by Paul Wright
This month’s cover story about prison education seems like a well-worn but broken record. In 1994, President Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which, as I noted at the time, was the biggest foray by the federal government into so-called anti-crime legislation in the 1990s if not in U.S. history. The government massively expanded the federal death penalty, lengthened prison terms, gave prison building grants to the states and basically shoveled money at the states to encourage them to imprison even more people. The bill was so wildly successful that today, even while its critics are largely mute about its massive impact on mass incarceration, there is no talk of repealing it. One of the most overlooked but harmful aspects of the law was the ban on federal Pell grants for prisoners.
Prior to the elimination of Pell grants, most prison higher education programs were funded through such grant awards with limited supplemental state funding. With the Pell grants no longer available, virtually all states followed suit and eliminated whatever postsecondary prison programs that remained. The irony is that so long as prison education has been studied, it has been shown to be the most effective and reliable rehabilitation program in terms of reducing recidivism.
This is not a case where the evidence is equivocal or nuanced; rather, it is extremely clear and no one has claimed otherwise. So of course the government had to eliminate it.
One area where the elimination of Pell grants remains a timely topic is today’s crop of presidential candidates. Joe Biden was the main drafter and supporter of the 1994 crime bill, and an advocate for eliminating higher education programs for prisoners. He has supported every federal “anti-crime” bill that was enacted over the past 50 years of his political career. Senator Bernie Sanders, then Vermont’s lone representative in the House of Representatives, also voted for the 1994 crime bill, which included the ban on Pell grants for prisoners.
The greatest irony is that at the local, state and federal levels, the United States spends over $668 billion a year on elementary and secondary school education, yet when it comes to ensuring that its citizens are literate or can attain a higher education, that interest disappears when the citizens in question happen to be held in a prison or jail.
Other systemic efforts by U.S. correctional agencies that are designed to thwart education, literacy and rehabilitation are bans on books and magazines. The Human Rights Defense Center has been at the forefront of battling prison and jail censorship, and we recently won significant lawsuits that ended publication bans by the Cook County jail in Chicago, Illinois and the Southwest Regional Jail in Virginia. [See article on p.16]. Additionally, the Kentucky Department of Corrections ended its “approved vendor” requirement for state prisoners to receive books and magazines after HRDC filed suit.
I am also excited to report that we are in the final production phases of a new book, The Habeas Citebook: Prosecutorial Misconduct, by former HRDC staff attorney Alissa Hull. We hope to have it ready to ship shortly after Labor Day. Similar to our other habeas title, The Habeas Citebook: Ineffective Assistance of Counsel, Alissa’s new book will be a resource guide on state and federal petitions where defendants secured judicial relief due to misconduct by prosecutors. We will keep readers posted on developments, and should be accepting pre-orders in August.
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