As Pell Grant eligibility returns for people in prison on July 1, we wanted to know what the moment was like when higher education went away almost 30 years ago. We asked four lifers to share their experiences with Pell Grants before 1994, when Congress eliminated access to federal financial aid for incarcerated students, in their own words.
Their stories have been edited for length and clarity.
As the old-school California Youth Authority van pulled into the infamous Youth Training School, I thought my life was over. It was, at the time, California’s largest youth prison, known as “gladiator school.”
It was 1991. I’d spent the previous two years fighting and losing a juvenile court fitness hearing for a shooting I committed as a 16-year-old. I got transferred to adult court, refused a deal, lost a first-degree murder trial, and wound up sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. I was a classic case of what they today would call a “youth offender.” Back then, we were “superpredators.”
There was one redeemable thing about gladiator school — I discovered that the facility actually had a Pell-funded bachelor’s program in sociology from the University of La Verne. For a kid who acquired his GED in juvenile hall at the age of 16, being able to perhaps parlay my woes into a college degree was the only inspiring thing in my life.
I eagerly enrolled and quickly knocked down 39 units. But then, in fall 1992, a race riot handed me time in solitary confinement, a DA referral, and a gnarly transfer to an even more volatile youth facility. Over the next 15 years, during which time Congress killed our access to Pell Grants, I spent most of my time in and out of administrative segregation.
It wasn’t until I was doing my last long-term stint in the hole that I started to contemplate a different mode of life on the inside. While in lockup, I’d received a reply letter from Thomas Aquinas College in Ojai, California responding to my request for donated paperback philosophy books. One of the professors there visited me regularly, became my friend, and caused me to contemplate universals, question my ethics, and deconstruct my malformed ideas about my purpose on the planet.
I own my mistakes. I went on the ride of being a follower trying to survive the idiotic politics I was too afraid to buck. My beef is with the obstacles placed in the way of the academic climb I’ve tried to make since then, after I changed my life, flipped my script, and started to explore my capacity to exist beyond the limiting confines of what I’d been indoctrinated to accept for myself.
I’ve been on never-ending college program waitlists for nearly 10 years, while staying discipline-free, dropping custody points, and earning my way from maximum security prisons to the medium-security facility I’ve been at since 2018. After every transfer, I had to start the climb again, from the bottom rung of a ladder that placed me last due to my life sentence.
It took me 30 years to get back on track.
— Ghostwrite Mike, California
‘I need to find my way out of here’
I arrived at Muncy in 1985 and college classes were already a mainstay. I took my GED then enrolled at Bloomsburg College. We had two classes a semester and Pell paid it all. A couple years later Bill Clinton ended Pell Grants for prisoners. A lot of people were pissed.
I could no longer afford to go. I had to drop out of college. I hated to do that, because I was emotionally abused as a child and my father was illiterate. He always told me I’d never amount to anything and wasn’t smart enough to do anything with my life. The fact that I had a life sentence made me feel he was right, until I discovered college.
College changed everything. It made me feel like an adult for the first time. And I discovered my identity and intelligence. When it went away, I was dejected and sad I couldn’t accomplish graduating. I would have been the first in my family.
I focused all my attention on my apprenticeship — a multitrade program through the Pennsylvania Department of Labor. My certification is as a maintenance builder, repairer, servicer. It took 6 years to graduate. We had to build custom furniture for staff to fund the program.
After I graduated, I went on to specialize in carpentry at the maintenance department for 15 years. I also went to school for computers, and then took a course in AutoCad to use with carpentry. And then took Accounting 1, 2, and 3. I planned a future in carpentry, to open my own business. I just need to find my way out of here to do it.
— Charmaine Pfender, Pennsylvania
‘There were good people who cared more about my future than I did’
Methamphetamine derailed my 1987 high school graduation. I was then locked in a small jail cell facing murder charges three weeks later. Soon thereafter, I was sentenced to life within the Oregon State Correctional Institution.
I was relieved to find that prison was much more like a college than the violent war zone I feared thanks to the education opportunities offered by Pell Grants. The prison offered two- and four-year college degrees, vocational training and apprenticeships in numerous professions. Approximately 20 percent of the 1,000 prisoners at the prison were taking classes. New prisoners were constantly encouraged to join them, but I could not see a future for myself after being told I would die in a cage.
Thankfully, there were good people here who cared much more about me and my future than I did. I thought I was done with school after a woman in the education department helped me quickly earn my high school diploma. But she immediately encouraged me to enroll in college.
Truthfully, I was afraid of enrolling because I still believed the lie that I had internalized for so many years; that I was not smart enough to ever have academic success. Fortunately, she refused to take “No!” for an answer and finally convinced me to give it a try. I eventually earned a two-year degree on March 17, 1995.
Earning a degree helped free me from a psychological prison that I had constructed for myself as a child. It made me finally believe that I could achieve and become so much more than I ever imagined possible. It is a sad irony that I discovered this freedom only in a cage, but prison education was an essential key to my personal freedom.
Finally understanding the value of education, I wanted to continue but my educational journey came to a screeching halt. Congress abolished prisoner Pell Grants just six months before I graduated and I could not pursue a four-year degree because both colleges quickly left in 1995.
Sadly, my fellow prisoners and I witnessed guards gleefully celebrating as college classes ended.
— Mark Wilson, Oregon
‘It was like a badge of honor’
In 1982, I started my incarceration in the Maryland State Penitentiary, where 90% of us were serving life sentences. The other 10% were serving virtual life sentences (50 years and above). College programs such as Coppin State College (now Coppin University, an HBCU) was one of the few tools available for an incarcerated person to improve himself and to stay positively focused away from destructive behavior. A few incarcerated people were also earning master’s degrees.
I can vividly recall the disappointed faces after the college coordinator, Ms. Yolanda Hendricks, informed incarcerated people that the undergraduate program was going to cease operations. Being part of that program was like a badge of honor. It also encouraged students to earn their GED so they could go to college.
It really felt like I was in a comfort zone when I earned my GED and then went to college. I was so proud of myself when I walked across that stage in 1989 and received my degree.
The most devastating effect of the Pell Grant removal was an increase in hopelessness. With “hopelessness” comes an array of destructive and self-destructive behavior.
Ninety percent of all programs in the penitentiary were created by incarcerated people that had earned a degree or were in pursuit of a degree. When the Pell Grant ceased, many of those programs eventually stopped functioning. The programs that remained were taken over by prison officials and were only a fragment of what they once were.
— Craig Muhammad, Maryland
Ghostwrite Mike is a student at Coastline College, transferring to Merced College in the fall. He’s a published poet, illustrator, and journalist. His work has appeared in Exchange, a literary magazine by incarcerated people published by Columbia University School of the Arts. He’s the co-founder of the Barz Behind Bars (B³) poetry workshop at Valley State Prison in California, and managing editor of the BarzOnline literary blog for the Ben Free Project, producer and co-host of the Lifer Cypher podcast at University of New Haven’s WNHU, and carceral strategies consultant to the board of the non-profit Radical Reversal. Follow him on Twitter, or email him.
Charmaine Pfender has served 35 years in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. She is one of three original founders of the non-profit Let’s Get Free: The Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee.
Mark Wilson, 54, has been an Oregon prisoner since 1987. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Oregon in 2019. Since 2019, he has served as a member of a legislative working group seeking to improve prison educational opportunities.
Craig Muhammad has used education to reach back and help his incarcerated peers to become better human beings. He is a writing tutor for the University of Baltimore Second Chance College Program, a trained peer support specialist, and a facilitator for the Georgetown University Law Center Legal Writing Program.