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In 1994, congress outlawed giving Pell Grants to prisoners. (Photo: AP/Rich Pedroncelli)

In 1994, congress outlawed giving Pell Grants to prisoners. (Photo: AP/Rich Pedroncelli)

Bring Back Pell Grants for Prisoners

There are hundreds of thousands of people in this country’s prisons who could benefit from educational opportunities

Cynthia Kaufman

When I was in working on my PhD in philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, I paid for part of my education by teaching in prison. For me it was an incredibly rewarding experience. It was great working these students who had time to read and think, and wonder in the deep ways that philosophy encourages. On the first day of my first political philosophy class, as we sat down to read Plato's Republic, I started by saying that the book was about the nature of justice. Within seconds we were off to a serious philosophical conversation with a student asking “What makes you think that justice exists?” So began a deeply engaging, philosophically rich, and intellectually challenging teaching experience.

That program allowed inmates to receive a bachelor's degree in Liberal Arts from the University of Massachusetts. The degree did not say anything about prison on it. Administrators for the program claimed that there was a 2% recidivism rate for its graduates. The program was funded in large part by Pell Grants. Pell Grants began in 1965 and they continue to this day to be the core sources of money for college for millions of low-income students. I finished my undergraduate education at UC Berkeley as a self-funded older student, and it was Pell Grants that allowed me to do so.

In spite of its incredible success, UMass' prison education program was ended a few years after I left in 1990.

In 1994, congress outlawed giving Pell Grants to prisoners. This was the height of the “get tough on crime rhetoric,” which saw Democrats trying to look as tough as Republicans to play on the racial fears which had been whipped up by the War on Drugs. President Bill Clinton was a leader in that political strategy on the Democrats’ side. If you look at the arguments that were made at the time to discontinue offering Pell Grants to prisoners, none of them had to do with the efficacy of the program, in human or economic terms. Rather, the focus was on the fact that it was morally wrong to give money for college to prisoners because they did not deserve those resources.

It turns out that a financial argument could not have been made to cut the program. According to a 2016 study by the RAND Corporation, “Every dollar invested in correctional education saves nearly five in reincarceration costs over three years.” The Prison Study Project argues that in addition to the cost savings benefits, prisoners in educational programs are less likely to engage in violence and other destructive actions, and there is a positive effect on the children of those who are incarcerated. The War on Drugs and mass incarceration have been shown to have been fueled by cynical attempts of politicians to whip up fears in the electorate. Now that that fever seems to be subsiding, it is time to restore the ability of people who are incarcerated to receive Pell Grants.

In recent years California has been taking some good steps in educating people in prison. In 2014 California passed Senate Bill 1391 which allows community colleges to offer instruction in prisons, rather than just on line. Cerro Coso College been a leader and has taken up that opportunity with amazing success. According to Gabriel Thomson, in academic year 2018/19 “10 full-time and 36 part-time Cerro Coso instructors will teach more than 1,200 inmates at CCI and another state prison located in Kern County, the California City Correctional Facility...The results have been striking: In the fall of 2018, nearly 5,000 inmates from all security clearance levels took face-to-face college courses.”

California’s innovation is impressive, but that SB 1391 did not come with extra funding for staff to run the program, and students must pay for their own books, a huge barrier to expansion. 

Some progress was recently made in terms of education in Federal prisons with the “First Step Act,” one of the few pieces of bipartisan legislation enacted since Trump was elected. According to the Marshall Project, the act requires “the Bureau of Prisons to match people with appropriate rehabilitative services, education and training opportunities There is no limit on how many credits they can earn. Job training and education programs in prison would get $375 million in new federal funding.”

While this act is a good “first step,” it only applies to Federal Prison, and it only sets out broad mandates. It does not offer funding to pay for educating our incarcerated population.

For the past two years, I have been corresponding with Ifoma Modibo Kambon. He is presently doing a life sentence in California and was in solitary confinement for over 25 years. He and I collaborated on an article published in CommonDreams in 2017, “Holding onto Your Humanity in Solitary Confinement: On the Pain and the Pathology of the Security Housing Unit.” In addition to being a writer, and an educator in prison, Ifoma has been working for years to challenge California’s overuse of solitary. As a result of a strong prisoner solidarity movement, a successful lawsuit, and a historic prisoner led hunger strike, since 2012 2,500 prisoners have been released from California’s SHU. Work is being done to completely eliminate the practice in the state.

Ifoma has worked hard to gain an education for himself while incarcerated in California, and he was done a lot to educate others. He is currently work on his AA. Here is what he says about the importance of education in prison:

Education is Freedom. Education in prison provides the opportunity for men and women across every region of the country to embark on a transformational process that enriches the soul, creates vibrant spirits and most importantly makes fertile the minds of the landscape for planting seeds of hope, mental liberation, rehabilitation, redemption, and compasses to guide direct and shape one's humanity.

It took me many years to discover the power of education as a viable solution to the problem of being victimized by ignorance, illiteracy, dumbing down, lack of self-respect, pride, complacency and a host of self-manufactured excuses for self-imposed limitations. I learned that it is always by engaging in reflection that we can discover our potential, possibilities and worth. Education has put me on a path of rebirth as a human being. When I began my education, I began to explore and discover a whole new world. No longer was I like the frog who accidentally fell into a well, and looking upwards, imagines the size of the world to be the circumference of the well.

Growing up I was trapped by my own environment which stunted my development and growth. I came to see education as more than rote memorization of dates, and dates, and names. It was a journey to discover self and the world. Books became my windows to learning about self and the world.

In prison there is a saying that the best place to guard a secret is to put it in a book. But for me, books became food for my soul, sustaining me during all of the chaos that occurs while doing prison time. Each page kindles my curiosity and imagination. I became an explorer. Books help me to account for my past and present motivation and shortcomings.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X was my inspiration to learn in prison. It demonstrated for me the possibility of change and redemption. So far, my education meant change through self-reflection. I began to see myself under the wider rainbow of humanity. I tried to tell people about abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ desire to read and write when it was a crime to teach a slave. I reminded prisoners of the many people who died or were beaten so that they could read.

I was a high school dropout and received my high school diploma in prison. Four decades later I was allowed to sign up for college classes. And yet after that, year after year, I was denied access to college. At the age of 63 I have tried to be a beacon of light as a positive example. I have been instrumental in teaching people how to read and write. The problem with the college system is the cost. Most of us come from poor neighborhoods and are unable to afford to buy books. There would be more prisoners in school if we had better access to opportunities to study.

There are hundreds of thousands of people in this country’s prisons who, like Ifoma, could benefit from educational opportunities.  And most of them will be released back into society at some point. Removing the limitation on Pell Grants and allowing the funding to be used for funding programs and materials, as was the case before 1994, would make an incredible difference in the lives of people incarcerated across the country. It would save money, it would have a positive impact on the devastated communities from which most of our nation’s incarcerated people come from, and it would lead to the human development of some of the most oppressed people in our society.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Cynthia Kaufman

Cynthia Kaufman

Cynthia Kaufman is the author of "The Sea is Rising and So Are We", "Challenging Power: Democracy and Accountability in a Fractured World" (2020), "Getting Past Capitalism: History, Vision, Hope" (2012), and "Ideas for Action: Relevant Theory for Radical Change" (2016). She is the director of the Vasconcellos Institute for Democracy in Action at De Anza College. Her website: cynthiakaufman.net.

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