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The Incarcerated & Higher Education by Christopher

I have a friend who is serving a life sentence in the state of Michigan. Her case is one of tragedy, and her punishment is severe, but she doesn’t spend her time in self-defeating thoughts or thinking of what might have been. Instead, she focuses on her future. She spends her days going to college since at her prison there’s two local community colleges offering bachelor degrees in various disciplines. In her case it’s business management. This is what she has been studying and working toward for several years.

Our discussions often center on the classic works, you know the Greek tragedies and the stuff every college student is required to read at some point. I think most college students find these ancient tales arduous and boring, something inflicted upon them as part of a course curriculum that they’ll never revisit. I don’t meet many people nowadays that are interested in talking about Greek stories, save for the literary student or college professors. And, honestly, it’s unusual to be able to hold a conversation like that with someone behind bars. Men and women who are incarcerated often have little to no education, and so day to day discussions tend to center on stuff other than Greek tragedies.

I love the story “The Odyssey,” by Homer. The Greeks sure knew how to spin a tale to captivate the audience. For those of you who don’t know the story, well let’s just say it’s about power, loss, love, and incest. Oh, and let’s not forget tragedy. After all it is a Greek tale. It’s but one of many that we like from that era.

None of her schooling would be possible if it weren’t for the renewal of the Pell Grant, a federal grant that enables the poor and those incarcerated to gain a higher education. The Pell grant has been around for decades, but it hasn’t always been available to the incarcerated.

When I began my sentence the incarcerated had just lost access to the Pell Grant with the passage of the 1994 crime bill. Somewhere along the way the public had decided that we incarcerated shouldn’t have access to a grant for higher education. Never mind that studies on recidivism clearly indicated that those incarcerated who attained a higher education degree have the lowest recidivism rate. Nationally it has consistently stood in the single digits and has for decades. Compare that with the national average of 66% across all that are incarcerated.

But what’s a statistic? A statistic is abstract and meaningless to most people because it’s not tangible. The statistic that those incarcerated who attain a higher education degree recidivate in the single digits was known when the 1994 crime bill was passed. Yet congress killed the Pell Grant anyway. Why? Because misinformed citizens bought into the argument that higher education only creates smarter criminals. When it wasn’t that argument, it was ‘Why should someone incarcerated be able to earn a college degree for free when my own law abiding daughter or son can’t?’. The short answer of course, is that higher education reduces recidivism and by extension crime. A better way of driving this home is to explain it plainly:

Without the Pell Grant that incarcerated individual who shot and killed someone while robbing a Wendy’s because he had no higher education, job or job skills, will return to society worse off than when he left;

Without the Pell Grant, that individual who committed a sex crime would not have been the first in his family to go to college. His newfound confidence would not have raised his already low self-esteem. Without this prospect he returns to society as part of a high risk group for recidivism and;

Without the Pell Grant that individual who dropped out of school to sell drugs, but now desires to change, discovers that the one thing shown time and again to rehabilitate is denied him. He then returns to society disgruntled and convinced that drug dealing is the only way to go.

We must ask ourselves, are you comfortable denying the incarcerated the benefit of a higher education when the bottom line means that next time it could be your loved one that’s murdered, raped or sold drugs? Because that’s the hard truth of it all. I’m speaking from my personal understanding born from my nearly 30 years of incarceration. I KNOW these very individuals, have spoken to them, observed them. I have watched time and again as they were released only to return to prison for repeat offenses.

Years ago, I used to listen to guys every day lament about how much they wanted to change, but griped that there were no higher education opportunities for them to learn and acquire the knowledge necessary to succeed. In actuality there were higher education opportunities, but not for them because they nor their families could afford it without the Pell grant. 98% of all that are incarcerated don’t have the resources to pay for college themselves. Ironically, these were men who couldn’t have afforded college on the street and who would have qualified for the Pell grant any way. Taking them away back then was akin to throwing an addict into drug rehab and saying, “You are now rehabilitated!” without providing the path, guidance and resources to change.

Let me reveal to you a truth that perhaps readers may not be aware of. Those that are incarcerated who’ve given up on the hard path of change spend their time talking and planning with their peers ways to be better at crime. You better believe it because I’m speaking truth here. I can’t count the times I’ve overheard guys around me talking about just that. There’s one thing all of them had in common, and that is they’ve all given up on the hard path of change because of a perception that doors are constantly closed to them. The most cited of these is higher education.

If you don’t believe this happens in every prison across the country you’d only be fooling yourself. I personally know men who spent their 6 month, 5, 10, 20 years–and incredibly, entire life sentence–upset and mad that despite how much they desired to equip themselves with an education for future employment, the higher education door was slammed in their faces. So, they then chose to take the easy path and one that they already knew, and simply spent their time learning, discovering, planning, plotting, scheming and improving their knowledge and skills to be a better criminal. Those men were then loosed upon a society that continued to pay an incredibly high price due to the trail of destruction and ruined lives they left in their wake. And for what? All because uninformed minds and politicians who took the path to easy votes prevailed.

And so, here we are some decades onward and the Pell Grant is back in vogue. The incarcerated can once again pursue a better future, and hope springs anew. I can’t help but wonder how long it will last this time around for public opinion is fickle. The pendulum of public opinion sways from punishment to rehabilitation every 20+ years or so and I’ve been locked up long enough to experience both ends of the pendulum. We’re several years into the rehabilitation side, and I pray that this time around public sentiment remains here, though if history is any guide, it won’t.

There’s a public stigma applied to the incarcerated that implies that we are somehow less intelligent and thus less deserving of basic human dignities. Are the incarcerated less deserving of human rights and civil liberties as human beings? As a civil free society, the greatest in the world, I’d like to think that we Americans have long shed biases and racisms based on stereotypes. However, there is much work yet to be done.

Some of the smartest individuals I’ve ever known has been during my incarceration. Ingenuity, talent, drive and tenacity to improve one’s self are on display day in and day out. So many of the incarcerated want to regain control of their lives and to change, but before any of it can happen society must be willing to provide the tools and resources for change to take root.

Pell Grants for higher education are part of that willingness. For us incarcerated our path requires more thought and consideration, and our walk is sometimes difficult, but access to higher education is the surest and most tangible way to help us achieve this. We’re willing to do the hard things to make that change, but there has to be a consistent will to help the incarcerated do just that. It will take public resolve to stick with what has been started

We don’t need more studies or debates or excuses. Those are like the proverbial hamster wheel going around and around. At the state level we need politicians willing to act and sincerely engage in the discussion. If our elected officials won’t act, then we need a grass roots movement at the community level where individual organizations band together for the purpose of influencing future policy.

Higher education is the single greatest resource proven to reduce crime and recidivism. An education equips individuals with the tools to succeed and when this happens it lifts all of society. History the world over has borne this truth.



I write this blog and post the thoughts and words of those incarcerated around the country to draw attention to our plight. I write for advocacy and for a better future for those incarcerated everywhere while networking with numerous organizations large and small. If you have a personal advocacy effort, nonprofit or organization with a similar goal, please contact me via the contact link on this blog.

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