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The Second Step: Invest in Prison Education Programs, Reinstate Pell Grants

by Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Aaron Kinzel is a professor of criminal justice at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Jose Bou is the manager of Equity, Family and Community Partnerships in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Sean Pica is the executive director of Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison. Aminah Elster is a proud student at her dream school, the University of California at Berkeley. These four people don’t know each other, but they all have something in common: All are former prisoners who attended college while incarcerated. 

Once commonplace in American prisons, programs that offer access to college courses are now available to only about six percent of the nearly 2.3 million people imprisoned nationwide. There are barriers to obtaining a college degree while incarcerated, the most significant of which is financial. Unless a prisoner is lucky enough to end up at a facility where a subsidized degree program is available, he or she must come up with the money to pay for courses. Bou was one of these lucky few, attending Boston University through a prison-based college program funded by alumni.

“It was just cosmic luck,” Bou said. “Don’t look at Jose Bou and say, ‘Why don’t you do it just like Jose? Straighten up, just like Jose?’ Because they don’t have the opportunity.”

The decline in the availability of prison college programs is particularly felt by black men, who are incarcerated at higher rates than other racial groups. A 2019 study by University of California at Berkeley professor Tolani Britton found that after controlling for other factors, the 1986 Anti-Drug Act – which established mandatory minimum sentences for possession of certain drugs, including marijuana – reduced black males’ chances of enrolling in college from 22 percent to 20 percent, reversing an increase in that probability from 1980 to 1985, which was actually higher for young black men than for their white counterparts during that period.

“We as a society need to increase not just access but success in postsecondary education for people who are incarcerated or formerly-incarcerated,” Britton said. “Because that is one of the few ways for people to change not only their outcomes, but their children’s life outcomes.”

Federal Pell grants – needs-based awards to reduce the cost of college tuition – were available to prisoners who wanted to pursue college courses while incarcerated prior to the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, signed into law by President Clinton. [See: PLN, Dec. 1994, p.7]. 

Ironically, the elimination of Pell grants for prisoners was contrary to the wishes of the late U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell – the namesake of the Pell grants. “As I have often said, education is our primary hope for rehabilitating prisoners,” Senator Pell said in 1994. “Without education, I am afraid most inmates leave prison only to return to a life of crime.... Criminals should be sentenced and incarcerated, but let us also be concerned with their rehabilitation so that prison does not remain a revolving door.”

When Pell grants for prisoners were banned, hundreds of college programs at over 1,000 facilities largely disappeared, even though Pell grants awarded to prisoners represented just one percent of all such grants. Following the ban, only eight prison college programs remained across the nation. 

Sean Pica was in the process of earning one of his degrees when the 1994 bill eliminated Pell grant funding he had relied on as an incarcerated student.

“I still remember when the hammer fell, and colleges literally came in the next day and started packing up their boxes, all the books,” he said. “We couldn’t believe it. For most of us, it was the only thing that represented a second chance.”

As higher education programs for prisoners disappeared, so did the beneficial outcomes that came with them. Experts agree that education – especially participation in college courses – causes recidivism rates to plummet. An often-cited 2014 RAND Corporation report found that prisoners who enrolled in education programs were 43 percent less likely to reoffend than those who didn’t participate. RAND updated that research in 2018, reporting similar findings with respect to reduced recidivism rates for prisoners enrolled in education programs. 

Lower recidivism rates translate into economic savings. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, a 10 percent reduction in recidivism saves at least $635 million per year in the cost of incarceration. Researchers at RAND estimated that every $1 spent on prison education translates to $5 in cost savings associated with the penal system.

As the United States enters a period of increasing interest in criminal justice reform – spurred by a spreading disillusionment with the sort of punitive policies that eliminated higher education programs for prisoners decades ago – there have been calls to reinstate prison college courses. During the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) announced the Second Chance Pell pilot program in 2015. That initiative allowed 67 colleges and universities to partner with prisons to offer over 10,000 prisoners a college education funded through Pell grants – up to $6,000 per year. [See: PLN, Oct. 2016, p.45; June 2016, p.28].

The Second Chance Pell pilot program was recently extended through 2020 at the 64 sites that are still offering prison college courses. DOE Secretary Betsy DeVos has remarked that restoring prisoners’ access to Pell grants is “a very good and interesting possibility,” and in a June 13, 2019 press release on rehabilitative prison programs, the White House stated, “The Department of Education is expanding an initiative that allows individuals in prison to receive Pell Grants to better prepare themselves for the workforce.”

Meanwhile, Congressional lawmakers have begun to debate rescinding the 1994 ban on Pell grants for prisoners. U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said in 2018 that the committee would consider reinstating Pell grant access as part of the Higher Education Act. That didn’t happen, but the REAL Act – pending bipartisan legislation introduced by Senators Brian Schatz and Mike Lee (S.1074), and in the House by Reps. Danny Davis, Jim Banks and French Hill (H.R.2168) – would restore Pell grant eligibility for incarcerated students.

“The REAL Act provides another way to ensure we are not simply warehousing offenders, and we’re providing a meaningful opportunity for rehabilitation,” Senator Lee stated.

U.S. Senator Patty Murray, who in 2018 introduced her own bill to end the ban on Pell grant funding for prison college programs, said she has “long believed that education can open doors otherwise closed, and that is absolutely also the case for incarcerated individuals.

“Repealing the ban on Pell grants for prisoners will give those who paid their debts to society a meaningful second chance, and the ability to get their lives back on track and support themselves and their families once released,” she added.

“We’re in a moment where criminal justice reform has a lot of bipartisan support and momentum,” observed Tiffany Jones, director of higher education policy at the Education Trust. “We want to build on that momentum at the federal level.”

A report published in January 2019 by the Georgetown Law School’s Center on Poverty and Inequality (GCPI) and the Vera Institute of Justice makes the case for reinstating Pell grant access for prisoners. The report concludes that providing Pell grants for incarcerated students would reduce recidivism and yield “a cascade of economic benefits,” not only to prisoners and their families but to the community as a whole.

However, the benefits of prison education go beyond improvements in public safety and economics. In an April 2019 editorial, Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) and a former federal prisoner, described why providing postsecondary programs for incarcerated students intrinsically makes sense.

“People in prison who complete classes and earn degrees gain purpose and hope,” he stated. “Their sense of self-worth and dignity increases. This benefit is not self-esteem for self-esteem’s sake; it is the dignity that comes with achievement. We need more of that, especially in prisons and jails.”

Public Safety and Public Savings

In her bestselling book Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics, Marie Gottschalk argued there are just two ways to effectively frame a prison reform proposal: 1) it will improve public safety, and 2) it will result in cost savings.

“Among elite policy makers and the wider public, creating a safe, healthy, and humane penal system is generally not considered a credible and desirable public policy goal on its own,” Gottschalk wrote. “This goal has to be linked somehow to enhancing public safety and saving public money.”

The authors of the Vera and GCPI report focused almost exclusively on two significant benefits of Pell grant-supported prison education programs: 1) a reduction in recidivism rates traceable to higher education and 2) resulting net fiscal benefits to the community after prisoners are released.

In addition to the RAND study – which was the largest of its kind – other research has found significant reductions in recidivism through prison education programs, including:

• San Quentin’s Prison University Project reports a recidivism rate of 17 percent for its students after three years, compared to California’s average 65 percent recidivism.

• Cornell University’s Prison Education Program reports a seven percent recidivism rate for students who have completed three courses prior to their release, and zero recidivism for those who obtained an associate degree.

• Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison, which operates in five New York facilities, reports a recidivism rate of two percent for program graduates.

• Texas’ Department of Criminal Justice reports a recidivism rate of 27.2 percent for prisoners who earn an associate degree while incarcerated and 7.8 percent for those who earn a bachelor’s degree – far lower than the state prison system’s average recidivism rate.

• The Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) in New York, a program of Bard College, reports a two percent recidivism rate for prisoners who graduate from college programs and five percent for those who take some classes but do not obtain degrees.

