“Just because one blind hog may occasionally find an acorn does not mean many other blind hogs will,” Rep. Bart Gordon (R-Tenn.) famously observed on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives in April 1994. “The same principle applies to giving Federal Pell grants to prisoners.”
Gordon and a majority of both Democrats and Republicans passed the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act which President Bill Clinton then signed into law. One provision of the new law banned the use of Federal Pell grant funds for incarcerated individuals. (Vice President Joe Biden, then Senator from Delaware, was the original author of the legislation).
Between the uprising at New York’s Attica Correctional Facility in 1971—which brought conditions in America’s prisons to national attention with a tragic immediacy—and the passage of the 1994 crime legislation, many colleges and universities created a diverse set of post-secondary educational options for American prisoners. Yet when the Pell Grant money went away, almost all U.S. institutions of higher education abandoned their prison college programs. Within three years of the ban’s enactment the number of prison higher education programs dropped from 350 to 8 nationally. In 2004, according to the Education From the Inside Out Coalition, “a nationwide survey of prison systems found that postsecondary correctional education was available only to about five percent of the overall prison population.”
In 2009 when I taught a college-level English composition course to men incarcerated at the Metropolitan Transition Center in Baltimore (MTC), it had been more than a decade since any college option had been available at MTC, the home of the former Maryland’s State Penitentiary. More, the course that I taught to men in Baltimore was, absurdly, offered through Hagerstown Community College which at the time had an arrangement with the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Corrections to offer limited coursework at the state’s maximum and “super-max” facilities in Western Maryland. The course was not part of a larger program of study and was abandoned by the state after its initial offering, ostensibly for budgetary concerns.
This brief history of short-sighted, ideology-driven policy-making in Maryland and America is precisely what makes what Maryland’s Goucher College is attempting so courageous, necessary, and deserving of attention both here in Baltimore and across the county. Goucher has begun what they are calling the Goucher Prison Education Partnership.
Here is how Goucher describes what it’s doing:
The Goucher Prison Education Partnership (GPEP), a division of Goucher College, gives men and women incarcerated in Maryland the opportunity to pursue an excellent college education.
We currently offer Goucher College courses to students at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women (MCIW) and the Maryland Correctional Institution – Jessup (MCIJ). We also provide college preparatory courses at these institutions to prepare promising students for college coursework.
More than 50 students are currently enrolled with Goucher College via the Goucher Prison Education Project. In courses at the two prisons, students are held to academic standards identical to those on Goucher’s main campus. They are taught by Goucher College faculty and occasionally by other outstanding professors from nearby colleges and universities.
The Goucher Prison Education Partnership receives no public funding and is made possible entirely by private grants and individual donations. Courses, books, and supplies are provided at no cost to Goucher Prison Education Partnership students. We are grateful for the generous support of our donors.
Of course Goucher is at pains to point out that it doesn’t use public funding from the state or federal government. We still live in the country that has produced more incarcerated individuals than anyplace else in the world. We like to believe in throwing away the key.
What we often fail to calculate in our rush to incarcerate though is that ninety-five percent of those we send to jail ultimately get out, they come home, they come back to our world. Two-thirds of those released will return to prison within three years. Baltimore City receives over half of the roughly twelve-thousand individuals who exit Maryland’s prisons each year.
The evidence is also overwhelming that education is pennies on the dollar against incarceration. And that doesn’t even factor in what we pay for courts, police, prosecutors and the multifarious tentacles of what we have come to know as the prison-industrial-complex.
What the Goucher Prison Education Partnership represents is a hopeful, courageous beginning. They are showing the way forward. But it is up to citizens, policymakers, and advocates to genuinely begin the work of changing our culture of incarceration. How to do that with regard to college prison programming is clear. We can begin by supporting Goucher; but just as relevant today are the Institute for Higher Education Policy recommendations in their 2005 report, Learning to Reduce Recidivism: A 50 State Analysis of Post-Secondary Correctional Education Policy.
Here is what needs to be done:
• Reinstate Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated men and women.
• Increase state appropriations for post-secondary correctional education programs.
• Ensure that public colleges and universities receive state formula funding for serving incarcerated students.
• Allow incarcerated students to receive state need-based grants as low-income students.
• Increase private funding for postsecondary correctional education programs by soliciting resources from foundations, colleges and universities, corporations, and private individuals.
• Encourage effective working relationships among state agencies responsible for corrections, correctional education, and higher education.
• Build partnerships between postsecondary correctional education programs and colleges and universities, especially community colleges.
• Encouraging experiments with distance education methods, including Internet-based distance education using secure network connections.
• Offering placement testing, testing for learning disabilities, and opportunities for remedial education to improve the students’ chances of success in college level courses.
• Providing funding for corrections staff to participate in the college courses offered at correctional facilities.
• Guaranteeing that prisoners will not be involuntarily transferred, except for disciplinary reasons, while enrolled in college classes.
• Publicize successful outcomes from postsecondary correctional education programs.
• Enlist support from advocacy organizations in the areas of prisoner rehabilitation and re-entry and access to higher education for disadvantaged groups.