The recent announcements of the pilot project restoring Pell Grants to qualified inmates has been greeted almost universally with praise; there is no question that the positive social and economic outcomes of this initiative will be huge. But while weRead More
In the spring of 2015, the Obama administration made the exciting announcement that it would allow colleges at select prisons to provide face-to-face instruction to select prisoners. Titled The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, it will assist released prisoners “getRead More
For anyone imprisoned, the possibility of a transfer can be very disruptive emotionally; after spending years in the same facility you become accustomed to the same faces and routines. But the impact can be far more serious when an individualRead More
By Kaitlin Mulhere Twenty-five miles from Montgomery, Ala., in the middle of the tough-on-crime, fiscally conservative Deep South, sits an unusual place of learning. A 20-foot fence with razor wire surrounds the campus. Armed guards stand at the entrances. StudentsRead More
Image courtesy motherjones.com By Ben Notterman / Huffington Post Video of Henry McCollum’s release shows the exonerated death row inmate making his way through a crowd of excited onlookers and into his family’s car, where he could not figure outRead More
A National Network of Prison Education Programs
The 1980s were a period of expansion for prison education programs. Through the vehicle of federal financial assistance, inmates were able to enroll in vocational and college courses in their prisons, programs offered through community colleges and state universities alike. For a period, prisoners had a meaningful chance at learning a quality trade or even earning an associate’s or bachelor’s college degree during their term of imprisonment. Over 350 in-prison college programs flourished, with professors teaching classes “live,” in the prisons.
The Collapse: Congress Slams the Door on Education in Prison
All of this came to a screeching halt with the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The Act, a component of the anti-prison education agenda pushed in Congress and the Senate, imposed a ban on inmates receiving any form of federal financial aid to assist them in the pursuit of an education. With the slashed funding, nearly every externally supported prison education program in the nation shut down, and the result was an increase in prisoner unrest, violence, and recidivism. Colleges, prisoners, and prison administrators alike objected, and loudly so, but their pleas fell upon deaf ears.
Advocates for eliminating Pell Grants and other need-based financial assistance for prisoners claimed that those incarcerated shouldn’t be given government funding to pursue education. They advanced an agenda asserting that prisoners were taking funding away from traditional college students — a patently false assertion — and that offering college to inmates was a reward for crime. Some even had the gall to suggest that people were committing crimes in order to go to prison, where they could obtain a college education. It was a political firestorm like no other, and one based on emotion, not fact, logic, or empirical research.
There are many “smart on crime” reasons to reinstate prisoners’ eligibility for Pell grants and other need-based financial aid. When we look at the benefits of educating prisoners we see reductions in recidivism, increases in pro-social thinking, enhanced post-release employment prospects, and strengthened ties to children and communities. The list goes on and on. Today, I’d like to touch upon the ideas that funding prison education programs is not a reward for crime, improves the economy, and reduces the number of victims (more specifically, new victims of repeat offenders).
Not A Reward for Crime
Perhaps the most important reason to reinstate prisoner eligibility for Pell grants and other need-based financial assistance actually concerns the refutation of arguments to defund it. The argument goes something like this: The prisoner broke the law, so they should not be rewarded with a college-level education while they serve their term of incarceration. The problem here is that prisoners don’t see educational restrictions as a punishment, but life as usual. Prisoners usually come from an educationally disadvantaged population. They are poor, have very few employable skills, and often don’t even complete high school. Telling a person like this that they cannot go to school isn’t a punishment to them, it is life.
The vast majority of those in American prisons feel as though they never had any meaningful access to education prior to their criminal lifestyle, even if the public school system was open to them. Often they feel as though their only option was a life of crime. This has a lot to do with the families and communities they grow up in. Restricting an education from a person like this — a person who desperately needs the life-saving tool of education — is plainly cruel. It’s setting the already disadvantaged prisoner up to fail. If we do so, we shouldn’t be surprised when they do.
Preventing inmates from obtaining scholastic financial assistance clearly doesn’t punish prisoners, it punishes us, the American people. Restricting funding for prison education programs merely prevents those who want a better life after their release from prison from obtaining one. When these tools are restricted — either by means of banning prisoners from educational pursuits or by refusing to fund such programs — we are really hurting ourselves much more.