These recidivism numbers may be skewed by self-selection bias – that is, prisoners who are eligible for and choose to pursue postsecondary education may inherently be less likely to return to crime after release – but experts say it seems unlikely that this could account for the significantly lower recidivism rates that accompany prison college programs.

Arthur Rizer, a former federal prosecutor who now works for R Street, a center-right think tank, called providing postsecondary education to prisoners a form of “trickle-down criminal justice.”

“The takeaway for me is that this makes us safer,” Rizer said. “Period.”

The decrease in recidivism is largely explained by the economic benefits conferred by a degree, as people with a bachelor’s degree earn almost $24,000 more annually than those who only completed high school, according to 2017 median wage data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). For those with a master’s degree, the annual median wage difference is $35,800. Only 24 percent of prisoners have some type of postsecondary education compared to 48 percent in the general population. 

Lower recidivism rates not only improve public safety, but decreased levels of crime and re-incarceration save some of the more than $80 billion spent on the U.S. criminal justice system each year. The authors of the Vera and GCPI report used a formula to estimate the probable annual economic impact of reinstating Pell grants for prisoners. 

First, the authors identified a three-year recidivism rate for each state. They then modeled a likely recidivism rate for prisoners who would participate in Pell grant-supported postsecondary programs. Finally, the researchers multiplied the number of people who would not return to prison based on lower recidivism rates by the state’s annual marginal incarceration cost per prisoner.

The report predicts that for the 48 states examined in the study, prison costs would decline by $365.8 million per year if just 50 percent of the Pell-eligible prisoners participated in a college program. If 75 percent of eligible prisoners participated, the savings would rise to $548.7 million. Annually. States would also save money due to a reduction in parole and probation supervision costs, though the report did not estimate those savings.

Fred Patrick, a Vera Institute member and co-author of the study, said reinstating Pell grants for prisoners would make good economic policy.

“It is a common-sense investment,” he noted. “[It’s] a win-win for states, the country, and for incarcerated individuals, because they are able to come home and thrive.”

Margaret diZerega, another co-author of the report and a Vera project director, echoed that sentiment: “It’s a cost saver that’s a better investment than the status quo,” she said.

Benefits to Both Employers and Prisoners

The arguments in favor of Pell grant funding for prison college programs do not end with improved public safety and cost savings. Postsecondary education provides prisoners with skills they need to secure and maintain employment after release, which also increases the pool of qualified workers for employers.

More than 95 percent of all prisoners will one day return to their communities. In 2017 alone, 606,000 state and federal prisoners were released – and many had difficulty finding jobs. The unemployment rate for the general population is around 3.6 percent; for ex-prisoners the rate is over 27 percent, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

The IRS estimates that only about half of all released prisoners are able to find work in their first year out. For those who do land a job, the average annual salary is $13,900. Researchers Bruce Western and Becky Pettit found that for men, prior incarceration reduces hourly wages by 11 percent, decreases annual employment by nine weeks and lowers annual earnings by 40 percent.

Prison education programs change this calculus. Researchers estimate that participation in prison education improves the chances of post-release employment by 13 percent. According to the Vera and GCPI report, if half of all Pell grant-eligible prisoners (i.e., those with a high school diploma or its equivalent) participated in a postsecondary program, the overall employment rate for ex-prisoners would increase by 4.7 percent.

Studies in Minnesota and Florida found that prisoners who participated in education programs also enjoyed higher earnings upon returning to the workforce. At a 50 percent participation rate for prison education programs, the Vera and GCPI researchers estimated that combined earnings among former prisoners across the 48 states included in the study would increase by more than $45 million in the first year after incarceration. 

The changing nature of work requirements makes prison education more important than ever. The Georgetown Center on Education and Workforce estimates that by 2020, a full 65 percent of all jobs will require some form of postsecondary education; further, the BLS projects that over the next decade, about five million job openings a year will have entry-level education requirements above a high school diploma or GED.

In Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) offers a prison-based program for certification as a computer numerically controlled (CNC) machinist. Jobs in Wisconsin requiring CNC training are expected to increase by about 11 percent over the next decade. The MATC’s prison program has a 94 percent post-release employment rate because there is significant demand among manufacturers for people with those skills.

“Now more than ever is the time to make major progress in getting ex-offenders into the workforce,” said former Wisconsin Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch.

Highly-skilled manufacturing jobs are also on the rise in Connecticut, where Asnuntuck Community College offers prisoners both an associate degree and a certificate in manufacturing. Asnuntuck participates in the Second Chance Pell pilot program and is helping employers fill skilled positions with trained workers. 

EDAC Technologies, a Connecticut-based manufacturer of precision parts for complex machines and aircraft, has hired multiple ex-prisoners from the Asnuntuck program and plans to employ more. Dave Russell, director of Next Generation Recruitment at EDAC, said he is impressed with the hires.

“I have formerly incarcerated employees who are successfully working full time making $20 an hour or more and contributing in very positive ways to our company,” he stated.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, an advocate for prison education programs, told his colleagues at the National Governors Association’s meeting in February 2019 that Pennsylvania gives prisoners a second chance because “getting people back to work [is] the right thing to do, and the smart thing to do.”

Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary John Wetzel added that Pell grant funding is critical to the state’s justice reinvestment approach to incarceration.

“[W]ere it not for Second Chance Pell, a state like Pennsylvania would likely have no postsecondary programming at all,” he said.

Collateral Value of Prison Education

Reducing recidivism, lowering correctional costs and improving employment rates among former prisoners are the most important quantifiable reasons to restore Pell grants for prisoners. Others, perhaps less quantifiable, are equally as important.

For one, prison education programs reduce violence, misconduct and disorder among prisoners. NYU professor and psychiatrist James Gilligan argues that education can be used to combat violence in prison because “self-esteem is the most powerful psychological force that prevents violence” and “education is one of the most powerful tools for acquiring self-esteem.”

BPI instructor Daniel Karpowitz, who wrote College in Prison: Reading in the Age of Mass Incarceration, said prison education creates a new environment where alternatives to violent behavior exist.

“College inside prison creates new choices, new and alternative ways of being, that lie between the extremes of compliance and disobedience, between resistance and surrender,” Karpowitz explained.

The reduction in violence that accompanies prison education may be why corrections officials, including wardens, have been among the most vocal critics of the ban on Pell grants for prisoners. At the time it became effective, opponents of the ban included then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, the North American Association of Wardens and Superintendents, the American Correctional Association, the Association of State Correctional Administrators and the federal Bureau of Prisons.

Prison education programs also have a positive impact on prisoners’ families and communities. Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, author of Liberating Minds: The Case for College in Prison, said having a family member go to college in prison “can become a source of pride and inspiration for others in their family.” The new ways of thinking that come with a college degree follow a prisoner home and spread through his or her community.

“Those who return from prison with a deep dedication to the benefits of learning and a commitment to avoid any further involvement in crime can speak with particular authority about the difficulties of going to prison and the need to study hard and to steer clear of trouble with the law,” Lagemann added.

Nick Turner, president of the Vera Institute of Justice, agreed, saying reinstating prison college programs isn’t just for the benefit of prisoners but also “for the communities that they’re returning to.”

What happens behind bars does not stay there. A college-educated prisoner brings home an experience that can have a long-term positive impact on the community. Karpowitz believes that prison college programs have the power to work fundamental changes in both individual prisoners and, by extension, the nation as a whole.

“[T]he college is important in part because it presents definitions of participation and modes of conformity that differ from those of the prison,” Karpowitz said. “In the broadest view, this is why I feel the college inside the prison is an important political space, with implications for the nation at large, even as we work to reduce our generation’s overuse of prisons.”

Educating prisoners is an investment in lives. According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise, the benefits of a college education include “expanding horizons, building understanding of the wider world, honing analytical and communication skills, and fostering responsibilities beyond self.” Lagemann noted that these dividends are worth pursuing whether someone is incarcerated or not.

