by Anthony W. Accurso
Twenty-five years after the federal government restricted prisoners from obtaining Pell Grants to pay for higher education while incarcerated, bipartisan support for new legislation reinstating access is gaining ground in the national conversation surrounding mass incarceration.
“Education is to the future for just about anyone and everyone. So we should be embracing these opportunities for brothers and sisters who are behind bars today who will be in our communities and with their families and giving them a means for a purpose … and giving them that kind of opportunity to pursue the next right thing for themselves.”
These words were spoken by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos at Prison Fellowship’s Justice Declaration Symposium held last September at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. DeVos encouraged 80 church leaders to lobby congressional offices to support legislation that would restore access to Pell Grant money for prisoners.
“We all need second chances,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if we are ever behind bars or not. We all make mistakes and we all need a chance to be redeemed. I think that this, from my perspective, is really a no brainer, to put in my grandchild’s terminology.”
Prisoners were not always barred from obtaining Pell Grant money for college, but DeVos’ perspective that reinstating this program for prisoners is a “no brainer” highlights just how far our nation has come from the “tough on crime” rhetoric of the late 1990s to the “smart on crime” messaging of today.
Trends in criminal justice are often described in terms of a pendulum that traces a slow arc between extremes, and it is useful to understand where this pendulum has been in order to grasp why this issue has only recently achieved such consensus support.
By the 1960s, the impact that greater access to college education had on American prosperity fueled momentum to make college affordable for more students.
The Higher Education Act of 1965 created a program to offer undergraduates from low-income families financial assistance for various post-baccalaureate programs. This new system — called Pell Grants, after Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell — provided a path out of poverty by increasing access to white-collar job skills. This made the nation’s pool of workers more educated and mobile, which was increasingly necessary after globalism and the opening of new markets (like China) would eventually see America export its manufacturing base abroad.
An expansion of this program at the federal level in 1972 made Pell Grants eligible to the incarcerated. By the early 1990s, there were about 770 programs operating in 1,300 prisons, which provided college-credit courses to approximately 19 percent of federal prisoners and 14 percent of state prisoners.
This system closed its doors on prisoners when Congress passed the omnibus crime bill known as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. During an era when the country was concerned with high rates of violent crime, politicians ramped up dehumanizing rhetoric about prisoners. Politicians frequently referenced the notion of “super predators” — recidivist, violent offenders who were supposedly beyond redemption — and found new ways to appear tough on crime by supporting anything that seemed to punish prisoners.
Originally proposed by then Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican from Texas, the ban, which was at first only applied to prisoners sentenced to life without parole or the death penalty, was applied to all prisoners, regardless of their offenses. But Democrats were on board, too: The bill was signed into law by President Bill Clinton and championed by then-Senator Joseph Biden Jr., later vice president under Barack Obama. Then Congressman Bernie Sanders also voted for it.
The two most prevalent themes of this discussion were that prisoners could not be punished harshly enough by simply incarcerating them, and that educating prisoners somehow diverted extremely limited funds for low-income students, thereby depriving poor, law-abiding students. “We will soon have the best educated prison population in the world — but we will have sacrificed the hopes and dreams of hundreds of thousands of our young men and women, who always have been good citizens,” Senator Hutchison told Congress in 1993.
The result of this ban was that, by 2004, participating in college programs by prisoners was half of what it was in 1991. Those remaining were sustained entirely by state funded programs and private donations.
Though violent crimes peaked in the early-’90s and began to fall through the mid-’90s and beyond, the tough-on-crime attitude driving harsher punishments and mass incarceration continued through to the early years of the Obama administration. While liberal politicians were regretting their tough-oncrime positions and acknowledging the links between poverty, racism, and incarceration, it took the budget-pinching financial meltdown of 2009 to convince fiscal conservatives that simply building more prison bunks was neither effective nor economically sound.
Politicians then began to adopt the notion of being “smart on crime,” which in practical terms, meant justifying spending less money on punishment alone and more money on programs that were shown to reduce costs in the long term — as long as these reforms did not come with a reduction in public safety.
The Obama administration took the lead by pushing for legislation, which began with a pilot program in 2015 called the Second Chance Pell Experimental Site Initiative. Under it, the federal government partnered with 67 colleges in 27 states to provide Pell Grant funding for some prisoners as a test project. By fall 2017, this program was serving 5,053 prisoners, and will provide recidivism data as those prisoners are released back into society.
Recent studies have helped reinforce this push. One study found that, over a three-year period, correctional education can save taxpayers five dollars for every dollar spent on such programs.
