Prison Reform Should Include Pell Grants for Prisoners

By · Monday, February 9th, 2009

In today’s punitive prison system, fewer prisoners have access to higher education. I read an article that Matthew Ryno published at, for example, that described how the federal prison in Oxford was about to substitute a program through which inmates could earn degrees from the University of Wisconsin in order for the prison to make room for programs that allow inmates to earn certificates in custodial services.

We need prison reforms that will bring new leadership to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Recidivism rates are high because prisons fail to prepare offenders for the challenges they will encounter upon release. In Ryno’s article, he quotes a high-level administrator at FCI Oxford who said that programs that teach occupational skills like janitorial services would benefit inmates more than university degrees. I disagree.

When I began serving my federal prison sentence, in 1987, prisoners were entitled to receive educational funding through the Pell grant. Those funds made it possible for me to change my life in significant ways. As a consequence of the PelI grant, I was able to begin and complete my undergraduate studies. In 1992, Mercer University awarded my baccalaureate degree. That credential enabled me to advance to graduate studies. In 1995, Hofstra University awarded me a master’s degree.

Some shortsighted people may object to taxpayer funds being used to subsidize educational programs for people in prison. Yet I would submit that taxpayers have an interest in helping prisoners develop skills and credentials that translate into successful lives upon release. Statistics show that prisoners who leave confinement with academic credentials have significantly lower recidivism rates than those who leave prison with minimal skills.

Prisoners who return to society face significant hurdles. They struggle to gain traction after years or decades of confinement. Yet those who have committed the discipline necessary to earn high-level academic credentials stand much more prepared to contribute to society in meaningful ways. Those contributions lead to higher earnings and more tax revenues for society. Offering high-level academic programs to those in prison represent a wise investment of public funds. Only the foolish would choose to invest in more prison cells.

As a consequence of the academic program to which I committed during my first decade of confinement, I built relationships with many mentors. Professor Norval Morris, who was with the University of Chicago and one of the most distinguished penologists in the world, was a friend and teacher of mine. In his book The Future of Imprisonment, Professor Morris wrote that society had an interest in helping those in prison advance and earn academic credentials to the highest level possible. Education, he was convinced, was the single most effective vehicle to break the cycle of crime.

In my article titled One Man’s Walk Through Atlanta’s Jungle, which I wrote in the early 1990s, I described what it felt like to begin serving a lengthy sentence in a high-security penitentiary when I was in my early 20s. I wrote more on the subject in Facing Long-Term Incarceration. When I published those articles, I could not envision the full manner in which a 45-year prison term could suck the life out of me. Yet through my commitment to education, I was able to offset the disaster of my lengthy term.

Now I have more than 21 years of prison behind me. I am nearly 45 years old, and I expect to serve a few more years before release will come. Yet as a consequence of my educational credentials, I will leave prison unscathed, ready to begin my life as a contributing citizen. In fact, my academic credentials have opened opportunities to contribute to society from within prison boundaries. I have published several books and articles, and I have employment offers that await my release. The investment taxpayers have made in my education will ensure that I live the rest of my life as a productive citizen. Society ought to support prison reforms that will allow more prisoners to emerge from these boundaries with skills and resources that will help them overcome the challenges and hurdles certain to follow confinement.

With President Obama’s leadership, and a strong Congress, I hope for legislation in 2009 that will help more offenders prepare for release in meaningful ways. In our enlightened society, we ought to encourage and support those who are striving to reconcile and redeem the bad decisions of their past. Through my work and my example, I hope to offer compelling reasons for positive change to our nation’s prison system.

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