Back in the 1990s, when Democrats led by President Bill Clinton and U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden tried to out-tough Republicans on crime, Congress eliminated federal college grants for prison inmates. There had been expressions of shock and outrage in the media — primarily conservative talk radio and prime-time news magazines — that incarcerated criminals were getting Pell Grants intended for low-income students, and politicians of both parties joined the condemnation chorus.
Did not matter that only a small portion of Pell Grants — about $35 million out of a $6.3 billion fund, according to the Human Rights Defense Center — went to inmates.
Did not matter that the 1965 law that created Pell Grants specifically made inmates eligible for the financial aid.
Did not matter that the money went to state prison education programs, not directly to inmates.
Facts and perspective, much less the value of prisoner education, were lost in the grandstanding.
So, the whole Pell Grant thing for prisoners went away, eliminated in the now-infamous 1994 tough-on-crime bill that filled our federal and state correctional institutions to capacity. Both Biden and Clinton have since expressed regret for pushing the law.
Pell funding for inmates was restored during the Obama administration and the funding survived the Trump administration’s effort to reverse all things Barack. I mention that today for two reasons: To acknowledge further evidence that our thinking about incarceration is evolving and to point to an area of public policy where bipartisanship made one of its rare appearances. The restoration of Pell funding for prisoners, something you would ascribe to liberal thinking, has enjoyed the support of some Republicans. While that might surprise you, especially when Republicans oppose everything Democrats propose, I see it as confirmation of what I discovered years ago: Putting corrections back into corrections and breaking the cycle of criminality is something everyone seems to understand and appreciate.
Federal and state prisons too often return offenders to the same dreary lives they had before they were arrested. We should rebuild the whole system from start to finish, funding intense and comprehensive therapy at every facility with more counselors, psychologists and life coaches.
Education should be the centerpiece of a re-imagined system. A comprehensive study by the Rand Corporation, published in 2013, found that inmates who had taken classes in prison were 43% less likely to commit new offenses within three years of release. They found jobs more easily than inmates who received no prison education.
The Goucher Prison Education Partnership, now in its 10th year as a division of Goucher College, has served hundreds of inmates at the correctional institutions for men and women in Jessup. A growing number of them have earned bachelor degrees from Goucher. One of them, the formerly incarcerated William Freeman, is now a fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Others have left prison before completing their degrees but used the credits toward diplomas elsewhere.
Amy Roza, the GPEP’s founding director, recently stepped down from her position. The annual budget for the program during her tenure went from $100,000 to $1.4 million. Most of the funding comes from donors and grants, with 25% from Pell Grants.
“Our very first semester we were a two-class pilot with 15 students,” she says. “We now have more than 130 students at two prisons and offer 30 to 40 classes each year.” That works out to a cost of about $7,000 per student, presenting the possibility of a superb return on investment when a student in prison becomes a good citizen in open society.
Karen Jones served six-plus years in Jessup for the harm caused to a child in her care. While in prison, she took Goucher classes up to four days a week, accumulating 50 credits toward a bachelor’s degree. She’s been out for six years, lives in Frederick with her husband and children and works as a human resources director. The Goucher classes, she says, helped her get through a tough time in her life.
“The experience of prison is completely dehumanizing,” she says. “But … the experience of college gave me purpose and a sense of community. Just being treated like a person, that my opinions mattered, that I had something to contribute — it instilled something in me that allowed me to get through.”
Her favorite class was in philosophy.
For Sekwan Merritt, who went to the men’s prison in Jessup in 2012 on a drug charge, it was political science. It opened his eyes to the fundamentals of democracy and meaningful citizenship. “It showed me the importance of being politically active,” he says.
That’s a lesson Merritt takes seriously and one that he put into action when he joined a lawsuit against the U.S. Small Business Administration last year.
Released from prison in 2017, Merritt became a master electrician and started a company, Lightning Electric. In 2020, he learned that his five-employee business could not receive pandemic relief — a loan through the Payroll Protection Program — because of his criminal record. Merritt did not accept that. He got active.
With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, he argued in federal court that the restriction was overly broad and unfair — and not just to him but probably to other small business owners across the country.
And, guess what — the SBA eased the rules. Citizen Merritt won. You see that? It pays to pay attention in class, no matter where it’s held.