Prison isn’t the most intellectually stimulating environment, but the dimmest corners of the criminal justice system may actually be a perfect place to liberate an otherwise wasted mind. A new initiative by the White House to issue Pell Grants to incarcerated students is about to test just how truly corrective our so-called corrections system can be.
The plan to extend Pell Grant access in prisons is described as a “limited pilot program” authorized through a federal financial aid waiver program under the Higher Education Act. Incarcerated adults could apply for grants of up to $5,775 for tuition and related expenses, at college-level programs offered in prison facilities nationwide. Designed to allow for studying long-term effects of education on recidivism, the program moves toward restoring access to Pell Grants for incarcerated people, which Congress removed in the mid-1990s.
College behind bars remains a tough sell to some law-and-order conservatives—hence the charmingly titled counter-legislation, the “Kids Before Cons” Act. Generally, however, the idea of de-carcerating the prison population appeals to an ascendant libertarian streak among Republicans because, in fiscal terms, textbooks and professors yield better returns on investment than weight rooms and laundry duty.
Though research on prison education is still lacking, studies that have tracked the relationship between recidivism and educational attainment generally point to reduced recidivism and better preparation for transition back into their communities and the workforce upon release (nearly 690,000 people walk out of prisons each year, and several million will mill through local jails). A college degree can help offset the enormous employment barriers formerly incarcerated people typically face.
A 2013 RAND Corporation study showed that participation in prison education, including both academic and vocational programming, was associated with an over 40 percent reduction in recidivism—saving $4 to $5 for each dollar spent.
But educational interventions may have more profound social impacts. Attending college classes has been associated with improved social climate and communications in the prison population, and “reduced problems with disciplinary infractions,” according to an analysis by the Institute of Higher Education Policy (IHEP). A study on women incarcerated at New York’s Bedford Hills facility was linked to improved family relationships, by demonstrating to family members a commitment to rehabilitation and turning parents into academic “role models.”
This is not simply about turning inmates into good worker bees. As a formidable prison debate team in New York has shown, postsecondary education enhances critical thinking by compelling incarcerated people to channel their often prodigious street smarts into more sophisticated forms of inquiry and analysis.
Glenn Martin, head of the reform group Just Leadership USA, which helped advocate for the Pell Grant initiative along with other decarceration measures, attended college himself while serving time in a New York prison. Post-release, he was rejected repeatedly for jobs, he recalls, but “what a college degree did for me was [also] to recalibrate my own moral compass and help me better understand why I was facing all those barriers to the labor market, the stigma I was facing.… I was able to analyze my situation in a much much more complex way.”
Prison education for him is not just about learning marketable skills; it’s about educating society through a cadre of empowered survivors of the prison-industrial complex:
[P]eople who are most oppressed by systems have a way of defining the problem that differs from people who have access to power and privilege. And I think [we have] a debate about ending mass incarceration that’s extremely top-down…and really lacks the voice of individuals…and communities that are most impacted.
Not all prison-college alumni will become activists, but each will stand as a testament to the tremendous opportunity cost wrought by mass incarceration. Center for Economic and Policy Research estimates that mass incarceration in 2008 drained the economy of “the equivalent of 1.5 to 1.7 million workers, or roughly a 0.8 to 0.9 percentage-point reduction in the overall employment rate.” And that doesn’t count the ravaging of family and community bonds, and the emotional destruction of youth during their most vital years.
The conservative criticism of the Pell Grant initiative is that the funds somehow “take money” from non-incarcerated grantees, but the pilot program costs basically the equivalent of a budget rounding error. Even before Pell Grant access was cut in the 1990s, incarcerated students used less than 1 percent of total Pell funds, covering about 2 percent of the incarcerated population.
College enrollment behind bars remains extremely low. While many state and federal facilities offer some sort of education, access to college coursework lags far behind GED and vocational programs. The IHEP calculates that “around 11 percent of the eligible prison population actually participated in postsecondary correctional education nationwide in 2003-04.” Programs typically run on basic classroom instruction connected to local colleges, but the new expansion of federal funding could invite more innovations like digital platforms for distance learning and building technological skills.
And Pell Grants alone won’t make up for the huge funding losses suffered by the prison education infrastructure since the 1990s. According to the Urban Institute, marginal allocations for higher education for the incarcerated, much of it set aside through workforce training funds, has been eroded or capped. Educational programming for incarcerated youth declined by 25 percent between 2008 and 2009.
Yet the vast need for prison-based higher education access reveals how warped the criminal-justice system’s priorities have become. To the extent that academic success can be achieved behind bars, that it had to happen in prison shows society’s failure. That’s why Martin knows his so-called “second chance” in prison represents many tragically lost chances in youth:
The criminal justice system unfortunately seems to be the main vehicle to treatment and other things for poor people and communities of color in the United States. But while we do have so many people locked up, and so many people criminalized, I do think we have a responsibility as a country to undo the mess we’ve gotten into.
It’s easy to get enthusiastic about the “corrections system” as a workshop to fix social undesirables, but many people never belonged anywhere near this broken system to begin with. Delivering long-denied educational opportunity behind bars isn’t a process of “correcting” the flawed people inside but of correcting injustice that surrounds communities on the outside.