Good News on College Affordability for Prisoners

August 1st 2015

On Friday, the Department of Education announced a new Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, which would expand the federal program for low-income students to once again include incarcerated people.

The program is a big step forward from the 1994 omnibus crime bill that stripped inmates of their right to use the grants. The problem of mass incarceration—one that the American people and politicians are only beginning to see as a systemic, crippling societal problem—must be met with strong measures beyond such useful but limited actions like the commutation of a few dozen non-violent drug offenders' sentences.

President Obama's pilot program is admirable in demonstrating his commitment to the cause of ending unjust incarceration in this country, and helping to prepare those inmates who will eventually be released from prison. It is notable that this is not a full reinstatement of prisoners' rights to receive Pell grants, but a pilot program—one that does not require Congressional approval, which would be difficult to get in this political climate.

Many people agree that educating inmates before their release is an excellent way of preparing them for reentry. But it is not as simple as that: prison education is a fantastic idea, and it can help to dramatically lower the recidivism rate and to improve ex-convicts' quality of life. However, education is just the beginning in the laborious task of preparing a prisoner for life outside of the yard. If mass incarceration is to be stopped and disassembled in the U.S., we will need to bring to bear a more diverse and sophisticated level of thinking to the subject.

Life in Auburn Prison

The drive north from Ithaca to the small town of Auburn follows a pastoral view of rural America. Auburn is home to the oldest prison in New York, Auburn Correctional Facility: its massive brick and mortar edifice exudes a timeless strength. A statue of the Revolutionary War hero Copper John perches atop a guard tower at the facility—a taunting piece of public art representing the ideals of liberty at the heart of the American experiment. At the prison gates there is a plaque noting that the facility performed the first execution by electrocution there in 1890. New York State’s death penalty was declared unconstitutional in 2004; it’s only the stories that remain.

Higher education in prison can come in several forms. Prisons can partner with local colleges and universities to have professors come into the prison to teach. Incarcerated students can also enroll in college correspondence classes, where classes from legitimate colleges are delivered to the inmate. These classes must be paid for upfront. There is a list of schools that offer courses for inmates, state by state.

In the spring of 2009 I took a service-learning course where six students worked as teaching assistants to a class of prisoners at Auburn. The Cornell Prison Education Program was founded in 1997, and today provides college level courses to inmates who can earn credit toward associates' degrees at Cayuga Community College.

We would carpool an hour from Cornell to work with a class of around a dozen people. They ranged from low-level drug criminals (our age or even younger), to men who had entered the prison before we were born, and who would never leave it. Our professors taught the students for half the class—talking about the rudiments of composition and last week's reading—and we worked with three inmates each on editing their writing for the remainder of the evening.

Interacting with people in prison and learning about the role of incarceration in American society has an intoxicating effect. It is the experience of coming to grips with a poorly understood and incessant national atrocity. Getting to know and teach conflicted, yet often immensely gifted individuals is an experience that never leaves you—not just because the temporary experience of confinement adds new value to daily liberties, but because it gives you a glimpse into a massive section of American society most people never think about.

Critical thinking and close reading are two crucial elements of any university education. Teaching students how to think and learn for themselves helps them to recognize injustice and mobilize against it. In a 2014 article Robert Scott argues that education strongly encourages movements for social justice, and prison education programs help their students in “[Becoming] advocates of peace, justice, social engagement, taking action to challenge individual and institutional violence, becoming spokespersons for their communities, and succeeding where the system has told them they are failures.” This statement is true up to a point; prison education can only provide so much, no matter the quality of the professors or their devotion to the cause. Working with individual prisoners is a highly rewarding pursuit, but learning something about the real situation of prisoners can be disillusioning.

One cold night in the Auburn schoolhouse, I was working with one of my favorite students, Michael, when he asked me if I read James Baldwin. I admitted that I hadn’t. I was so ignorant of his work that I wasn’t even embarrassed to admit I had no clue who James Baldwin was. Michael was aghast and told me that any serious thinker must read Baldwin, that his ideas and arguments are unparalleled in their beauty and enduring influence. And so I added another item to the long list of ways in which prison changed my life forever. Some students, like Michael, were more thoughtful and creative than others, some more enigmatic and borderline abrasive; none left anything but an indelible impression.

When I sent Michael a letter recently wondering if he might have something to say for this piece, he fired back with a typically barbed reply, asking for more information about the project, and telling me that: “Education without reintegration means nothing. In our right hands we hold degrees, in our left hands we hold our rap sheets. Here’s a question you might want to pursue, how many of us with degrees from prison programs would be allowed on the campuses of our alma maters? Reintegration and educational thinking always come from the top down. No one expects us to be able to solve our own problems, since this is the case why provide an education in the first place?”

While prisoners in many programs earn degrees identical to their unincarcerated peers, the situation outside of the prison yard is so much more complicated. Despite the good will and earnest attitude toward prison education that professors and others bring with them, education in itself can only do so much for their students.

