Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Second Chance Pell: An Opportunity for Higher Education to Increase Access to Opportunity for Incarcerated Students

by Erin L. Castro, Assistant Professor, University of Utah & Instructor Affiliate, Education Justice Project:

and Augie Torres, Undergraduate Student, Governors State University & Alumni, Education Justice Project:

Last month there was a debate contest, and you have probably heard about it by now. A debate team comprised of students who are incarcerated at Eastern New York Correctional Facility (ENYC), a maximum security prison, beat Harvard’s undergraduate debate team. The students who are incarcerated attend classes through the Bard Prison Initiative, a postsecondary education program run by Bard College. Both teams have impressive records: the Harvard debate team earned national championship status in 2014 and the incarcerated debate team has victories against the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the University of Vermont. NBC’s headline describing the win for students incarcerated at ENYC Facility – and the loss of students at Harvard – reflects a common tone among popular headlines after the event: Harvard’s Prestigious Debate Team Loses to a Group of Inmates. For the most part, the headlines were disappointing. There appears to be a certain sensationalism associated with “inmates” beating ivy-league students, but there shouldn’t be.

The win for imprisoned students at ENYC is not surprising for those of us who teach inside prisons and work with students who are incarcerated, have family members and friends who are incarcerated, have a keen understanding of how mass incarceration works, or have been incarcerated ourselves. To be surprised, one must rely upon dangerous raced and classed assumptions about both individuals who are incarcerated and those who attend Harvard. We don’t often hear about the educational, intellectual, and academic work being done inside prisons across the United States and so perhaps a bit of amazement is warranted. It is our hope, however, that for those of us involved in higher education, the feeling of astonishment at the ability of individuals who are incarcerated to intellectually outperform students at one of the most recognized institutions of higher education becomes less of a spectacle and more commonplace. The current emphasis on college-in-prison programming on behalf of the Department of Education makes us optimistic.

On Thursday, September 17, the Department of Education hosted an informational webinar open to anyone who was interested titled The Second Chance Pell: Pell for Students Who Are Incarcerated. The webinar follows up on the Federal Register notice released by the U.S. Department of Education on August 3, 2015 inviting higher educational institutions to apply to participate in the new initiative under the (ESI), which tests the effectiveness of statutory and regulatory flexibility for higher educational institutions that disburse Federal student aid. The webinar provided educators with information about the Second Chance Pell, a new institutionally-based initiative. The initiative provides an opportunity for participating institutions of higher education, in partnership with one or more Federal or State penal institutions, to provide Federal Pell Grant funding to otherwise eligible students who are incarcerated. As many readers of this blog know, the Higher Education Act stipulates that students who are incarcerated in Federal or State penal institutions are ineligible to receive funding through the Federal Pell Grant program. The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act eliminated Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated individuals and as a direct result, the overwhelming majority of college-in-prison programs closed due to lack of funding. The steady withdrawal of higher education programs from U.S. prisons has effectively severed access to educational opportunity for incarcerated individuals and severely limited future educational access as formerly incarcerated individuals find themselves without the educational credentials to successfully pursue postsecondary opportunities upon release.

The initiative is good news. According to the webinar, it aims to do the following:

  • Examine how weighting the restrictions on providing Pell grants to individuals in Federal or State penal institutions influences participation in educational opportunities, and academic and life outcomes;
  • Examine whether the waiver creates any challenges or obstacles with an institution’s administration of the Title IV HEA programs. The DOE is interested in determining how disbursement of federal Pell grant funds affects incarcerated students and;
  • Allow participating institutions to provide federal Pell grant funding to otherwise eligible students who are incarcerated in federal or state penal institutions and who are eligible for release into the community.
There are a number of requirements that schools must meet in order to be eligible for the program, including providing academic and career services as well as transition guidance to support successful reentry. Potential students must meet specific criteria, too. Preference is to be given to potential students who are eligible for release back into the community, with emphasis on individuals who are scheduled be released in the next five years. The initiative does not weight certain restriction criteria and it does not waive costs of attendance. It is worth reading the specifics and a transcript of the webinar is available here
The informational webinar was the first in a series sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education to encourage institutions of higher education to partner with State and Federal prisons to provide access to postsecondary education. The initiative is not perfect; for example, both of us would like to see greater emphasis on individuals who are not eligible for release in the next five years and we have a number of questions regarding what constitutes education in this context. Yet, reinstating Pell grant eligibility for incarcerated students is a necessary first step to increasing access and one that we hope invigorates conversations about what postsecondary educational opportunity in prisons should look like during our era of mass incarceration.

We urge the higher education community to learn more about postsecondary education efforts in prison contexts. There are a variety of ways to learn and we only touch upon a few here. Find out if your local or regional prison provides educational opportunities for incarcerated people by talking with the Department of Corrections. If they exist, see if you can support already established efforts by donating time, resources, and/or desperately needed funding. Ask if your own institution is involved in providing or supporting classes for incarcerated people. Listen to what directors of college-in-prison programs across the nation need and learn more about the long history of postsecondary education provision in prisons. Begin conversations with non-incarcerated individuals on your own respective campuses about the Prison Industrial Complex, mass imprisonment, and the contemporary carceral state. Find out if prior criminal history is considered in your institution’s admissions criteria. Importantly, if you have never been to a prison, go. Call and make an appointment and ask for a ‘tour’ (this, inappropriately, is the dominant language – at least in the state of Utah). For an institution so integral to the political and economic fabric of the U.S., we urge you to go see what you are paying for. Prisons are institutions in which we all invest and in at least 11 states, we spend more on imprisonment than higher education. It is outrageous.

The National Conference on Higher Education is Prison is held annually and this year it will take place in Pittsburgh, PA November 6-8 (an unfortunate date for many of us AHSE-goers, but there is no conflict next year!). The conference attracts educators, volunteers, activists, formerly incarcerated and felony disenfranchised individuals, and others interested in and committed to prison education. Last year’s conference was held at Danville Correctional Center in Danville, Illinois. Andra Slater, who was released late last year, presented a paper as part of a panel on critical approaches to education in prison titled, The Underestimation of Carceral Intellect: Problematizing the ‘Wow’ Factor Among Prison EducatorsAndra later published his paper as part of a larger multi-author manuscript examining the purposes of higher education in prison during mass incarceration. You can read the manuscript here: encourage all people to watch Andra discuss the seemingly innocent element of surprise at the intellectual capabilities of individuals who are incarcerated, particularly those who find it challenging to believe that ENYC’s debate team beat Harvard’s.

Providing access to high quality postsecondary education for incarcerated students through the reinstatement of Pell grant eligibility is one important element of much-needed criminal justice reform. The Second Chance Pell initiative is welcomed within a larger context that Marie Gottschalk makes so clear: individuals can’t be given a second chance if they were never afforded a first. The DOE’s initiative can partially help to bridge this gap and so too can institutions of higher education. All of us have a responsibility to ensure that incarcerated individuals have access to high quality postsecondary educational opportunities during and after incarceration. For those of us involved in higher education, we can do this by supporting already established efforts, learning more about the extensive history of prison education, beginning conversations on our respective campuses, and listening to and learning from students like Andra. We can only be surprised if we are not seeing incarcerated people as potential postsecondary students and degree completers. As David Register, Director of Debate for the Bard Prison Initiative, describes: “It is critically important to remember that our debaters are students first and debaters second – and prisoners a distant third.”

Let’s work to ensure that incarcerated individuals are given the opportunity to become college students.

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