This year marks the twenty-year anniversary of the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill, the legislative bombshell that effectively eliminated higher education in prison. This massive crime bill contained a provision that barred prisoners from receiving Pell grant funding; in a flash, hundreds of programs closed down. Although the plight of prisoners has received almost no attention from apathetic public officials and private citizens, ongoing fall out from the blast continues in the present.
Why did the government cut education aid to prisoners? At the time, the entire prison education infrastructure was supported on less than one-tenth of one percent of the federal Pell budget. Hence the amount doled out to prisoners was hardly worth the legislative efforts. So what was the reason for killing higher education in prison and leaving millions of incarcerated men and women with drastically reduced educational opportunity?
No question, the bill was passed in the harshest era of punishment the country has ever known. With politicians building political careers on "tough on crime" platforms and fears about appearing "soft on crime," prisoners became social scapegoats. The punitive nature of the political landscape was a major contributor to the demise of higher education in prison.
Although the effect of the bill was devastating, men and women in correctional systems are typically disadvantaged and undereducated prior to entering. Some 40 percent of prisoners have not completed high school, and according to a study conducted by the Begin to Read Project, over 70 percent of all inmates in U.S. prisons and jails cannot read above the fourth-grade level.
The Pell Grant funds allowed for hundreds of college programs to flourish inside prisons across the country between 1965 and 1994. As described by researchers, by 1982, a network of college programs was available in forty-five states and hundreds of prisons. In the early 1980s, there were 350 programs with more than 27,000 inmate-students; five years later, forty-six states offered some form of postsecondary education with 772 prison college programs enrolling more than 35,000 inmate-students; at the zenith in 1990, according to the Department of Justice, there were 782 programs across the country in state and federal facilities enrolling more than 77,300 inmate-students.
Within weeks of the bill's passing, the infrastructure supporting almost all college programming began to crumble. New York offers a dramatic example. College in prison programs thrived there in the 1970s and 1980s, with nearly every state prison in New York hosting programs. By the end of 1994 only four remained.
Today, all that remains is a small network of institutions of higher education, which offer programs at their own cost or through private charities.
The fall out from the education apocalypse is sobering. Although determining outcomes among inmates participating in prison college programs is no easy task, there are strong correlations between education and prevention of recidivism. According to one study conducted in 1997 by the Correctional Education Association, simply attending school behind bars reduces the likelihood of reincarceration by 29 percent. In 2000, the Texas Department of Education conducted a longitudinal study of 883 men and women who earned college degrees while incarcerated, finding recidivism rates at 27.2 percent for completion of an AA degree and 7.8 percent for completion of a BA degree, compared to a system-wide recidivism rate between 40-43 percent.
The after-effects are more sobering still when considering the Department of Justice, which reports that approximately 650,000 men and women are released from incarceration each year at roughly 10,000 a week. From this perspective, education in prison remains underutilized as a form of risk management for prison administrators.
Even the U.S. Department of Education resisted the change in Pell Grant
policy as detrimental to efforts to prevent reincarceration. In 1995, the department
issued a publication in direct response to the Omnibus Crime Bill entitled Pell Grants for Prisoners, which argued for the benefit of higher education in preventing recidivism. The report states that Pell Grants help inmates obtain the skills and education needed to acquire and keep a job following their eventual release.
Yet, focusing on recidivism as the sole metric for prison higher education programs misses the more substantial arguments about the need for higher education opportunities in prison. As the typical offender is undereducated, unemployed and living in poverty before incarceration, access to higher education in prison is a second chance to gain the needed social and vocational skills not just to prevent return to prison, but to be a citizen fully willing and able to participate in a community.
Higher education, whether administered within a prison or on a traditional college campus is a matter of self-discovery, the development of critical thinking skills, and acquisition of the social and intellectual competencies necessary to navigate the world beyond the campus or prison.
Lack of higher educational opportunities for the incarcerated widens the gulf between
the inside and outside and stifles efforts to allow individuals on both sides of the divide to see the other as fully human. Moreover, it allows prisoners to see humanity among themselves. With high tensions in prison, including racially and gang motivated violence, education stands as an antidote to the ignorance that fuels inmate conflict.