Prison education after Pell

Aside from Cornell’s, there are eighteen prison education programs in New York State. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of other states: as of a 2005 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, just 35 percent of corrections facilities offer any college courses at all.

The executive director of one of New York’s nineteen programs, Sean Pica, has been at the privately funded Hudson Link prisoner education program from the beginning; he provided advice and direction when the organization was first established in 1998 at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, NY. His opinion was highly valued because Pica had earned 118 college credits during his time in the prison—which began in 1987 at the age of sixteen.

Pica was released in 2002 with a master’s degree in professional studies from New York Theological Seminary. We met at Grand Central Station where he had recently arrived for a meeting with the organization’s board. I followed him as we left the chic-but-cramped Café Grumpy to see a man Pica was helping with reentry.

“He needs a MetroCard,” Pica said, explaining that many people had no or severely limited transportation options, and of course this impeded the uphill task of replacing oneself among the general population. After he met with the newly released man, we walked downstairs and found a table in the relatively sedate, upscale food court.

Pica is an intensely polite and friendly person; while never off-putting, his fire hose of enthusiasm can be bracing on first meeting. He wore a button down shirt with a windowpane pattern, and carried a tan backpack containing, according to Pica, the contents of his entire life. His effusive energy sometimes spilled over into nervous fidgeting as he explained to me that he got his GED in prison, and then moved onto pre-college classes, and then university coursework.

Where the ban on Pell Grants to prisoners originated

Initially, Pica’s studies were financed by Pell Grants from the federal government. However in 1994 Congress passed an omnibus crime bill—which President Bill Clinton signed into law—that banned prisoners from receiving the grants. (The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 was written by then-Senator Joe Biden.) The 1994 crime bill also includes the Violence Against Women Act and makes drivers license data private to protect victims of harassment by pro-life advocates, among a host of other features like the Federal Assault Weapons Ban—and 60 new federal capital crimes. Bill Clinton has since admitted some responsibility for policies that contributed to mass incarceration. Former Secretary of State and current 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is also shedding a nineties-era tough-on-crime image to call for the end of mass incarceration, and for voting rights to be restored to former prisoners.

Pica happily explained that while Pell Grants are currently not available to people in prison, the late-Senator Claiborne Pell’s wife, Nuala O'Donnell, provided financial support to Hudson Link, where he is executive director. Doris Buffett (Warren's wife) is another prominent donor to Pica’s and other prison education programs. Auburn, Attica, and Albion prison all receive funding for their college programs from Buffett’s Sunshine Lady Foundation; she also gives to other prison education programs indirectly through her support of organizations like Hudson Link.

The ban on Pell Grants to prisoners has been controversial, especially lately as a movement has grown to repeal it, and with the announcement of President Obama's pilot program. The truth is, not all students are as fortunate as Pica, who received private funds to continue his education.

The end of Pell Grants to inmates has left prisoners in other states totally bereft. The ban was based on the idea that prisoners were taking money that could be going to needy, law-abiding people. On the contrary, the agency then known as the General Accounting Office sent a letter to Senator Harris Wolford (D-PA) responding to his request for information on the impact of prisoners’ Pell Grants on other needy students. The government, as personified by one Linda G. Morra, wrote that only 1 in 500 Pell recipients for the 1993-1994 award year was incarcerated, and that prisoners consumed less than 1 percent of the program’s awards. Most damning is the GAO’s refutation of the claim that a grant for a prisoner deprives a needy, unincarcerated person: “[No] student currently denied a Pell award would have received one and no award amount would [have] been increased. The Department operates the Pell program as an entitlement program.” Anyone who qualifies is eligible to receive a grant. In fact, if the money used for prisoners were given to other students, it would have added no more than $3 to their awards.

Prison education programs continue to struggle against this ideological opposition.

Pica tells me that the case for prisoner education can be most effectively expressed in economic terms; each prisoner, according to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice, costs the state of New York more than $60,000 per year. This is not to mention tax revenues from productive, successful citizens. Pica mentioned Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposal that the state pay for prisoners’ college classes (a proposal that ultimately failed) and how more and more people were realizing the benefits of educating prisoners.

A 2013 study funded by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance and produced by the RAND Corporation concluded that "inmates who participate in correctional education programs have 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison than those who do not." The study also states that an investment of $1 into prison education can reduce the cost of incarceration by $4 to $5 during the first three years after a prisoner is released.

Michael, who will, in fact, never be released from Auburn, was right that education is not enough without assistance with reintegration. This country could never afford to incarcerate so many people—on neither ethical nor material grounds. Every state in the Union now spends more on its prisoners than its students. It is becoming rapidly apparent to most Americans that the money used to imprison millions in facilities that are still grossly overcrowded is needed in places where it should have been all along: schools, infrastructure, healthcare, and other things that strengthen the populous rather than keeping so many in chains.

Share your opinion

Do you think American prisons put too big an emphasis on punishment?

No 10%Yes 90%