Prison Education Controversial History

No matter how far back you look in the history of American prisons, the controversy has always been between punishment and reform.

The Quakers created the earliest prisons in 1791 were intended to ensure public safety and reform prisoners. A school that focused on spiritual instruction was added seven years after the first prison opened.

A century later, New York State worked prisoners at mass-production jobs. Education stole time from labor and so was done away with.

Times changed, and with it, the way criminals were viewed. The first post-secondary education programs provided job-specific or vocational training. The approach eliminated inmate idleness while teaching marketable skills that could be used after release.

When the Great Depression struck, prisons reverted to labor. Higher education would not be offered inside prison until 1965 when Title IV of the Higher Education Act was passed.

On September 9, 1971, the rebellion at Attica State Prison in New York sparked a new era of prison reform. Inmates demanded adequate food, water, shelter, medical treatment, education access, religious freedom, and the right to be politically active.

By 1982, 350 prison education programs flourished. Pell Grants supported associate, bachelor’s, and master’s level studies. Two-year community colleges and technical/vocational schools sponsored 75% of the courses, and most were held live inside the prisons.

Then came 1994, the peak of the “tough on crime” frenzy. Pell Grants and student loans for prisoners were eliminated. In many states, prisoners were not allowed to take college extension courses. High school and equivalent programs also suffered.

Resistance to these damaging steps sprang from individual educators, the Department of Education, and prison authorities. The NAACP, the NY State Correctional Association, and others concerned with civil rights for every human hotly protested the denial of Pell Grants.

Nearly all of the prison education programs collapsed. By 2012, federal funding for prison postsecondary education had been entirely eliminated. But there is a glimmer of hope: this summer, the Obama administration began a test project to see if college classes help reduce prison recidivism by offering financial aid under the Pell Grants program. Let’s hope this 3 to 5-year pilot project rewrites history for inmates, prison education, and recidivism.

Great Literature Written Inside Prison Walls

  • Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
  • Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  • Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy