The case for college in prison

Last month, the U.S. Department of Education announced the 69 colleges and universities selected to participate in the Second Chance Pell Pilot initiative to allow more than 12,000 incarcerated Americans to receive Pell Grants and pursue higher education in prison. This news is likely to prompt old debates about who should be able to receive college assistance.

But college in prison isn’t a new or radical idea—in fact, it was once commonplace. Before the 1994 Crime Bill banned the use of Pell grants for people incarcerated in state and federal prisons, there were more than 200 college-in-prison programs nationwide. The year after the bill passed, there were only 94. Following on the heels of the federal Crime Bill, many states enacted similar laws prohibiting the use of state-funded tuition assistance programs by incarcerated students.

Today, only 6% of state prisoners take postsecondary education courses, and available programs—funded primarily through private money—are clustered almost entirely in just 13 states.

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The ban was driven out of the tough-on-crime political sentiment of the 90s, rather than evidence: at its peak, less than 1/10th of 1% of all Pell grant funds were used for incarcerated students. While the announcement of the pilot inspired some opposition in Congress through a proposed “Kids Before Cons Act” that would end the program, these funds do not take educational opportunity away from anyone else—Pell grants are an entitlement program based on income, meaning that anyone who fits the bill gets to participate.

College in prison existed in the first place because it’s transformational, not only for the individuals who take part in it and their families—including future generations—but also the communities to which they return and society at large. A seminal study found those who participate in prison education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years of release than those who did not participate, and that every $1 invested in prison-based education yields $4 to $5 taxpayer savings in reduced incarceration costs. The same study also found that the odds of finding employment—a key to reentry success—were 13 to 28 percent higher for those who participated in prison-based academic or vocational education programs than for those who did not. We also know that increasing the educational attainment of parents can impact the education achievement of their children. Let’s be clear. While there are public safety and economic arguments in favor of college in prison, its main value is changing the trajectory of lives.

The Second Chance Pell pilot couldn’t come at a better time, as the country not only moves away from mass incarceration, but also faces a rapidly changing economic landscape. Some may argue that people who are incarcerated should only receive vocational or GED-level educational opportunities, but the reality is that they—and the people who will hire them—need other skills.

By 2020, 65 percent of job vacancies are expected to require postsecondary education. College in prison does exactly what higher education does generally—it sharpens critical thinking and communications skills; builds self confidence; and unlocks human potential.

More than 200 college and universities in 48 states applied to the Second Chance Pilot, demonstrating that many higher education institutions are ready and willing to move past the tough-on- crime era and open their doors to currently and formerly incarcerated students. This week, the 69 selected sites—along with U.S. Secretary of Education John King and U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates—are convening in Washington, DC to kick off their work to develop and expand high-quality higher education programs in prison. But the pilot program is just that—a pilot, which typically runs three to five years, unless Congress moves to reverse the ban on Pell grants for people incarcerated in federal and state prisons. Providing implementation assistance and support to these college-corrections partnerships and documenting—and sharing—the program’s success will be critical to making the case that we should permanently overturn the ban and reinstate college in prison as a commonplace practice.

Helping people to positively contribute to society after incarceration is a key part of shutting the door on the failed experiment of mass incarceration. But behind the statistics on recidivism and taxpayer benefits are real people—fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, neighbors, siblings —who are directly impacted by incarceration and our overly punitive policies that have disproportionately impacted low-income communities of color. Education was once treated as a public good in this country, because we understood the benefit that educating an individual provides to the greater whole. Americans who are incarcerated are part of that greater whole, and our policies should reflect that.

 

Fred Patrick is director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute ofJustice.


 

 

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