“Prisons diminish human capital,” she said. “Investments in education increase it.”

Challenges of Prison Education

Prison education programs are not without challenges, though. RAND partnered with RTI International on a five-year study of North Carolina’s Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education, established in 2013. The Pathways program offers prisoners college courses during their last two years behind bars, plus another two years at community colleges post-release so they can earn a degree or certificate.

“The program we evaluated was given high marks by both the participants and the prison officials who were involved,” said lead study author Lois Davis. “But an overarching lesson is that it takes time to implement a prison and community-based program that has many partners and targets a population that has diverse needs.”

The report found that prisoners take more time to complete coursework than other students, which led to a recommendation that prisoners be afforded additional time to complete college courses, including taking classes part-time immediately after release to allow for acclimation to the campus environment. 

Researchers also discovered that former prisoners fared poorly in the post-release transition to college when separated from supportive family members. As part of the Pathways program, prisoners had to agree to be released to one of three locations in North Carolina where the participating community colleges were available. However, this sometimes meant they had to live far from their families and support networks.

“The North Carolina Pathways Program offers valuable insights into the success and challenge of implementing a prison-based postsecondary education program intended to help participants continue their education upon release,” said report co-author Michelle C. Tolbert. “These lessons can help guide other states that want to undertake such efforts.”

In June 2019, Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit research group, reviewed the Second Chance Pell pilot program and found that other than recidivism statistics there is not much documented evidence of the effects of prison education. Meagan Wilson, one of the authors of the group’s report, “Unbarring Access: A Landscape Review of Postsecondary Education in Prison and Its Pedagogical Supports,” said more research is needed.

“We’ve been denying education to [the imprisoned] population for so long, we really need to think critically and we need to be strategic about the way we go forward and make sure we’re not excluding those who can benefit,” she stated. “We don’t know how to successfully implement pedagogical supports in these programs because we don’t know about the programs themselves. We know about places like Bard College that have a presence, but we don’t even know all of the schools that are doing this. There are so many community colleges or small programs that are doing this in rural or isolated locations and we don’t have an aggregate number.”

In May 2019, the Illinois DOC requested a large increase for educational supplies as part of the 2020 state budget proposed by Governor J.B. Pritzker. After spending just $300 on books for two dozen prisons in 2017, the DOC requested and received $7,000 in fiscal year 2019; for the next year it has requested $350,000, according to spokesperson Lindsey Hess. DOC Director John Baldwin said the funding would mostly be used to purchase nonfiction books.

He also asked for 10 additional education instructors, though that would bring the prison system’s total to just 210 – representing a five percent increase. Illinois has a prison population of around 44,400. A 2018 report by the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget’s Budgeting for Results Commission estimated future cost savings of $39 for every $1 spent on postsecondary education prison programs.

“The governor is committed to criminal justice reform and believes education is an important tool to reducing recidivism rates in Illinois,” stated Pritzker spokesman Jordan Abudayyeh.

Restoring Pell Grant Funding to Prisoners

The Vera Institute reports that between 2013 and 2015, states across the country generated 286 bills, executive orders and ballot initiatives related to criminal justice reform. In December 2018, Congress passed and President Trump signed the First Step Act – a law that some believe represents a turning point in societal and legislative attitudes towards criminal justice policies. Others are more skeptical. [See: PLN, April 2019, p.1; January 2019, p.34].

A 2018 poll taken by Justice Action Network, an Ohio-based prison reform organization, found 92 percent of Democrats and 79 percent of Republicans agree that criminal justice should be rehabilitative. It is widely acknowledged that education is the most effective form of rehabilitation. 

The Vera and GCPI report found that most prisoners would be eligible for Pell grants if they were restored, and that most prisoners want an education. Further, as noted above, educating prisoners pays significant social dividends, financial and otherwise.