A January 2019 study by the Vera Institute titled, “Investing in Futures: Economic and Fiscal Benefits of Postsecondary Education in Prison,” shows this is likely money well spent as it found prisoners who participate in post-secondary education in prison are 43 percent less likely to commit another crime.
The Vera Institute study also outlines the potential economic impact of reinstating full access to Pell Grants for prisoners. It found that newly released prisoners would likely collectively earn an extra $45.3 million in the first years after their release as a result of qualifying for jobs that require specialty skills, and the states collectively will likely save a total of $365.8 million each year.
This all could be accomplished with a minimal increase in Pell Grant funding and would not deprive non-incarcerated low-income students who currently rely on Pell. The budget for Pell Grants in 2017 was $26.9 billion, and reinstating full access for prisoners would likely represent a mere 5 percent increase in program funding.
While these figures evince the economic benefits reinstating Pell access for prisoners, the intangible benefits are just as compelling.
Aminah Elster spent six years in jail until being transferred to Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, California. She was on a waiting list for two more years before she could take college courses offered there by Feather River College.
“Before, I was mentally confined to the few blocks where I grew up. My college-level courses opened up my mind and my eyes to the greater world around me and challenged me to want a better life outside of prison,” said Elster. “It was sitting in those very same classrooms that I began to stop assigning my bad choices to others, as I grew acquainted with accountability.”
Elster earned an associate’s degree in liberal arts and humanities and obtained certificates in business and entrepreneurship. After release, she found a job and began classes at UC Berkeley within a year of release.
Charlie Praphatananda was diagnosed with dyslexia and a learning disability in fourth grade, and he was kicked out during his junior year of high school. When he was 20, he participated in a robbery that resulted in a murder and was sentenced to life without parole.
Prison education programs helped him turn around. He earned his GED, then his associate of arts, and became one of Cal State LA’s first students behind bars. “You come to this crossroads where to realize that when they say life without, they mean literally you’re not ever going to get out of prison,” said Praphatananda, “and you have to make that choice of what you’re going to do with your life.”
After 22 years, Praphatananda’s sentence was commuted, a decision largely influenced by his outstanding behavioral record and educational accomplishments. “When I was in and I had life without, I had given up on trying to ever get out,” he said. “To go from that perspective to, ‘I’m out here now — I get to go to college, I get to spend time with my family, I get to work — that is a blessing.’”
These programs also change the correctional environment. The prison experience for many simply involves a survive-or-die mentality that perpetuates the cycle of perverse incentives and bad choices that result in disciplinary problems and reincarceration. But studies show that access to college classes makes correctional environments safer, partly because such programs are often conditioned on good behavior, but also because prisoners like Praphatananda yearn for an alternative path.
The Restoring Education and Learning Act of 2019 (REAL Act) was introduced by Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), as well as Representatives Danny Davis (D-Illinois), Jim Banks (R-Indiana), and French Hill (R-Arkansas).
This bill would reinstate access to Pell Grants for prisoners, and it has wide-ranging support. Backers include the Association of State Correctional Administrators, Association of American Colleges and Universities, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, ACLU, and the Law Enforcement Action Partnership. The Human Rights Defense Center, which publishes PLN, has pushed for education for prisoners for 30 years and is also a supporter.
Not everyone is on-board with full access, with some entirely resistant and others who want to keep the ban in place for prisoners on death row or who are serving life without parole. “I’m not really sure where this push for Pell is corning from,” Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina) said at a recent hearing. Acknowledging the political challenges presented by this legislation, prison college attendee and now former prisoner, Maurice Smith of Baltimore, said, “It’s hard to talk about second chances when my actions didn’t give an individual a second chance.”
But with so many groups on board, there’s a good chance that progress will be made on this issue in the near future. Educating prisoners and preparing them for their eventual release is increasingly acknowledged as necessary since 95 percent of prisoners will one day be released into the community. “I’d rather have people who are rehabilitated and can contribute to society than people who are just rotting in a prison cell,” said Mai Fernandez, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime. “There are a lot of offenders who have severe trauma backgrounds. We need to look at them also as victims.”
Sources: vera.org, fastcompany.com, insidehighered.com, thecrimereport.org, schatz.senate.gov, christianpost.com, calmatters.org, prisonpolicy.org, thehill.com, nytimes.com, truthout.org, npr.org, psmag.com, studentaid.ed.gov, rstreet.org, about.bgov.com.
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