“We must accept the reality that to confine offenders behind walls without trying to change them is an expensive folly with short term benefits — winning battles while losing the war. It is wrong, it is expensive, it is stupid.” — United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger
Prison education is the most cost-effective method of reducing recidivism — the percentage of inmates that fall back into a life of crime, are rearrested, and re-imprisoned. Recidivism has been draining the economy, overcrowding the prison systems, and causing more people to become victims of crime. It’s a problem, and prisoner education is the most cost-effective solution, infinitely more than incarceration alone.
Inmates, however, rarely have access to any kind of education because there is simply no meaningful source of funding for such in-prison programming. Pell Grants — need-based educational grants provided to low-income students — were the only systematized funding source since 1965, but in 1994, when the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act and the Higher Education Reauthorization Act were passed by Congress and signed into law by the Clinton Administration, prisoners were restricted from all federal financial aid. As a result, most in-prison educational programs were forced to shut their doors. This resulted in a correlating increase in recidivism rates due to incarcerated students being shut out of the classroom. The record 350+ in-prison college programs simply ceased to exist without a sustainable funding source.
America’s prisons are quickly becoming a drain on local, state, and federal budgets. It’s estimated that as many as 30% to 40% of federal prisons are now over-capacity — a number that some believe will exceed 50% within the next 10 years[i] — with state prisons suffering from similar problems.[ii]
Many believe this overcrowding is the result of an increase in crime. But crime rates have consistently fallen in the past two decades. Violent crime is at an all-time low, and property crime is not far behind.[iii] So while an increase in crime isn’t the problem, the problem isn’t simply a lack of prison space either.
The problem lies with recidivism — prisoners or probationers exiting custody or supervision and returning to a life of crime (and being arrested for doing so). It’s recidivism that keeps our prisons full.
The Purpose of Prisons: Punish, Rehabilitate, or Both?
Prisons are designed to be a punishment for some type of crime. But by their very nature — or at least the ideal of their purpose — they’re also meant to be a place of reformation and rehabilitation. By placing someone in prison as a punishment, it’s believed that they’ll be motivated to avoid engaging in criminal conduct in the future, thus turning their life around and placing them back on a law abiding path.
But we know that this reformative ideal is often unfulfilled. Most people do not break the law in the first place because of a sense of corrupt morals. They break the law because they know nothing else or are born into a culture in which breaking the law is an acceptable norm, and once they exit the prison system, they’re given even fewer opportunities to be productive members of society. Without opportunity, they can often feel as though they have no choice other than to go back to breaking the law. And the truth of the matter is that many, many doors are closed to them. Thus the appeal of returning to a criminal lifestyle.
They were code words. Employed in the opening salvos of the Reagan Revolution, the irresponsible “unwed mother”, lazy “welfare queen”, parasitic “drug dealer” and dangerous “gang-banger” were not-so-subtle euphemisms for the poor and people of color. The conservative movement’s concerted onslaught on the more inclusive entitlement and social safety net programs inspired by the New Deal era of government commenced, however, against the politically powerless and publicly vilified prisoner.
While the more overt War on Drugs with the attendant abolition of parole, mandatory minimum sentences, and expanded death penalty would take years to enact and for the crushing consequences to be felt, the initial forays against prisoners was fired by Virginia Congressman William Whitehurst in 1982, when he submitted legislation to rollback inmate Pell Grant disbursements. By 1991, senators and representatives from both parties (primarily from the old Confederacy) repeatedly introduced legislation to exclude “any individual who is incarcerated in any federal or state penal institution” from qualifying for Pell Grant assistance. For a decade, the various annual exclusion-fest amendments either did not make it out of their committees, or if passed on floor votes, were struck in the joint resolution committees.
Then in 1991, the primary force behind the eventually successful exclusionary legislation, Senator Jesse Helms, pontificated “the American taxpayers are being forced to pay taxes to provide free college tuitions for prisoners at a time when so many law abiding, tax-paying citizens are struggling to find enough money to send their children to college.” The following year, Representative Thomas Coleman claimed 100,000 prisoners unrightfully received Pell Grants. And in 1993, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison stated that prisoners “received as much as $200 million in Pell funds.”