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The Case for College Behind Bars

The United States’ criminal justice system is under increasing scrutiny from both sides of the political aisle and in popular culture. There are growing concerns about who is incarcerated, the conditions they face, how long they stay, and what happens when they get out.

As part of this push for prison reform, advocates are rightly asking how can we deliver higher education to students involved in the criminal justice system?

There is increasing support for reducing barriers to higher education for these students, including banning the box—removing the question asking about criminal histories on college applications—and lifting the federal ban on Pell Grants for students currently incarcerated.

This momentum is due in part to the success stories shared by men and women who have earned a college degree while in jail or prison. The cause is also being advanced by advocates educating the public about just how crippling the experience of the criminal justice system is to successful reentry into society and how access to a higher education is one of the few options to counter the effects.

At the same time, there is a growing understanding that a college degree reduces recidivism, counters the collateral consequences of criminal convictions, and makes it easier for those released from prison to rejoin the workforce.

We are living in a moment when the desire to create educational opportunities for the incarcerated is meeting up with the will to act, just as it did when the federal Pell Grants were originally made available behind prison walls in 1965. Unfortunately, that didn’t last.

The 1994 Crime Bill banned the use of the Pell Grants for those in jail or prison, which was devastating for incarcerated students across the country. Prior to the ban, there were over 700 prison education programs that allowed students to use Pell Grants to take courses and earn college credit; after the ban that number dropped to eight.

A few states funded their own programs, and some universities absorbed the costs and kept the college programs going. Private foundations funded programs intermittently across the country, and other states saw the rise of grassroots non-credit degree programs. For most states, however, no alternatives emerged.

One of us, Michelle, has first-hand experience with the problem after serving time in Indiana.

When Pell was banned, Indiana lawmakers responded by funding higher education programs in prisons from the state budget. This funding continued until 2012 when it was abruptly removed. I was incarcerated at that time and employed at the university that provided college programming at the Indiana Women’s Prison. For many women, a higher education was literally a dream, for they never imagined themselves capable of earning a college degree. The improbable became possible and then sadly turned improbable once again.

Suddenly, women who looked forward to what a college degree could offer them in terms of employment upon release and respect amongst their families and children were left hanging. The loss of higher education programming also radically changed the culture of the prison from one centered on education, to one where hanging out on the “rec” yard became the cool thing to do. Many people are not aware of how important college programming is to the culture of a prison, and many developed an outlook that left little to no incentive for continuing education.

I was fortunate to earn a bachelor’s degree during those years when the state funded the higher education programs. The opportunities that resulted included representing fellow incarcerated students in the news media and at conferences and presenting on public policy alternatives to Indiana state legislators, who, in looking for re-entry alternatives, endorsed my “Government Employee Project” proposal. None of this, including my current role as a doctoral candidate at New York University, would have been possible without higher education programs in prison.

This story should not become an exception; we must open up higher education opportunities for more students in jail or prison. We know that formerly incarcerated people with college degrees once released are four to five times less likely to return to prison and that the benefits go far beyond reduced recidivism.

That makes higher education a good investment: Correctional education programs result in net savings to taxpayers of between $4 and $5 for every $1 invested and are substantially more cost-effective than incarceration alone.

It is no surprise then that improving college opportunities for incarcerated students is one of the few areas on which Democrats and Republicans agree, with support coming from U.S. Education Secretary Betsy Devos, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), and the House Democrats’ Aim Higher proposal to reform higher education.

The ban on Pell Grants should be removed, but that is only the first step. The education that incarcerated students receive must be high quality and open to all students who are incarcerated, not just a privileged few. Any full reinstatement of the Pell Grant, therefore, must include a process to assess the quality of prison education programs.

These college programs should also be comprehensive and comparable to main campus programs, with universities bringing into the prison the same faculty, programming, and operating philosophy. Comprehensive and comparable degrees can help formerly incarcerated graduates counter the stigma associated with being involved with the criminal justice system.

Universities that offer incarcerated students access to a higher education must be carefully vetted to prevent low quality or predatory institutions from securing federal dollars. Any college should be banned that would accept Pell dollars for educating students while incarcerated but bar those same students from enrolling on campus upon release.

There should be no problem finding institutions willing to comply with these requirements, given that more than 200 college and universities in 48 states applied to participate in the Second Chance Pell pilot program, which the Obama administration established in 2015. It allowed nearly 70 institutions across the nation to reinstate the Pell Grant for incarcerated students in an experimental format. The Second Chance Pell pilot was recently renewed for a fourth year.

Many institutions are ready and willing to move past the tough-on-crime era and open their doors to currently and formerly incarcerated students. The question is whether we can translate that commitment to policies that ensure that stories like Michelle’s are not an exception, that providing Pell Grants for incarcerated students becomes more than an experiment, and that removing the Pell ban is just one step towardtransforming higher education into a truly equitable and inclusive system.

Tiffany Jones, a FutureEd senior fellow, directs the Education Trust's higher education policy team. Michelle Jones, who served 20 years in prison, is a second-year doctoral student at New York University and board chair of Constructing Our Future, a reentry alternative for women created by incarcerated women in Indiana.