In 1994, as part of the Clinton-era tough on crime Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, Congress stripped from the Higher Education Act of
The Higher Education Act of 1965 created the Pell Grant program, designed to help low-income students afford college; an amendment to that law in 1972
For anyone imprisoned, the possibility of a transfer can be very disruptive emotionally; after spending years in the same facility you become accustomed to the
A National Network of Prison Education Programs
The 1980s were a period of expansion for prison education programs. Through the vehicle of federal financial assistance, inmates were able to enroll in vocational and college courses in their prisons, programs offered through community colleges and state universities alike. For a period, prisoners had a meaningful chance at learning a quality trade or even earning an associate’s or bachelor’s college degree during their term of imprisonment. Over 350 in-prison college programs flourished, with professors teaching classes “live,” in the prisons.
The Collapse: Congress Slams the Door on Education in Prison
All of this came to a screeching halt with the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The Act, a component of the anti-prison education agenda pushed in Congress and the Senate, imposed a ban on inmates receiving any form of federal financial aid to assist them in the pursuit of an education. With the slashed funding, nearly every externally supported prison education program in the nation shut down, and the result was an increase in prisoner unrest, violence, and recidivism. Colleges, prisoners, and prison administrators alike objected, and loudly so, but their pleas fell upon deaf ears.
Advocates for eliminating Pell Grants and other need-based financial assistance for prisoners claimed that those incarcerated shouldn’t be given government funding to pursue education. They advanced an agenda asserting that prisoners were taking funding away from traditional college students — a patently false assertion — and that offering college to inmates was a reward for crime. Some even had the gall to suggest that people were committing crimes in order to go to prison, where they could obtain a college education. It was a political firestorm like no other, and one based on emotion, not fact, logic, or empirical research.
There are many “smart on crime” reasons to reinstate prisoners’ eligibility for Pell grants and other need-based financial aid. When we look at the benefits of educating prisoners we see reductions in recidivism, increases in pro-social thinking, enhanced post-release employment prospects, and strengthened ties to children and communities. The list goes on and on. Today, I’d like to touch upon the ideas that funding prison education programs is not a reward for crime, improves the economy, and reduces the number of victims (more specifically, new victims of repeat offenders).
Not A Reward for Crime
Perhaps the most important reason to reinstate prisoner eligibility for Pell grants and other need-based financial assistance actually concerns the refutation of arguments to defund it. The argument goes something like this: The prisoner broke the law, so they should not be rewarded with a college-level education while they serve their term of incarceration. The problem here is that prisoners don’t see educational restrictions as a punishment, but life as usual. Prisoners usually come from an educationally disadvantaged population. They are poor, have very few employable skills, and often don’t even complete high school. Telling a person like this that they cannot go to school isn’t a punishment to them, it is life.
The vast majority of those in American prisons feel as though they never had any meaningful access to education prior to their criminal lifestyle, even if the public school system was open to them. Often they feel as though their only option was a life of crime. This has a lot to do with the families and communities they grow up in. Restricting an education from a person like this — a person who desperately needs the life-saving tool of education — is plainly cruel. It’s setting the already disadvantaged prisoner up to fail. If we do so, we shouldn’t be surprised when they do.
Preventing inmates from obtaining scholastic financial assistance clearly doesn’t punish prisoners, it punishes us, the American people. Restricting funding for prison education programs merely prevents those who want a better life after their release from prison from obtaining one. When these tools are restricted — either by means of banning prisoners from educational pursuits or by refusing to fund such programs — we are really hurting ourselves much more.
“We must accept the reality that to confine offenders behind walls without trying to change them is an expensive folly with short term benefits — winning battles while losing the war. It is wrong, it is expensive, it is stupid.” — United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger
Prison education is the most cost-effective method of reducing recidivism — the percentage of inmates that fall back into a life of crime, are rearrested, and re-imprisoned. Recidivism has been draining the economy, overcrowding the prison systems, and causing more people to become victims of crime. It’s a problem, and prisoner education is the most cost-effective solution, infinitely more than incarceration alone.
Inmates, however, rarely have access to any kind of education because there is simply no meaningful source of funding for such in-prison programming. Pell Grants — need-based educational grants provided to low-income students — were the only systematized funding source since 1965, but in 1994, when the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act and the Higher Education Reauthorization Act were passed by Congress and signed into law by the Clinton Administration, prisoners were restricted from all federal financial aid. As a result, most in-prison educational programs were forced to shut their doors. This resulted in a correlating increase in recidivism rates due to incarcerated students being shut out of the classroom. The record 350+ in-prison college programs simply ceased to exist without a sustainable funding source.