Opponents of reinstating Pell grants for prison college programs argue that it would cost too much, and that offering Pell grants to incarcerated students would take funding away from non-incarcerated students. However, prisoners would barely make a dent in the $28 billion Pell grant budget – they were responsible for less than one percent of Pell grant funding in 1994, their last year of eligibility. Nor would awards to prisoners impact qualified non-prisoners’ ability to receive Pell grants. In 1994, the Government Accountability Office stated: “If incarcerated students received no Pell grants, no student currently denied a Pell award would have received one and no award amount would [have] been increased.”

Attorney and social theorist Otto Kirscheimet once said, “all public policy is irrational, but none is as irrational as criminal justice policy.” Former federal prosecutor Author Rizer took this observation one step further, saying when it comes to Pell grant funding for prisoners, “It’s bat-shit crazy the way we’ve handled this in the past.”

Aminah Elster, the ex-prisoner now enrolled at UC Berkeley, said she wants people to understand two things: “how transformative postsecondary education in prison can be” and that “prisoners are people, too.”

“Many like myself just never had the support of loved ones encouraging their success in higher learning, and therefore never pursued it,” Elster stated. “However, the community many folks develop inside the classroom is one of strong support and determination that leads to a better future with greater opportunity. The more people who have access to that experience while in prison, the better it will be for us all.”

PBS Series Focuses on Prison Education

In November 2019, PBS will broadcast “College Behind Bars,” a four-hour documentary series that delves into the lives of a dozen men and women trying to earn bachelor’s degrees through the Bard Prison Initiative, which operates in New York’s prison system. 

Widely regarded as one of the nation’s most difficult but effective education programs for prisoners, the 20-year-old BPI enrolls around 300 students at an annual cost of $6,000 each, most of which is privately funded.

Award-winning filmmaker Lynn Novick teamed with Sarah Botstein to create the film, which was produced by Ken Burns, in order to focus attention on some stark statistics: Over 600,000 of America’s 2.2 million state and federal prisoners are released each year, but more than half are re-incarcerated within five years.

“This film challenges conventional wisdom about education and incarceration, and raises questions we urgently need to address,” said Novick. “What ultimately is prison for? Who in America has access to educational opportunity? Who among us is capable of academic excellence? How can we break the cycle of recidivism? How can we have justice without redemption?”

The dearth of meaningful rehabilitative opportunities, such as BPI and other prison college programs, leaves many prisoners like those profiled in the documentary trapped in a cycle of arrest, imprisonment, release and re-arrest.

“Prison is to punish,” one BPI student tells the filmmakers. “It’s not about creating productive beings. Individuals are not being prepared for anything other than what they’ve already been doing – crime.”

The PBS film “puts a human face on the millions of Americans whose lives are erased from public view when they enter prison,” added Botstein, “and raises questions about whether our criminal justice system is doing enough to prepare incarcerated men and women to re-enter society and become productive citizens, especially in a country that believes in second chances.”

“We think that all people are created with dignity and all people were created for a purpose,” said Shapri LoMaglio, vice president for government relations for the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities, which supports rescinding the ban on Pell grants for incarcerated students. “We think that education gives people an opportunity to fulfill their purpose vocationally. That applies whether you’re a prisoner or not.” 

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Sources: Criminal Justice Magazine; PBS.org; theintercept.com; USAToday.com; thehill.com; diverseeduction.com; themarshallproject.org; thecrimereport.org; insidehighered.com; jsonline.com; educationdive.com; chronicle.com; nytimes.com; will.illinois.edu; hudsonlink.org; theatlantic.com; Caught: The Prison States and the Lockdown of American Politics, by Marie Gottschalk; College in Prison: Reading in an Age of Mass Incarceration, by Daniel Karpowitz; Liberating Minds: The Case for College in Prison, by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann; Preventing Violence, by James Gilligan; “College Learning for the New Global Century,” by the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise, Association of American Colleges and Universities; rand.org; whitehouse.gov; sltrib.com; govinfo.gov; bls.gov

Former federal prisoner Christopher Zoukis, MBA, author of College for Convicts and the Prison Education Guide, is an adjunct professor in Adams State University’s Prison College Program. He can be found online at prisonerresource.com.