On August 3, 2015, the Obama administration announced a pilot program aimed at increasing educational opportunities for prisoners. The Department of Education, through the Experimental Sites Initiative (ESI), invited higher education institutions to apply for participation in the Second Chance Pell Pilot program. Approved institutions will collaborate with federal or state prisons to allow inmates to receive Pell Grants while incarcerated. The pilot program will likely last five years, allotting institutions one year to plan, three to conduct the pilot, and a final year to compile findings. Congress enacted a ban on prisoners’ use of Pell Grants in 1994, claiming their grant use constricted the funding available for law-abiding citizens. At the time of the ban, inmates represented less than one tenth of one percent of all Pell Grant recipients, receiving $34.6 million out of the total $5.3 billion distributed. Post-secondary education opportunities in prison waned, leaving only privately funded programs scattered throughout the country. Four months after the ban, only four of the seventy post-secondary prison programs in New York State remained. While the ESI has not revealed many details of the pilot program, available information indicates some potential hazards due to the inherent restrictions of a time-sensitive study and the nature of an individual-based funding model.

Front Row

Members of the Cornell Prison Education Program’s 2014 graduating class.

Immediately following the announcement of the pilot program, progressive groups labeled it as a step toward criminal justice reform. Conservative representatives expressed frustration with President Obama’s unilateral initiation of the program, but they did not dispute the effectiveness of prison education. Numerous independent and government-backed studies over the last two decades have concluded that all varieties of correctional education programs (including GED, vocational, and post-secondary) positively influence recidivism rates and post-incarceration employment rates. In 2013, for example, the Rand Corporation’s evaluation of correctional education estimated that inmates who participate in post-secondary education have a 43% lower chance of recidivating. Rand also noted the favorable cost-benefit analysis of education programs: successful prison education programs save money, an important incentive for reform given the estimated $7 billion  in annual federal spending on the prison system.

The ESI pilot program is limited to inmates who are “eligible for release back into the community, particularly those who are likely to be released within five years of enrollment in the program.” It sets guidelines to collect data succinctly, although this truncated timeline excludes a crucial population for the success of prison education programs: seasoned inmates.

Robert Scott, the executive director of the Cornell Prison Education Program (CPEP), has worked in prison education for nine years and with CPEP for the last three. Scott believes limiting eligibility to inmates with five years or less suggests a misunderstanding of prison culture. Inmates in prison for less than five years generally do not participate in the culture of prison, let alone define it. Inmates with more than ten years in prison, or seasoned inmates, make a life in prison and create prison culture.

Prisoners seeking to enroll in higher education programs face a number of challenges because of prison culture. In 2009, the Urban Institute’s final report on post-secondary education noted that corrections officers expressed resentment regarding education opportunities for inmates. Incarcerated students also face social exclusion and potential hostility from the rest of the prison population, who often associate education programs with prison administration. A successful prison education program must change the perception of education within the prison through a partnership with the cultural leaders of the prison.

Every student in Scott’s first graduating class at CPEP was serving a sentence of thirty-five years or more. In many prison education programs, tenured inmates become teacher’s aides and promote the program within the prison. Additionally, most prisoners are moved between prisons throughout the state to dissuade inmates from organizing, potentially causing disruptive behavior for prison administration. Prisoners who participate in education programs in one prison can disseminate the benefits of the programs to other prisons, bolstering the status of a particular program and acceptance of correctional education in general. The pilot favors timely results, but the time constraints and subsequent eligibility limitations restrict tenured cultural leaders from participating, possibly inhibiting eligible inmates from enrolling.

The pilot program potentially places existing prison education programs at risk due to the pilot’s divergent funding model, which would stunt current correctional education efforts. Pell Grants support individual prisoners as opposed to programs, and this is a fundamentally different model from privately supported programs like CPEP. There is concern that some higher education institutions will see the individual funding model as an opportunity for revenue instead of prison reform. Suspect use of Pell Grants is common outside of the prison system; over half of the students attending for-profit universities, notorious for low graduation rates and exploitation of students, receive Pell Grants. Unlike existing privately-funded programs, institutions new to the prison environment might not initiate a support system for an education program to thrive. Prison education programs generally take years to develop both in and out of prison: inmates need time to become acclimated to the concept, and programs must secure grant funding to flourish. Well established privately-funded programs might suffer if programs less focused on long-term success compete for the same grants.

The pilot program’s selection process could curtail revenue motivated institutions. Although ESI has not released details on the selection process of organizations, higher education institutions with no history of prison education programs might be excluded from the pilot program.

Concerns over the pilot’s timeframe and institutional eligibility guidelines aside, the ESI pilot highlights prison education as integral to prison reform at an opportune time. The ESI pilot program is just one announcement amid a recent flurry of criminal justice reforms spearheaded by the Obama administration since 2014, beginning with “My Brother’s Keeper,” an initiative aimed at juvenile justice reform. In July 2015, President Obama symbolically commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders, releasing them from overly harsh mandatory prison terms, and he became the first president in US history to visit a federal prison. In early October 2015, the Justice Department announced plans to release 6,000 inmates from federal prison by the beginning of November, retroactively applying a 2014 bill aimed at reducing drug-related prison sentences. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate have proposed sweeping criminal justice reform bills in 2015, although neither has yet passed out of committee. The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program is one of the many tools President Obama is using to provoke prison reform; long-term prison education reform legislation might pass before the pilot concludes.

The pilot program raises another looming issue in the US: the cost of higher education, especially for disadvantaged populations, whose risk of incarceration is comparatively greater. US post-secondary education costs have quintupled in the last thirty years. Research indicates education level affects initial incarceration, so higher education access is in some sense a preventative measure to reduce incarceration. While the rate of increase in higher education expenses has slowed in recent years, the price is still disproportionately prohibitive to those most at risk of incarceration. Additionally, prisoners face a greater barrier even with Pell Grant support than previous generations of inmates based solely on increased higher education costs.

The Second Chance Pell Pilot program appropriately aims to combat current recidivism rates, but the primary goal of a larger criminal justice reform plan should be a reduction in initial incarceration. The pilot program has the potential to reverse, directly or indirectly, a questionable decision made two decades ago which arbitrarily limited inmates’ access to educational opportunities, but the United States requires comprehensive criminal justice reform beyond the scope of the pilot.

Harrison Speck

Written by Harrison Speck

Harrison is a former Senior Content Editor for the Cornell Policy Review and 2017 CIPA graduate focused on tech policy. During his time at Cornell, he was a Google Public Policy fellow with the Future of Music Coalition. Before Cornell, he worked for the State of Texas in public assistance...
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