Can Prison Become a College Campus?


Graduation ceremony for inmates in the Career Technical Education program (Photo courtesy of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation | Wikimedia Commons)

Graduation ceremony for inmates in the Career Technical Education program (Photo courtesy of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation | Wikimedia Commons)

Twenty-seven years ago the conservative columnist George Will contacted me to arrange a visit with incarcerated college students. He was concerned about the effort to eliminate inmate eligibility for Pell grants. 

After he visited the Maryland Correctional Institution in January 1994 he wrote a favorable article about Pell grants for prisoners called Peanuts Prison Tale. In the article, he follows a prisoner named Eugene Taylor (aka. “Peanuts”) who had been sentenced to life plus 25 years behind bars for murder and armed robbery. During his time in prison, he worked to get the equivalent of a high-school diploma and was working to get a degree at a local community college – thanks, in part, to Pell grants. With a degree and the social skills that he acquired along the way, Peanut had a chance at bucking the alarming recidivism rate that was (and still is) pervasive in the prison system.

Unfortunately, a bipartisan Congress soon voted to eliminate prisoner’s eligibility and President Clinton signed the bill. Many political leaders and columnists supported the law as part of the “get tough on crime” trend. At the time, granting Pell grants to prisoners was framed as allocating taxpayer dollars to those who were the least deserving. However, some like George Will thought otherwise, but also said we needed to find more research that proves education reduces future crime.    

Now we have the numbers to support it. In December 2020, after more than two decades, Pell grant eligibility for those behind bars was restored due to the new bipartisan support for rehabilitation. Even the Trump administration was supportive of the policy change – mainly through Jared Kushner whose father had become a prison reform advocate after spending some years in federal prison.  

Indeed, Pell restoration is great news; however, the effort to increase post-secondary opportunities reveals a new and very significant problem. Most inmates do not currently qualify for college-level courses. Many of them could qualify if they were provided adequate remediation and preparation classes.  

National literacy research confirms that the majority of incarcerated individuals do not have the requisite skills for college-level or advanced career education programs. A recent study which I conducted for the Educational Testing Service cites research studies by the RAND Corporation and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which reveal that most incarcerated individuals lack higher-level reading, math, and computer skills to succeed in college or advanced career training programs.  

Furthermore, data show that even though nationally more than 50% of prisoners possess a high school diploma or an equivalency certificate, a majority of them still lack foundational skills for post-secondary success. Without additional intervention programs, they will fail, upon release, to obtain a living wage, a skilled job, or enter an advanced education or career program. As a result, not only will many inmates feel that their efforts were for naught, many (if not most) will continue to recidivate.

The RAND study revealed that during the last 25 years as a result of a “get tough on crime” approach and economic downturns, states had greatly reduced funding for literacy, high school, and vocational programs in state and federal prisons. Data shows more than half of those in prison do not even participate in education classes. This essentially means that Pell grants will not reach those who could benefit the most. We are creaming the best students and leaving behind the rest.

In my advocacy work, state and federal legislators frequently ask for proof of the cost-effectiveness of education. The RAND research demonstrated that those who do enroll in school recidivate at significantly lower levels than those who do not. Translated into real money, RAND estimates a $5 return in the reduction of future crime for every $1 spent on education programs. 

Today, most prison teachers have not been able to return to their classrooms due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The move to bar teachers makes sense since coronavirus has run rampant through America’s prisons. According to a study by the Marshall Project published in December 2020, an estimated one in five prisoners in the United States has tested positive for the virus – roughly four times higher than the general population. 

As such, remote teaching is practically non-existent behind bars. Most inmates are not currently engaged in face-to-face education or any online programs. Few prison teachers are allowed the tools for remote teaching or blended instruction commonly employed in public school or college systems. In the free world, GED and most career certificate exams are now conducted via the Internet, but many prisons still do not allow internet connections to participate in remote instruction or to take final online tests. These issues are only compounded further by budget cuts and the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of incarcerated participating in and completing education programs is at an all-time low.  

We must also consider the societal shifts that have occurred in the past couple of decades. While in the past a high-school diploma was enough to get a respectable job with a decent wage, Americans now understand that high school graduation is no longer the minimum qualification. An undergraduate college degree is the new high-school diploma. Certainly, this is just as true – if not more – for the incarcerated given the many laws, policies, and general prejudice they face when trying to reintegrate with society. 

As the COVID crisis winds down in the next year, teachers will begin to re-enter prisons to conduct education programs. College programs will multiply but only for the minority of those with high enough foundation skills. Still, even post-secondary programs will continue to use outdated instructional technology. There are some examples of successful education programs behind bars using secure up-to-date technology, but the vast majority of correctional institutions are woefully underequipped. Why not implement more of these digital tools in prisons and jails for adult basic adult education, career development, and college?

Many other first-world, progressive nations already employ more compassionate, modernized educational programs for their incarcerated citizens. For the United States to follow suit, we need to do more than merely reinstitute Pell grants for our incarcerated citizens. The Biden administration and state governments need to expand advanced workforce skills programs behind bars. If we do not invest in technology and training, we will continue to see dismally high recidivism rates for the hundreds of thousands of citizens who return to society from prison.  

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