For Whom the Pell Tolled: Higher Education for Prisoners

In 1994, as part of its get-tough-on-crime mania, Congress abolished Pell grants for prisoners, effectively ending chances for inmates to get a college education while behind bars. Professor Ian Buruma, writing in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, taught college courses at a maximum security prison in New York, and explains, in a very moving article, that educational courses can reduce recidivism and benefit all of us.

Education programs used to be widely available in prisons in the United States, especially after the notorious Attica rebellion in 1971, which left 43 dead. Among the demands of the inmates, who were pressing for improved prison conditions, was a better education program. This demand was met, not only at Attica but also in prisons around the country. Over the next decades, prison education flourished. Then, in 1994, Congress effectively abolished all federally financed college education for prison inmates when it voted to eliminate Pell Grants for federal and state prisons, despite strong resistance from the Department of Education. Critics pointed out that education greatly reduces recidivism; only one-tenth of 1 percent of the Pell Grant budget went to the education of prisoners anyway.

Chief opponent of Pell grants for inmates was Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson.

Hutchison's arguments arose from a more generalized desire -- not just among Republicans -- to get tough on crime, or more precisely on criminals....hus, beginning in the early 90's, prison regimes were tightened, even as mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws meant more and more people came into the system and stayed. In this climate few politicians were ready to stand up for higher-education programs for prisoners. Before 1995 there were some 350 college-degree programs for prisoners in the United States. Today there are about a dozen, four of them in New York State.

Enter the Bard Prison Initiative, in which Mr. Buruma became a participating teacher.

The Bard prison initiative was set up by Max Kenner, who graduated from Bard College in 2001. After Kenner finished school, he spent the summer driving around from prison to prison, meeting with staff members and inmates to find out what kind of education program was most needed. He found many administrators receptive to the idea of a higher-education program; there was overwhelming enthusiasm among the inmates.

Among the courses Professor Buruma taught the prisoners: Modern Japanese history.

I found myself teaching a course in modern Japanese history. The idea of talking about samurai rebellions, Japanese imperialism and General MacArthur's occupation to men who were in for drug dealing, grand larceny and murder, was certainly intriguing but also somewhat daunting. How much did they know? How should I approach the material? Would they be at all receptive?

To say they were receptive was an understatement.

It was obvious to me, as a teacher, how precious education was to the students, not only because they could practically recite every sentence of the books and articles I gave them to read but also because of the way they behaved to one another. Prisons breed cynicism. Trust is frequently betrayed and friendships severed when a prisoner is transferred without warning to another facility. The classroom was an exception.

This is an excellent article, and it demonstrates why Sen. Hutchinson and her colleages were so wrong to restrict inmate education.

It costs the state about $32,000 a year to keep a person in jail. It costs the Bard Prison Initiative only $2,000 to provide a student with a year of college education.

Prisons need more prisons like the Eastern New York Correctional Facility, also known as Happy Nap, which is located in the Catskills about 70 miles from Manhattan.

Deputy Superintendent Butler likes to refer to Eastern as a ''therapeutic community.'' She has spent decades of her life inside the prison. Her son works there now. Eastern is her community, too. Walking around the prison one day, she sounded almost wistful when she told me about the flowers she'd received from inmates when she was hospitalized for a serious illness. I asked her about the trouble that inmates had making friends, when they know they might be transferred at any time. She replied that inmates get ''very attached to staff, too, you know. They have tears when they leave. We bring them up, like our children.''

Prisons also need more Professor Burumas.

On my last day at Eastern, I turned back toward the prison as I was leaving. There, high above me, I could just make out a face, pressed against the bars of a cell. It was my youngest student, the one who knifed his foster father. As I drove off, I glanced into my rearview mirror. All that moved in the mass of brick and steel bars behind me was a pale arm waving.

[hat tip for title to Rev. Mr.George W. Brooks, J.D., Director of Advocacy, Kolbe House, Chicago.]

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    Re: For Whom the Pell Tolled: Higher Education for (none / 0) (#2)
    by Pete Guither on Sat Feb 19, 2005 at 09:27:04 PM EST
    Anonymous, perhaps you're right. We could use the money on getting you an education so you learn what the word recidivism means, and so you can learn basic economics and realize that pell grants for prisoners would SAVE us money, not waste it.

    I am sure there are many more deserving students to receive pal grants than convicts. I am 100% for not wasting scholarships on criminals. There are 1000 ways better to use the money. [This commenter always posts anonymously. I have added the number 153 to his title so readers will know they are reading one person's comments, not those of several people.]

