A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. Written by Open Campus national reporter Charlotte West.

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A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. By Charlotte West.

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

Sledgehammers and pendulums

If you’ve been reading this newsletter, you already know that July 1 was an extremely significant date in the world of prison education. It marked the first time in 29 years that people in prison were eligible to receive Pell Grants for higher education. Three decades ago, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act — also known as the 1994 crime bill — took a sledgehammer to federal financial aid for incarcerated students.

But as I’ve reported before, July 1 is just the beginning for the return of Pell. It will take colleges and corrections departments a while to figure out exactly what these new prison education programs will entail. A significant move forward, however, was the launch of the Education Department’s new prison education program application at the end of June. 

At the time that Pell was eliminated in 1994, there were approximately 23,000 incarcerated students enrolled in college out of a prison population that had just topped 1 million. That means a little over 2% of people in prison were participating in higher education. Today, the Vera Institute estimates that approximately 767,000 people out of 1.2 million people in prison will be eligible for college, with around 2-2.5% expected to be enrolled in college as of this month.

Read more: We put together an FAQ about the return of Pell. Take a look!

How the 700K figure is calculated is a little fuzzy as the data isn’t precise. Bureau of Justice Statistics info lags several years, so the most recent data on education level is from 2016. A high school diploma or GED is generally the baseline for college eligibility, so the 767,000 is based on an assumption that 64% of the 1.2 million incarcerated people meet that eligibility requirement.

“It was just…gone”

Ever since I started covering prison education in fall 2021, I’ve been asking everyone I meet who was incarcerated before 1994, “What was that moment like when Pell Grants went away?”

I’ve talked to a dozen men and women — most of whom are lifers now in their 50s, 60s or 70s (and at least one octogenarian) — about the ebb and flow of prison education over the last four decades.

You can hear from some of these individuals — in their own words — over on our site:

  • “I’ve been on never-ending college program waitlists for nearly 10 years…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.”
  • “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.”
  • “My father always told me…I 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.  

For many people inside, education was “here one day and gone the next,” essentially stranding thousands of incarcerated students in the middle of their degrees. Sean Pica, now the executive director of Hudson Link, entered prison in 1987 as a 16-year-old with a ninth grade education.

After a lot of false starts, he had finally earned 118 credits towards a bachelors from Skidmore University when the 1994 crime bill passed. “At this point, it’s not getting taken away because I fucked up,” he said. “So in some ways, you’re a little resentful that ‘I’m finally getting my shit together. And now I’m still not finishing.’

Skidmore came in and packed up their books and their supplies with very little explanation, he said. “And then…it was just gone.”

Some people sensed the winds of change and managed to finish their degrees just under the wire. Last year, I worked with John Corley, the associate editor of The Angolite, to track how the last class of paralegals at the Louisiana State Penitentiary have continued to use their Pell-funded education for the last three decades.

In most places, the elimination of Pell spelled the end of higher education altogether. Patricia Prewitt, who has been incarcerated in Missouri since 1986, was a student at Lincoln University in 1994. She managed to finish her associate’s that year, but there was no college for women in Missouri until Washington University in St. Louis started a program in 2022. (Now, 30 years later, Prewitt is once again working towards her bachelor’s degree at the age of 74.)

And those who had been able to access Pell before 1994 formed a cadre of lifers who continued to espouse the benefits of education, encouraging others to somehow follow in their footsteps. Many of them became the GED tutors and the mentors for younger men and women coming into the system. Still others fought to bring education back in some form, creating their own college programs.

In New York, the women at Bedford Hills, drawing on community organizing skills they gained during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, banded together to offer a degree program through Marymount Manhattan College. (The Women Transcending Oral History Research Project at Columbia University’s Center for Justice is currently producing a documentary about these organizing efforts).

In Washington State, members of the Black Prisoners Caucus created an informal study group, enrolling one guy in a correspondence course and then learning the material together. Then the others earned credit by examination for a fraction of the cost. Those efforts would help pave the way for other privately funded programs such as University Beyond Bars and BPC T.E.A.C.H., a community organization focusing on prison education.

In addition to those who started their degrees before 1994, there were those who entered the system in the late 1990s and early 2000s. There were tangible reminders of lost opportunities, the mythology of Pell and a growing sense of frustration and disillusionment among both aspiring students and veteran educators.

Nick Hacheney remembers stacks of 10-year-old course catalogs in the education building when he got to the Washington State Reformatory in 2002. “I grabbed one and looked through it. This thing was like a full sheet fold out, four-page brochure and had lists of courses. You could get degrees in everything from architecture to graphic design,” he said.

He also said that the morale among the education staff who had been there when Pell was up and running was extremely low. “They had helped guys make serious progress and now they were reduced to running GED programming,” he said.

Reform revolves, rather than evolves

One conversation I had in early 2022 stands out and served as the inspiration for the artwork by Alvin Smith featured above. Gene Scott was in the last semester of a vocational program at a prison in South Carolina when the 1994 crime bill passed. Scott shared the story of a professor who made an uncanny prediction about the future of college-in-prison programs.

His professor broke the news that funding for college had been cut, and then told the class – many of whom were lifers – to stay out of trouble. “He was like, ‘You’re getting ready to go through what is called a ‘pendulum factor.’ You’re getting ready to witness the department of corrections going strictly to warehousing and then, after a minimum of 20 years, it’ll sway back to rehabilitation.’ And I’ve been holding on to that, waiting for it to sway back.’”

History is cyclical – as my friend and occasional co-author Morgan Godvin put it, “popular discourse around prison reform seems to revolve more than it evolves.” For example, some of the conversations we were having about technology and prison education in the 1950s are exactly the same as those taking place in 2023.

It’s not like it’s some great mystery that education reduces the chances that someone will go back to prison after their release and increases the chances that they’ll find a job. Today, everyone loves to cite the famous Rand study, but the role of education in reducing recidivism has been known for decades. The question has always been whether or not there’s been the political will to make the necessary investments.

As the pendulum finally sways back, I wonder what we have actually learned from the lessons of the past 30 years, of what happens when we intentionally remove opportunities for people to gain new skills and knowledge and actively prevent them from living up to their potential.

++ Read more.

About the art

A note from Alvin Smith, an artist incarcerated in Michigan who painted the image featured in this issue of College Inside:

I read about Gene Scott’s experience with Pell, particularly where his professor informed the class that they were getting ready to go through what’s known as ‘a pendulum factor,’ and that it was swinging away from prisoner rehabilitation. It was the 1994 crime bill passed by Congress that initiated the Pell-stripping swing of the pendulum.

I started looking at a picture of the House of Representatives with ‘the pendulum effect’ in mind. I turned the picture upside down, and there it was! The very same aisle that Democrats and Republicans like to spend so much snarling across. I envisioned the center aisle of the House floor as the pendulum once again swings into the year 2023 with the return of Pell, just as Gene’s professor had predicted. Quite prophetic if you ask me!.”

Let’s connect

Please connect if you have story ideas or just want to share your experience with prison education programs as a student or educator. You can always reach me at charlotte@opencampusmedia.org, on Twitter (if it doesn’t implode), or on LinkedIn. I can be reached via snail mail at: Open Campus, 2460 17th Avenue #1015, Santa Cruz, CA 95062.

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Open Campus national reporter covering the future of postsecondary education in prison.