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.