill demands. The department currently employs approximately 300 employment instructors who give on-the-job training that supports learners to get industry qualifications. We will strengthen our relationships with Industry Training Organisations and employers to ensure that industry training aligns with labour market demand
  • Finally, the department understands that for education to be effective there needs to be an on-going focus on professional standards and quality assurance to ensure that best practices are established and maintained. The department will develop quality assurance and practice guidelines to support the delivery and management of frontline education services. This will also enable us to gather education outcome data and allow for investment to be targeted in those areas that deliver the biggest educational and rehabilitative benefit.


There is no simple solution to improving educational outcomes for people in prison, particularly when one considers the complex intersection of the education system, funding arrangements, custodial environments and learner need. Further, prison learner educational disparity is often the result of long-standing historical, socio-economic and cultural processes that have impacted individuals and communities prior to their involvement in the criminal justice system, much less prison. To help address these disparities, we  will focus on re-engaging learners through quality education services that meet the unique needs, goals and aspirations of learners. The learner’s language, identity and culture will be central to service delivery, as will clear links to jobs, as the economic benefits of education are often a key driver of engagement.

We will continue to work closely with education providers, industries, employers and learners to design programmes based on actual demand. This requires the development of a flexible prison education system that is responsive to an increasingly diverse prison population, both in terms of individual need, demographics, and providing opportunities to gain the skills needed in a dynamic labour market.


  1. Based on data extracted from the Adult Literacy and Numeracy Assessment Tool and Prisoner Qualification Attainment data (as registered with NZQA).
  2. For more Information on the Learning Progressions please see:
  3. Foundation Qualifications typically at levels one and two on the New Zealand Qualifications Framework (NZQF)
  4. As per the New Zealand Qualifications Framework.
  5. The TEC is a crown entity that leads Government’s tertiary education strategy and funds and performance monitors the tertiary education sector.


Davis, L. M., Bozick, R., Steele, J. L., Saunders, J., & Miles, J. N. (2013). Evaluating the effectiveness of correctionaleducation: A meta-analysis of programs that provideeducation to incarcerated adults. Rand Corporation.

Department of Corrections (2015) Annual Report 2015/16 – Part A Contribution to priorities and delivery of outcomes. Retrieved  from

Fazio, R. L., Pietz, C. A., & Denney, R. L. (2012). An estimate of the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders in an incarcerated population. Open Access Journal of Forensic Psychology, 4, 69-80

Hawley, J., Murphy, I., & Souto-Otero, M. (2013). “Prison education and training in Europe: Current state-of- play and challenge”. Ministry of Justice, European Commission, Brussels. Retrieved from

Indig, D., Gear, C., & Wilhelm, K. (2016) “Comorbid substance use disorders and mental health disorders among New Zealand prisoners”. New Zealand Department of Corrections, Wellington. Retrieved from

Kim, R.H., & Clark, D. (2013) “The effect of prison-based college education programs on recidivism: Propensity score matching approach”. Journal of Criminal Justice, 41, 196- 204.