There was robust coverage of this week’s announcement of a new federal program that will enable incarcerated Americans to receive Pell Grants and pursue postsecondary education while in prison.
Ford Foundation President Darren Walker praised the news:
“The promise of the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program has been demonstrated time and time again with profound results. When incarcerated individuals have access to high quality higher education it reduces recidivism and transforms the lives of individuals and communities. This is a moment of opportunity to reform our criminal justice system into one that values and restores humanity and justice. A system that is worthy of our ideals includes programs that restore dignity to individuals and also make common sense.”
For more perspectives, check out our blog posts on the work that helped lead to the Pell Grants program, the latest strides in sentencing reform, and last year’s TEDx event at Ironwood State Prison. Plus: Our Q&A with Bard Prison Initiative founder Max Kenner.
News and Analysis
Studies have found a wide variety of benefits to post-secondary education in prison, including fewer disciplinary infractions, higher rates of post-release employment, and improved self-image. In one notable study, a sociologist argued that college’s positive benefits stem from reduced “prisonization” — the classroom makes inmates feel less like inmates and more like everyday people.
While incarcerated at Hudson County Correctional Facility, [Wesley Caines, 49] used a privately funded program to earn an associate degree, then a bachelor’s and a master’s, after studying the work of Nietzsche and W.E.B. Du Bois. He’s now working for a Brooklyn firm helping other ex-offenders re-enter society. “Prison is perhaps one of the most dehumanizing environments that any human being could find themselves in,” he said. “One of the best ways to make transformative gains is to be educated.”
“There is nothing proven to be less expensive and more effective than college,” said Max Kenner, executive director of the Bard Prison Initiative, which annually enrolls nearly 300 prisoners in degree programs from Bard College in New York.
“Just because someone’s been locked up, just because they may be gang-involved doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have incredibly high expectations for these individuals or that we shouldn’t put forth every effort into getting them to and through college,” said Mark Culliton, CEO of College Bound Dorchester, an organization that works with high school dropouts and former gang members to get them into community college.
“I’ve long believed there needed to be reform of our criminal justice system,” said Mr. Boehner, endorsing a House bill that would change the system. “We’ve got a lot of people in prison, frankly, that don’t really in my view need to be there. It’s expensive to house. Some of these people are in there for what I’ll call flimsy reasons.”
It wasn’t long ago that any Democratic talk about criminal-injustice reforms would be met with immediate, knee-jerk talking points about “soft-on-crime” liberals who want to “coddle” criminals. Last month, however, as Rachel noted on the show, even House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said he “absolutely” supports bipartisan reforms.
For the victims of this system locked in prison cells, this moment when a substantive national conversation is unfolding and when policy changes are in process is more than welcome. For them, it is a lifeline.