Visit Modern Campus

Investing in Second Chances: How Education Empowers Incarcerated Individuals for Re-entry


All adult learners need opportunities to gain the skills and credentials they need to succeed in the workforce, and that includes incarcerated individuals, who are especially vulnerable to unemployment.   

Last month, CAEL celebrated our members in a special way. Membership Appreciation Month highlighted the power of adult learning and cross-sector partnerships through networking, education and opportunities to connect and celebrate. These events were full of reminders about the values and priorities that bring our members together. However, I thought our keynote speaker’s story was particularly poignant, prompting us to consider the often-overlooked potential of one subpopulation of adult learners. Based on the reactions from the hundreds of members who joined me for that webinar, I know I wasn’t alone.  

Our keynote speaker for Member Appreciation Month, Matthew Scott, is a regional education administrator who oversees the development, implementation, organization, administration and evaluation of programs for 28,000 adult learners. It just so happens that these adult learners reside in the 22 institutions within the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) Southeast Region. For some of us, people who are incarcerated might not paint the prototypical picture of adult learners, yet they serve as one of the best examples of the powerful potential adult learning offers. Matt reminded us that these individuals, though incarcerated, share the same desire for growth and opportunity. 

The Challenges of Reentry 

As he delivered his keynote from a vocational training area within the federal correctional institution in Talladega, Alabama, Matt argued that we are all impacted by the criminal justice system in one form or another, even if in the most indirect sense of being a taxpayer. His perspective punctuated the vested interest we share in the FBOP’s commitment to help people reenter society as productive citizens.  

Without the diverse and mission-aligned collaboration at the heart of the CAEL community, that outcome faces tough odds. The data paint a stark picture: Matt cited a 2021 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showing that it takes an average of seven months for someone to find a job following release from prison. In the first calendar year following release, only 55% of justice-involved individuals reported earnings or paid taxes. At no point were more than 40% of them employed. Overall, the unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated individuals is around 27%, higher than the unemployment rate that defined the Great Depression. Yet, as Matt reminded us, these individuals have served their time. They have earned their way back into our community. When they nonetheless remain ostracized from it, it is not just them who pay the price. Their communities do as well.  

The CAEL community is well acquainted with the compelling narrative of the Comebacker and its implications for community prosperity. Incarcerated individuals may face a different kind of comeback challenge, but it too has profound ramifications for individuals and their communities. Education and training programs can provide a head start in taking on these challenges. Most important, Matt stressed, are the people who bring these programs to life.  

He shared his first-hand knowledge of their impact, how his own life has mirrored the transformative power of education and the people who saw his potential and offered their help. After his premature departure from high school, he would discover his life’s work in education through the empathy and commitment of teachers who took the time to engage with him and other struggling students. Thanks to their encouragement and support, he got back on track. He completed high school, served in the U.S. Navy, and completed a bachelor’s degree and teacher certification. A different choice, Matt admitted, could have led him down a far different path. 

Matt urged attendees to be patient and persistent when offering such support. It may seem like learners can’t comprehend the outreach, but often that’s because it’s never been offered to them. It was this appreciation of what Matt calls the intergenerational demand for education in a carceral setting that led him to the job he holds today. But it’s a job he hopes to lose, he told us. He longs for the day there are no longer enough incarcerated individuals to require his services. 

In the meantime, there are more than 1.2 million individuals incarcerated in federal and state prisons who hope to get their own second chance. 

The Power of Education and Partnerships: The Ripple Effect 

That’s why Matt travels the country to attend and host events. More forward-reaching partnerships, he explained, enable longitudinal relationships that maintain support from education and training through employment and career advancement. As examples, he mentioned the Second Chance Business Coalition and Second Chance Pell Grants 

While the enrollment implications of adding the nation’s incarcerated individuals to education and training programs are obvious, Matt sees a deeper meaning in including these students within our mission to serve adult learners. To exemplify the potential of reentry support, he invited two Second Chance Pell students to address our audience. They shared some of the courses they were taking (art appreciation and human development), why these opportunities are so important and what it means to them personally. One of them invoked Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead to argue that society’s treatment of incarcerated individuals reflects its overall moral character. Having spent more than 20 years in prison, he said releasing people unprepared to reenter society is a recipe for disappointment on all accounts. If prisoners are considered a taxpayer burden while living within a prison, does it make sense to leave them unprepared to live independently outside of one? 

Matt noted that prison education programs, which range from GEDs to full-fledged degrees, receive the support of outside partners and volunteers, from individuals to institutions. “You are the biggest thing missing from our programs,” he told us, stressing that anyone can be the difference maker that helps someone reinvent themselves. In fact, it’s a process he says we should all embrace, as every day is a new day to develop ourselves.  

Get Involved 

I know it might not always be easy to see the impact you create on an individual level. But in my own work and personal experiences, I can attest to the power of the collective impact our community creates, and it begins with each of you. If you’d like to include work with justice-involved individuals in your impact, visit the FBOP website, connect with Matt on LinkedIn or contact CAEL at to discuss ideas on how we could collaborate. I also encourage you to view the entire webinar with Matthew, which contained far more powerful moments than I could capture here, at