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Education is Better than Punishment: Something We Can All Support!

Education is Better than Punishment: Something We Can All Support!

by Vivian D. Nixon

I learned in the harshest way possible that in the United States of America, every felony conviction, no matter what the judge officially assigns in months or years, quite literally results in a life sentence. As a strong proponent of decarceration, I am encouraged by efforts toward sentencing reform which will get some people out of prison sooner. But I am painfully aware that release from prison will present new challenges for those individuals whose futures have been made permanently fragile by their status as convicted criminals.

The lifetime consequences of a criminal conviction are evident in the diminished social status and in the devastation of poor communities and communities of color that have been hyper-policed, hyper-prosecuted and hyper-punished for decades. Individuals from these communities are punished not only by virtue of the time they actually spend in prison, on probation or in an alternative program, but because of the additional punishments that are inflicted for a lifetime. The consequences of a felony conviction include periods of voter disenfranchisement that vary state by state, travel restrictions, restricted access to public housing, restrictions on federal educational benefits, barriers to certifications and licensure for certain professions, and an irreversible stigma that permeates every aspect of life.

For those who spend time in prison, release is stressful under the best of circumstances. People are released with a small stipend that barely covers the cost of living for a day or two. Without adequate assistance, many understandably fail to find meaningful employment, build relationships and integrate successfully into a community. Having been released to a militaristic system of supervision that provides few services, imposes conditions that almost guarantee failure and often expects failure, many parolees return to prison. Those who manage to successfully stay out remain stigmatized by the requirement that they continue to identify themselves on legal documents, job applications, school applications and in numerous other places as a person who has a criminal conviction, no matter how long ago the original crime occurred. These types of punitive responses to people who have made serious mistakes but have already repaid their debts to society do nothing to solve the problems, like unemployment, that lead to crime, and hinder rather than promote rehabilitation and successful integration into the community.

It is difficult to understand why there would be any policy in place that would make it more difficult for people to come home from prison and do the right thing. I’m assuming the perspective of the mainstream in that doing the right thing means, at the very least, becoming self-supporting and living within the boundaries of the law. It has been argued that many of the barriers that are in place to restrict convicted people from certain jobs, from public housing, etc., are there to protect the public. However, the stronger arguments demonstrate that such barriers are purely punitive. Furthermore, in being punitive to individuals, we are actually causing further damage to our larger society. Unsurprisingly, there is now strong evidence to show that by failing to provide convicted individuals with the tools needed to succeed once they leave the criminal justice system, growing incarceration has significantly increased poverty in our nation.

Among the most absurd punitive policies making it difficult to succeed after conviction are policies that restrict access to higher education. I say absurd because, at this point, even those on the most conservative side of the public dialogue about prison reform agree that “Prisoners should be provided free education in order to reduce crime and recidivism.” This is a direct quote that former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich made during a meeting of Right on Crime in Washington, D.C. last spring.

At the same time that living-wage employment has required higher skill levels, education – particularly higher education – has increasingly become the most under-appreciated, underused and under-supported tool offered inside correctional facilities. This has happened despite the numerous studies proving that education is the most reliable predictor of reduced criminal recidivism. Educational attainment, besides being a worthy goal in itself, also increases one’s prospects for securing meaningful employment, enabling individuals to support themselves and their families. While nationwide 43.3% of formerly incarcerated individuals are likely to return to prison within three years of release, the likelihood drops to 5.6% for Bachelor’s degree recipients and less than 1% for Master’s degree recipients.

Despite this data the growing trend is to create post-conviction barriers for individuals who are attempting to apply to college. The Center for Community Alternatives found that nearly sixty percent of colleges and universities nationwide screen students for criminal records during the application process. In some cases, applicants are asked whether they’ve ever been arrested – even if the arrest did not lead to a conviction. Institutions that request this information often do so without appreciation for the complexities of criminal records and with no thoughtful process for evaluating the impact a criminal record may or may not have on a particular student’s ability to successfully engage in the educational process.

For incarcerated individuals who desire to access higher learning opportunities, yet another barrier exists: they are ineligible for federal Pell Grants. Established by the late Senator Claiborne Pell, the grants allowed people – including those inside correctional facilities – who could not afford college to access postsecondary education. Incarcerated students were made ineligible for Pell Grants in 1994 under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, a contradiction of Senator Pell’s legacy of helping ensure that everyone could attend college. After eligibility was removed, the number of higher education programs in prisons dropped from 350 to 8, nationwide.

For more than 40 years, the goal of the Pell Grant program has been to provide need-based assistance to students to promote access to higher education. Funding flows directly to the educational institution, and eligibility for aid is based on student need and expected family contributions. Pell Grants are available to anyone who qualifies; thus, removing the barrier to eligibility for incarcerated persons does not diminish the opportunity of any other eligible student to receive financial aid. It simply ensures that all qualified low-income students who are motivated to pursue higher education have equal access to aid.

As a formerly incarcerated woman of color, my incarceration does not define me but it did provide an opportunity for me to live a life that matters. I always knew that prison had changed me forever, but I wasn’t sure exactly how it had changed me until I returned to the Albion Correctional Facility as an invited guest to speak to the women about education. Returning reminded me that I had found meaning as a tutor in the Adult Basic Education class there, and that’s where I realized that once caught up in the cycle without education it is almost impossible to get out. I vowed then to complete college when I got out and I’ve been working to make sure others have the opportunity to do the same.

When my visit was over it was count time. I noticed the deadly silence that descends when there is no movement in the prison; I felt out of place. Then I remembered that “out of place” is indeed a punishable charge for “inmates.” The fear that had been eternally etched into my spirit was re-ignited. The sense of foreboding traveled with me as I cleared the gate and returned to a society in which I am forever “out of place.”

People with criminal convictions live among us daily. It is up to us to decide how best to create systems and policies that promote public safety. Making it difficult for people to access opportunity and contribute to society is contrary to that goal, and contrary to the economic health of our country.

The Education from the Inside Out Coalition supports policy change to eliminate the 1994 ban on Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated persons and re-establish the opportunity for otherwise eligible people in prison to obtain college financial aid through Pell Grants for postsecondary education programs. We also work to eliminate discriminatory practices for people with convictions who are applying to colleges on the outside. For more information please write to us at the Education from the Inside Out Coalition, 475 Riverside Drive, Suite 1626, New York, NY 10115;


Vivian D. Nixon is the executive director of College and Community Fellowship in New York; she provided this article exclusively for PLN.


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