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Rehabilitation Through Education: Advocating Pell Grants for Prisoners

By Christopher Zoukis  Image courtesy advocacy.collegeboard.org

America’s prisons are quickly becoming a drain on local, state, and federal budgets.  It’s estimated that as many as 30% to 40% of federal prisons are now over-capacity — a number that some believe will exceed 50% within the next 10 years[i] — with state prisons suffering from similar problems.[ii]

Many believe this overcrowding is the result of an increase in crime.  But crime rates have consistently fallen in the past two decades.  Violent crime is at an all-time low, and property crime is not far behind.[iii]  So while an increase in crime isn’t the problem, the problem isn’t simply a lack of prison space either.

The problem lies with recidivism — prisoners or probationers exiting custody or supervision and returning to a life of crime (and being arrested for doing so).  It’s recidivism that keeps our prisons full.

The Purpose of Prisons: Punish, Rehabilitate, or Both?

Prisons are designed to be a punishment for some type of crime.  But by their very nature — or at least the ideal of their purpose — they’re also meant to be a place of reformation and rehabilitation.  By placing someone in prison as a punishment, it’s believed that they’ll be motivated to avoid engaging in criminal conduct in the future, thus turning their life around and placing them back on a law abiding path.

But we know that this reformative ideal is often unfulfilled.  Most people do not break the law in the first place because of a sense of corrupt morals.  They break the law because they know nothing else or are born into a culture in which breaking the law is an acceptable norm, and once they exit the prison system, they’re given even fewer opportunities to be productive members of society.  Without opportunity, they can often feel as though they have no choice other than to go back to breaking the law.  And the truth of the matter is that many, many doors are closed to them.  Thus the appeal of returning to a criminal lifestyle.

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The Demise of Pell Grants

Dr. John Marc Taylor, Ph.D.

They were code words. Employed in the opening salvos of the Reagan Revolution, the irresponsible “unwed mother”, lazy “welfare queen”, parasitic “drug dealer” and dangerous “gang-banger” were not-so-subtle euphemisms for the poor and people of color. The conservative movement’s concerted onslaught on the more inclusive entitlement and social safety net programs inspired by the New Deal era of government commenced, however, against the politically powerless and publicly vilified prisoner.  Jon Marc Taylor, Ph.D. / Image courtesy prisoneducation.com

While the more overt War on Drugs with the attendant abolition of parole, mandatory minimum sentences, and expanded death penalty would take years to enact and for the crushing consequences to be felt, the initial forays against prisoners was fired by Virginia Congressman William Whitehurst in 1982, when he submitted legislation to rollback inmate Pell Grant disbursements. By 1991, senators and representatives from both parties (primarily from the old Confederacy) repeatedly introduced legislation to exclude “any individual who is incarcerated in any federal or state penal institution” from qualifying for Pell Grant assistance. For a decade, the various annual exclusion-fest amendments either did not make it out of their committees, or if passed on floor votes, were struck in the joint resolution committees.

Then in 1991, the primary force behind the eventually successful exclusionary legislation, Senator Jesse Helms, pontificated “the American taxpayers are being forced to pay taxes to provide free college tuitions for prisoners at a time when so many law abiding, tax-paying citizens are struggling to find enough money to send their children to college.” The following year, Representative Thomas Coleman claimed 100,000 prisoners unrightfully received Pell Grants. And in 1993, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison stated that prisoners “received as much as $200 million in Pell funds.”

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PELL GRANTS FOR PRISONERS: Why Should We Care?

By Jon Marc Taylor

 They were code words. Employed in the opening salvos of the Reagan Revolution, the irresponsible “unwed mother”, lazy “welfare queen”, parasitic “drug dealer” and dangerous “gang-banger” were not-so-subtle euphemisms for the poor and people of color. The conservative movement’s concerted onslaught on the more inclusive entitlement and social safety net programs inspired by the New Deal era of government commenced, however, against the politically powerless and publicly vilified prisoner.  Image courtesy splashlife.com

While the more overt War on Drugs with the attendant abolition of parole, mandatory minimum sentences, and expanded death penalty would take years to enact and for the crushing consequences to be felt, the initial forays against prisoners was fired by Virginia Congressman William Whitehurst in 1982, when he submitted legislation to rollback inmate Pell Grant disbursements. By 1991, senators and representatives from both parties (primarily from the old Confederacy) repeatedly introduced legislation to exclude “any individual who is incarcerated in any federal or state penal institution” from qualifying for Pell Grant assistance. For a decade, the various annual exclusion-fest amendments either did not make it out of their committees, or if passed on floor votes, were struck in the joint resolution committees.

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What Happened To Prison Education Programs?

Analysis: Marlene Martin THE 1960s were turbulent years; social change was in the air. Jim Crow  segregation was dismantled, and the civil rights movement brought  questions of racial and social justice into every household–and also  into every prison. As people sought to change society on the outside, so did prisoners on the inside. The Attica

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Prison Education Basics 104 (A Little History Explains a Lot — or does it?)

By George Hook

A near universal belief is that education is an essential ingredient to minimizing recidivism.  Equally universal is the belief that federal and State prison education programs are too generally unavailable.  Some might state that Uncle Sam and the States are “criminally negligent” on this score.  Others might even delete “negligent” and assert that the “criminality” is specific, targeted and intentional.  Those making such assertions would not just be suffering prisoners, who might expect misunderstanding, at least, and even targeting.  Educators and administrators may be numbered among the jury as well.  Primarily, the educators and administrators are the ones more vocal, among them sociologists and criminologists, who do the statistical and other research, the most distressed and making the clarion call to reform.

Prison education is expensive.  Although the students and facilities are readily available, the teachers’ availability and access to them is quite problematic.  Usually, teachers have had to stand up before their students and lecture.  That means having teachers enter the prison facility.   Many, if not most, teachers from traditional backgrounds would be very wary about teaching in any prison environment or to persons regarded to be potentially, if not patently, dangerous, generally, if not so specifically, by the teachers individually.  Transporting groups of prisoners beyond the prison walls is substantially more bothersome, and, potentially more risky and dangerous.  Admitting teachers to prison and transporting prisoners to outside classrooms, both, have usually been substantially more expensive than the general public, as represented by their political voices in government, could tolerate.  So the more acceptable alternative has been the correspondence course curriculum.   

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