    That is not what our non government wants, it wants people going back to prison A.S.A.P., Its part of the game our oligarchies want you to play and after all more people in prison, you can make jobs keep the poor and insane behind bars, keep political prisoners by the millions some-day, and keep the propagandists working for you, yes this guy works right into the system, and we all will be like him someday.

    Among the saddest damn posts I've read here. We need universal HS requirements for everyone in the system, basic literacy enforced, then rebuild 'rehabilitiation' as a concept from the ground up. It really needs to be a movement, a greater cause that does not necessarily have to involve any of the current shysters pushing their brand of religion on anyone. Discovering religion while inside is fine. It should not be the only human contact you get while incarcerated. Part of why these guys are IN prision is a lack of alternatives and many (sometimes very few) very bad choices. Education can and does help overcome these disadvantages. All too many of them are suffering from poor and dismal educations they managed to get (or avoid or neglect) while on the outside. I would enforce basic literacy requirements as a basis for parole. That might get people thinking.

    A captive audience for education. A reasonable approach for rehabilitation. Of course we better slam the brakes on that sort of thing. This is the neocon agenda. Turn out the vote to change congress.

    Re: For Whom the Pell Tolled: Higher Education for (none / 0) (#6)
    by wishful on Sun Feb 20, 2005 at 08:28:53 AM EST
    c.a., the faith-based prison reform movement as well as those actions of the private prison industry not directly used for profit should be examined. One obvious result of these efforts is to convince ex-prisoners to vote repugnican (the born-again unholy alliance). Maybe they actually expect us to be successful in undoing the disenfranchisment of felons, and are preparing to use it to their advantage. I don't think it will work very well. Most of the prisoners know how to go along to get along in those faith-based prisons where the contrast between those buying in to the rhetoric have priviledges that stand in stark contrast to those who keep their spiritual integrity intact. That's ironic, isn't it? Republicans forcing prisoners to be dishonest in order to personally profit.

    Re: For Whom the Pell Tolled: Higher Education for (none / 0) (#7)
    by john horse on Sun Feb 20, 2005 at 08:45:45 AM EST
    Even if you don't think that prisoners are "deserving" of an education, there is an economic arguement for providing them with one. Providing education to inmates helps to lower the recidivism rate. One of the major problems that ex-felons have in returning to society is getting jobs. Even for low-wage jobs many employers will automatically close the door if they know that the person applying is an ex-con. Prisoners who can't find jobs are more likely to get back in trouble and go back to prison. Keeping a person locked up in prison is alot more costly than funding their education to keep them from coming back.

    Sorry TL, but don't you mean that Bill Clinton, the man who feels your pain, abolished Pell grants for prisoners? After all, if a Democrat controlled Congress had voted to pass such legislation and George W. Bush had signed it, you'd be arguing that it was Bush who did it, not Congress.

    et al - My sister teaches high school level courses at a prision, state funded. The stories she can tell will make you laugh, and cry. There is no doubt that the vast majority need education. The job pays fairly well, but certainly nothing to get excited about. You have to want to help people to do it. Plus, it is dangerous. About two years another teacher was stabbed to death, while teaching in a "secure" pod, while the rest of the class looked on. My belief is that a college degree would be great for everyone, but the majority of those who will be back in the system, need a basic high school level education. So I would say take the Pell Grant money, and put it into a mandatory K-12 education system. I believe it would return far greater benefits.

    Re: For Whom the Pell Tolled: Higher Education for (none / 0) (#10)
    by john horse on Sun Feb 20, 2005 at 09:18:13 AM EST
    PPJ, I agree with you that the majority of inmates need a basic high school level education, especially training in the basic skills. (I also think most inmates need some job skills training.) However, I don't see this as an either/or situation. Focusing on basic skills does not mean that you have to take away money from another deserving program.

    John Horse - The K-12 side, at least in her state, is (surprise!)way under funded, so if we have any extra money, I say it should go there first. But in a perfect world, I would agree.

    Re: For Whom the Pell Tolled: Higher Education for (none / 0) (#12)
    by Che's Lounge on Sun Feb 20, 2005 at 10:28:06 AM EST
    With 87 Billion we could do both...permanently.

    Good idea there, PPJ. In my experience, the "K-12" programs might help a bit more with most criminals. I also agree that it shouldn't be an either-or issue, and college programs should also be funded. One other possibility, let's take the qualified white-collar criminals and put them to work teaching these k-12 classes. Might save some more money there. Keep the Enron folks away from the accounting classes though..... Che's Lounge- Excellent point. We should be spending that money on our own house, first. Remember when W. wanted to guarantee health care for every Iraqi? That point died as soon as people started asking then why can't we do it at home?

    Adept - Good idea. Problem is, all most of them really know is how to steal. But exposure to their students would help them wonderfully.

    In the Federal system, it's routine for educated white-collar inmates to teach. As a matter of fact, since employemnt is mandatory inside, the educated inmates are sought out by the civilian eductors to assist with the teaching chores. Of course, we can't allow them to have computers with Internet access, and any computers/software that the system provides are woefully obsolete. But then nobody really needs computer skills these days. Also, anyone in the Federal system is required to make progress toward a GED if they haven't finished high school. Those classes are usually taught by inmates. But the point is that much of the education currently being provided inside is handled by educated inmates. Everything from basic reading and math to GED to guitar lessons. But, as John Horse points out, the problem is jobs when they get out. I'm not convinced that an ex-inmate with a GED has any better chance at getting a job than an ex-inmate without a GED.

    I taught psychology courses in a CCA private prison for a year. The inmates were always well prepared and courteous. The big problem I faced was the guards. Many of the guards did not approve of educating the inmates. Since I'm a hippy looking guy, I was automatically considered to be a mule. My car was drug-dogged everytime I was on prison property. I was left standing at checkpoints (all doors automatic, operated from a secure central location) in the general population, often for an hour at a time, not able to pass through the doors to get out. Prisoners, knowing my plight, stayed with me to protect me just in case. It was an amazing society. Guards trading prisoners for sex. Guards purposefully adding time to sentences for "payback." Guards walking up behind prisoners and clubbing them for no reason other than pure cruelty. The "pod" I taught in was next to the basketball court, and was glass on one side so the guards could "protect me" by looking in. No guard ever came by in the year I was teaching. Prisoners whose families couldn't afford the tuition would stand with their ears pressed against the glass and follow the lecture, and borrow the books of the students to read assignments. The most popular part of my lectures was always human sexuality. I would have prisoners lined-up listening through the glass, and then I would have to field questions from them when class was over. I spoke to an educator at a state prison about their experiences, and they confirmed that prisoners are generally a great population to teach. What they told me was that it costs about $50,000. per year to run a certain trade program (unsure which one) for inmates, but that the state had stopped the program and moved the prisoners to picking up trash on the highways. Now, get this. For a prisoner to pick-up trash costs an EXTRA $20,000. per prisoner, per year! Yes, per prisoner! I thought he was nuts, but he explained it took a lot of extra staff, transportation, healthcare and paperwork to keep the chain gang working! He was angry because he knows you can educate a prisoner through their bachelors for the same cost of 1 year of them being on a chain gang. The beauty of what this guy described was the accounting to pay for it. When the Govenor decreed they would put prisoners to work picking up trash it was noticed that it would blow the prison budget. So trash pick up costs were tranferrd to the transportation department, and Federal Highway funds used to pay for it! It was all hidden from sight! So, if you want payback in the form of unending retribution for prisoners, you got it. With 6 million people incarcerated, you got lots of retribution. Just realize that there is a bubble of these folks from the 90's justice push that are about to be released. The choice society made was to leave them uneducated and pissed off.

    to PPJ: when and where did that case happen? I am talking about a teacher stabbed to death in front of other inmates. Thank you.

    Education and Offenders (none / 0) (#20)
    by guyinodessa on Sun Dec 10, 2006 at 11:42:30 AM EST
    As in all facets of American life ignorance and the underbelly of prejudice and self-serving interest compete against common sense.  A business model created and industry of to many prison beds that need bodies to lay in them.  

    Do you know an ex-felon?  Do you know a ghetto woman who is uneducated and living life as the generations before taught her?  Do you see the children who suffer and seem destined to sleep in the same bed in the same prison as their mother or father or grand parents?    

    Once in the prison system the difficulty to remain away is stacked against them by local, state and federal restrictions enacted by many who most likely never even know an offended. Indeed education is key for anyone to provide a living for themselves and their families.  And even more so for the young women ex-felon who carry the responsibility of raising children.  

    The issue of education for prisoners is essential for rehabilitation. Yet the emphases are a two front fight.  Use education to stop future offenders from entering the prison system in the first place and allow higher education and trade skills for those already in prison.

    Because we are human we act with half a heart and half a brain.  Human emotions make up our political environment.  Fear, ignorance, and apathy cost the American society human misery.   Logic and common sense compels the conclusion that anyone whether prisoner, ex-felon, or non-offender will reduce cost to the American taxpayer and replace the future criminal offender with an accountant, doctor, or business owner.