A gallery of criminal justice experts, educators, and formerly incarcerated individuals gathered at a 2008 conference at SUNY Old Westbury to examine how access to higher education in prisons and for formerly incarcerated individuals could positively transform individual lives and communities. The conversations held at this conference revolved around the need to dedicate advocacy efforts towards eliminating barriers to higher education for currently and formerly incarcerated people. We were a lone wolf of sorts; a singular outlier in the field—at the time, no criminal justice reform organization exclusively addressed this issue. This conference was the first of its kind dedicated to expanding higher education access for the incarcerated.
We saw then, as we do now, that access to higher education must be the central element of any substantive effort to reform the criminal justice system, and to improve the lives of the individuals this system is intended to rehabilitate.
Our personal interest in the subject stems from the fact that each of us had a very different experience while incarcerated. Glenn Martin was incarcerated with the opportunity to earn a degree from the Niagara Consortium. He eagerly pursued this opportunity realizing that his in-prison education would grant him opportunities for a civically engaged life post-release. On the other hand, the facility where Vivian Nixon served her sentence lacked any postsecondary programs, thus squandering the potential of the women incarcerated within and creating additional barriers to successful reentry.
Education became a tool that Glenn could use to chip away at the barriers before him—his opportunities for employment and further postsecondary education were improved substantially. More than anything, though, having access to these classes empowered Glenn and allowed him to think critically about what had led him to prison and what he could do to ensure he never returned.
Both of us realized that to deprive anyone of access to higher education, when the circumstances themselves merited the highest kind of educational intervention, was to limit them from tapping into their full potential.
To adequately address these issues, we formed the Education from the Inside Out Coalition – currently led by the College and Community Fellowship, JustLeadershipUSA, and the Center for Community Alternatives. It is a national, non-partisan collaborative of organizations, individuals affected by the criminal justice system, advocates, and educators dedicated to increasing access to higher education.
Our initial efforts centered on restoring Federal Pell Grants to incarcerated individuals.
In 1994, as part of the Violent Crimes Control and Law Enforcement Act passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, students incarcerated in Federal and State prisons, of which there were approximately 23,000 at the time, lost the ability to access Pell Grants to fund higher education. A product of the era’s “tough on crime” mentality, this legislation reflected the misguided belief that only heavy-handed tactics could solve the period’s soaring crime rates. Research in the intervening decades has helped shatter the myth that education for the incarcerated doesn’t reduce crime. This research clearly demonstrates that access to higher education is actually a boon for public safety; it drives down recidivism rates, improves the lives of incarcerated students and returning citizens, and improves the lives of their families and communities.
On July 31st, Secretary Duncan and Attorney General Lynch, along with several Obama Administration officials and members of Congress, announced an initiative that will waive the ban on Pell Grant eligibility for individuals in select Federal and State penal institutions. We hope that this announcement will be a step towards ultimately reversing the ban.
When Senator Claiborne Pell created Pell Grants, he wanted to ensure that everyone would have access to higher education, especially those on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. He was concerned with creating access for those who most needed education. Senator Pell saw education as a human right that could help lift up individuals, not a privilege that could be denied as a punitive measure.
While much work needs to be done to ensure that the full promise of Pell is fully restored, we are hopeful that the Obama Administration will continue to take steps towards making that future a reality. We applaud Secretary Duncan and Attorney General Lynch for their combined efforts to reverse the school-to-prison pipeline by making in-prison education accessible to those in need of a second chance. Because of our own disparate experiences in accessing higher education in prison, we know firsthand the transformative power education can have on the life of someone who involved in the justice system. It can take these individuals, the ones that society often overlooks and forgets, and forge them into future leaders and change makers.
Vivian Nixon is Executive Director of College and Community Fellowship (CCF), an organization committed to removing individual and structural barriers to higher education for women with criminal record histories and their families. Glenn E. Martin is the Founder and President of JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA), a national advocacy organization dedicated to cutting the US correctional population in half by 2030.