Prison Higher Education Programs: An Unfunded Unmandate
A letter in today’s New York Times, from Vivian Nixon of the College and Community Fellowship, relates the Georgia prison strike to a broader problem — the dearth of funding for prison higher education programs:
Georgia inmates contend that access to educational opportunities beyond the G.E.D. will better prepare them for re-entry and decrease crime and recidivism. They’re not the only ones who know this to be true.
Reports released by the United States Education Department, the Justice Department and state correction departments all recognize the myriad benefits of educating prisoners. Since 1994, incarcerated students have been barred from receiving Pell grants despite the fact that prisoners received less than 1 percent of all Pell grant dollars awarded and that postsecondary education has proved to be the most successful and cost-effective way to reduce recidivism and increase public safety.
It’s worth keeping in mind exactly what happened when President Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which authorized almost $10 billion of federal grants for state prison construction while in the same stroke cutting off the $200 million of annual Pell grants that had been going to prisoners because God forbid we allocate 3/5 of 1 percent of the annual outlays of a relatively modest federal program to prisons! In 1994, there were over 350 higher education programs in prisons around the country, with about 40,000 inmates enrolled. (Note that there were also only about a million prisoners, compared with about 2 million now.) Within a year of the act’s passage, as well as copycat acts at the state level, there were fewer than a dozen. Congress and President Clinton collaborated to all but eliminate higher education programs in American prisons. Few federal statutes have so thoroughly and immediately achieved their aim.
It’s also worth keeping in mind the inanity of the rhetoric that got this measure passed. Senator Pell himself supported the use of his namesake grants by prisoners. But Kay Bailey Hutchison claimed that “Pell Grants are a great scam: rob a store, go to jail, and get your degree.” Let’s take a moment to think this through. Even if it were true, in 1994, that a person contemplating enrolling in college would find committing a robbery an easier way to do that than simply filling out an application to college, wouldn’t that have been a pretty glaring indicator that something had gone terribly awry, not with prison policy, but with the education system? But of course, Hutchison wasn’t really trading in facts and logic but in the general demonization of “criminals” that drove so much policymaking in the early 1990s.
The irony, of course, or maybe this was just the point all along, is that Hutchison was right: Hundreds of thousands of would-be college students have been denied access to higher education because of money spent on prisoners, but not because prisoners have been sucking up all the college grants. In many states prisons now receive far more government funding than colleges and universities do — even though all that government funding mostly goes to keeping prisoners idle. As California struggles to keep not just its once-legendary state university system but also the state itself afloat, it’s worth noting, as UCLA professor Chan Noriega recently calculated, that “California could send every last prisoner to a UC campus, covering all expenses, and still save nearly $2.3 billion per year.”
It may be true that we’ve reached a historic turning point towards bipartisan support for genuine criminal justice reform. But if Congress can’t even pass the DREAM Act, which would seem to me to have some of the most sympathetic would-be beneficiaries around, I’m not particularly optimistic that prisoners will be getting Pell grants again anytime soon, or any other form of federal funding. State, local, and private funding, and partnerships between universities and nearby prisons, could go some way to expanding the educational opportunities available to inmates. Some programs I know of around the country that might serve as models — although I’m less familiar with the details of some of these than others — include the Wesleyan Center for Prison Education, the BU Prison Education Program (which also has a list of resources here), the Bard Prison Initiative, and the Bedford Hills College Program run by Marymount Manhattan College.
And here in California there’s the Prison University Project, which offers a range of college courses towards an A.A. degree to about 300 men at San Quentin. It’s the only accredited, free college program in any of California’s 33 prisons, serving approximately 0.002% of the state’s inmates. With no state or federal funding, the program runs on a stripped-down budget from private donors thanks to volunteer teachers, many drawn from the ranks of Berkeley graduate programs — which just goes to show why locating prisons in out-of-the-way areas, as most states do, may not be the best policy if you have any interest in providing inmates with a wide range of programs at low cost to taxpayers.
Starting up and maintaining a full-fledged prison college program is, of course, a daunting task, but there are all sorts of more modest partnerships that universities and colleges could pursue with nearby prisons and jails. For instance, Penn professor Marie Gottschalk has taught what would otherwise have been your typical ivory-tower political science course on criminal justice policy inside a Philadelphia jail, giving Penn students and county jail inmates an opportunity to learn from each other. Since one of the biggest barriers to sane criminal justice policy is the almost total separation between people who have power to influence policy and people behind bars, anything that brings these two groups into contact is a positive step.
Finally, I wanted to close by quoting from these reflections from Jody Lewen of the Prison University Project. She recounts her conversation with a leader in the California prison guards’ union who campaigned against a community college correspondence program in the prison where he worked:
In the end, the details of his grievances almost didn’t seem to matter. Just as I have experienced in similar situations so many times since then, the conversation ultimately turned to the poverty of that area (around Blythe), and the poverty of the areas where so many California prisons are located. Kelly and the others at the table talked about how the people there were struggling, how expensive health care had become in those rural areas, and how hard it was for a lot of people to afford even community college.
In the end, most of their objections to the idea of college for prisoners seemed to come down to personal bitterness about their and their own families’ various forms of deprivation. [This is extremely similar to how the contemptuous comments you often hear from some C/O’s and others about prisoners getting “free medical care” so often turn out to be a kind of cynical, defensive overlay to their own anxiety and grief about their own tenuous access to healthcare.] But of course to hear this kind of thing – to hear what I’m calling the underlying issues at stake in this kind of hostile attitude, you have to have (or take) the time to have a substantive and respectful conversation with a person by whom you may be feeling quite antagonized, provoked, or even threatened.
In that conversation in Las Vegas – and in many others since then – I found that the best I could do – the thing that seemed most appropriate and helpful and truly productive in the moment – was simply to listen to and validate their frustration, and sympathize with these larger grievances, which I found entirely legitimate.
The broken politics of criminal justice is an artifact of the brokenness of American politics generally. Tony Judt observed before his death that the American left had lost its voice for talking about “growing inequalities of wealth and opportunity; injustices of class and caste; economic exploitation at home and abroad; corruption and money and privilege occluding the arteries of democracy. … Even as the U.S. budgets tens of billions of dollars on a futile military campaign in Afghanistan, we fret nervously at the implications of any increase in public spending on social services or infrastructure.” And he also observed:
One of my goals is to suggest that government can play an enhanced role in our lives without threatening our liberties—and to argue that, since the state is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, we would do well to think about what sort of a state we want.