Federal aid to inmates for college tuition imperiled in Congress


Edwin Downs is a hard-working college freshman. He's also a convicted murderer serving a sentence of life plus 20 years in a maximum-security Jessup prison.

It's a combination that doesn't sit well with Congress, which appears poised to stop paying for college tuition for Downs and other inmates.

One provision of the anti-crime bill under final consideration in Washington would prohibit inmates from receiving federally funded scholarships known as Pell grants.

Prisoners should not be getting college scholarships when many middle-class taxpayers can't afford tuition, proponents of the ban say.

Others say a ban would be a short-sighted abandonment of the concept of rehabilitation.

Downs said policy-makers should recognize that most convicts get out someday.

"Do they want to deal with an uneducated convict on their hands or a person who's educated and had the opportunity to change?" said Downs, who is enrolled in Coppin State College courses at the Maryland House of Correction Annex. "In my mind, this ought to be forced on us."

Downs is one of about 900 prisoners in Maryland taking college courses. Nearly all of them receive Pell grants, said David Jenkins, the Division of Correction's liaison with the colleges offering the courses.

Nationally, an estimated 25,000 inmates had received about $35 million in Pell grants this year as of last month, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That was about two-thirds of 1 percent of the total $5.3 billion in grants awarded this year, according to a federal tally.

Rep. Bart Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat who led the fight to ban federal grants to prisoners, calls it a common-sense budget issue.

"Do we need to be giving a college education to prisoners?" he said. "We don't have unlimited dollars, and we have to set priorities."

Every dollar spent on prisoners is one that can't be spent on law-abiding citizens, he said.

Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Democrat from Maryland's 4th District, said that "at first blush it sounds bad" to pay for inmates to take college courses.

"The fact is, they are going to come out," said Mr. Wynn, who has led the effort in the House to maintain Pell grants for prisoners.

"They either come out with some skills and in a position to move into society and be productive, or they come out with no skills and they have no choice but to return to a life in crime," he said.

Pell grants go to low- and moderate-income students. The maximum grant for a student this year is $2,300. Inmates who receive grants do not take them away from other students, who are eligible for the scholarships if they or their families meet the income requirements. But making grants to inmates does cut the total available, which slightly reduces the size of each award.

Two years ago, Congress banned Pell grants for inmates on death row or those serving life sentences with no chance for parole. Now both the House and Senate have voted to ban grants for all prisoners.

Mr. Wynn said supporters of the inmate grants will try to salvage something in the House-Senate conference committee that is expected to produce a final bill in the coming weeks.

He is proposing phasing out the program unless states could prove that the college courses reduce recidivism, for example.

One study in Maryland compared inmates of similar age, race and criminal background after they got out of prison. More than half of the group who had taken no college courses returned to crime, compared with more than one-third of those who had studied while in prison.

"Based on this study, it appears that participation in a college program tends to reduce recidivism," said Fredrick S. Blackburn, a professor at Louisiana State University in Eunice. He tracked the inmates for his doctoral dissertation in 1979 while a professor at Hagerstown Junior College.

One supporter of the Pell grants is Baltimore actor Charles Dutton, who has starred in the television series "Roc." He received Pell money to earn his associate's degree while incarcerated at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown.

After his release at age 26, Mr. Dutton earned a bachelor's degree from Towson State University and a master's degree from Yale University.

"If you sit an inmate in the penitentiary and don't allow them the chance to change themselves, how else are they going to change their souls and existence if it's not through books and education?" he said. "They're not going to get it running through the damn courtyard.

"I'm a living example of that. In prison, I picked up a book and it changed my life forever."

Coppin has Maryland's largest prisoner education program. Others that offer college degrees for prisoners include Essex Community College, Hagerstown Junior College and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Hagerstown, which was the first to offer a college program for inmates, celebrated the 25th anniversary of its program last week.

Prisoners select from a prescribed list of majors and earn associate's or bachelor's degrees. Courses available at the House of Correction Annex this semester, for example, range from Art History to Dynamics of Business.

At the House of Correction, literature students read such works as Shakespeare's "King Lear" and "My Brother's Keeper," John Edgar Wideman's account of his brother's descent into criminality, said Glenn Moomau, a part-time instructor at Essex Community College.

"There are some people who can't be reached. But there are people that are trying to change," Mr. Moomau said. "We have to try to do something with these folks. We can't give up on them."

James Hardison, a 41-year-old inmate from East Baltimore, takes Coppin classes for his bachelor's degree in psychology.

"Out in society, I wasn't thinking right," he said. "In here, I decided it's the righteous way of life."

Serving a life sentence for murder, Hardison has been in prison for seven years and must serve 4 1/2 more years before his first chance at parole. "To me, they're thinking backwards," said Hardison, referring to the Pell grant opponents.

Denying inmates the chance to take college classes will simply give them more time to get into trouble behind bars, he said.

"When you come into the classroom, it's a positive environment," Hardison said. "You're away from all that negativism for a while."

Nationally, the American Correctional Association and the Clinton administration support Pell grants for prisoners.

Officials at the Maryland Division of Correction declined to comment.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer does not object to dropping the payments.

"Pell grants may be a luxury we can't afford when so many people are going without," said Page W. Boinest, the governor's press secretary.

Mr. Gordon said he opposes the current system of federal help with prisoners' tuition because the Pell grants, under the supervision of the U.S. Department of Education, have been vulnerable to abuse. Students, he noted, can major in anything offered at the prison, no matter how useful it might be after the prisoner returns to society.

In the future, he said, he might support college programs for inmates if "there is good oversight and it's determined to be cost-effective."

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