Books behind bars: Pilot Pell Grant program helps inmates look toward the future
Jim Wilkinson braced himself as he said the word “felon” to the 13 men sitting before him, all dressed in standard Department of Correction apparel — tan pants, a matching tunic over a white t-shirt and drab black or gray shoes.
Wilkinson, a long-time college professor with a buzzcut, was hesitant to refer to the students in his entrepreneurship class as “felons,” even though they were locked up for committing crimes, because he didn’t want to reduce their identities – their entire lives – to their illegal activities. But today’s subject was “felon-friendly” loans, jobs and grants, so it was tough to avoid.
The term, common in the business world, alerts people with criminal records that their crimes won’t bar them from securing money from a bank or finding work.
“We’re giving them skills that they really are going to be able to use,” Wilkinson said of his entrepreneur course. “We want them to be able to get out, get a job, get themselves back on their feet and really succeed in their life.”
“People want to learn. If I sit in jail and just keep playing cards, when I get out, I’m going to be like, ‘Where’s the card game at?’”
Inmate Antoine Osbourne
MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution
The overwhelming majority of those at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield, where Wilkinson teaches when he isn’t at Asnuntuck Community College, will eventually live outside the confines of prison. Starting a business, Wilkinson believes, is an excellent option for formerly incarcerated people to pursue; it means they won’t have to rely on employers to hire them, a challenge considering the discrimination people with criminal records often face when they apply for jobs.
Additionally, in the free world, they’ll be able to make their own schedules and interact with people who haven’t become accustomed to such regimented lives. The unpredictability, Wilkinson warned, could cause uncertainty – the “number one killer” of a business, Wilkinson said, and a liability that threatens the daily structure that he claims is critical to diminishing recidivism.
“I don’t think there is a guy in this room who is going to put his hands up and say, ‘I can’t do this,’” Wilkinson told his class one Tuesday night last fall.
Wilkinson has been teaching at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield for 15 years, and in the Connecticut prison system for 25. His class is funded through the Second Chance Pell pilot program, a federal grant that aims to reduce recidivism by giving people in prison a chance to use their time behind bars constructively and to ease the transition once they’re released.
Connecticut prisons have received Second Chance Pell funding since 2016, when Asnuntuck, Quinebaug Valley, Three Rivers and Middlesex community colleges began offering courses through the program. Before that, the only access to college for inmates was through a limited selection of courses offered by Wesleyan University, Trinity College and Quinnipiac University. Fewer than 20 inmates earned a college degree between 2005 and 2016, according to state data.
Second Chance Pell grants have allowed 1,067 incarcerated students to pursue a postsecondary education since 2016, according to figures provided by Connecticut State Colleges and Universities. Of those, 173 have completed a certificate or earned a degree.
“People want to learn,” said Antoine Osbourne, one of Wilkinson’s students. “If I sit in jail and just keep playing cards, when I get out, I’m going to be like, ‘Where’s the card game at?’”
Time well spent
In Connecticut and across the country, prison education initiatives are gaining traction; providing college courses aligns with the state Department of Correction’s philosophical shift from punishment to rehabilitation in recent years, officials said.
“Education plays such an important role in reducing recidivism, but more importantly, just improving us as people,” Commissioner Rollin Cook said. “The more education we can provide inside of our facilities, the better we feel like we’re preparing people for success on the outside.”
Osbourne is about 20 credits shy of finishing his associate’s degree. He got his high school diploma while behind bars and then took some college classes when he was incarcerated in 2002. He said learning had never been an issue for him, but other things held his attention.
“I could have finished, but I had one foot in, one foot out,” he said, explaining how he was still drawn to the streets and didn’t complete a degree. He’s currently serving a 15-year sentence for first-degree assault; he’s been taking classes through Second Chance Pell since this past summer.
The courses have had practical effects. Osbourne took a psychology class he said has helped him better understand his and others’ emotions. It also has given him perspective on parenting his children, since he better comprehends their stages of development.
“I have a little more patience,” he said.
Getting a degree could be a game-changer for many people behind bars, but there’s another reason for wanting to earn college credits: Life in prison is boring. It mostly involves sitting around a table, talking. Inmates are eager to get something out of their time and use it productively.
“We’re giving them skills that they really are going to be able to use. We want them to be able to get out, get a job, get themselves back on their feet and really succeed in their life.”
Professor Jim Wilkinson
Those in the Second Chance Pell program stay busy. Wilkinson’s incarcerated students make do without the technological tools his pupils use on Asnuntuck’s campus. The inmates write their papers by hand.
Coursework is different behind bars, too. Wilkinson has to be mindful that his students could be transferred to other prisons before the class is finished.
“You have to build your class around early grading,” he said.
That grading is important to Wilkinson’s incarcerated students. They’re very focused on getting the highest mark possible. “If they get a 96, they’ll argue with me for the four points,” Wilkinson said. “I would kill for students like that in a regular class.”
An unclear future
Incarcerated people won the right to apply for federal financial aid in 1965. By 1994, 90% of prison systems offered college classes to their inmates. That same year, however, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, authored by then-Senator Joe Biden, prohibiting incarcerated people from using Pell grants to pay for college courses.
Fewer than 4% of incarcerated people were enrolled in college classes just four years later. The ban remains in place today.
In 2015, the Obama administration announced the Second Chance Pell pilot program, an experimental initiative that bypasses certain financial aid regulations so grants could be offered to incarcerated students. Sixty-seven colleges and universities were selected to participate in the program, including the four community colleges in Connecticut. The Trump administration has continued the pilot and even has plans to expand it.
Funding for the program is not assured, however.
“There’s no set time limit for how long the pilot can run,” said Hayne Yoon, The Vera Institute of Justice’s government affairs director. “It’s essentially running from year to year at the [Trump] administration’s discretion.”
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education said, as of Nov. 6, the agency “has not yet made a decision on how long it will extend the SCP experiment.”
Generally the recipients receive a one-year notice before the money dries up. Michelle Coach, the interim CEO of Asnuntuck Community College, said they have not been told their funding will be discontinued.
“We proceed on until we are given the year notice,” Coach wrote in an email.
A study published this year by the Vera Institute of Justice found that repealing the federal ban on Pell grants would increase employment among formerly incarcerated students in Connecticut by about 5%, and increase the combined earnings of formerly incarcerated Connecticut residents by an overall $396,880 in their first year out of prison. The report also estimated reduced rates of recidivism would save the state $7.2 million in prison costs every year.
There are a handful of bills before Congress that would restore Pell funding for incarcerated students. Yoon said the most promising is the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA), a comprehensive proposal that, among other things, would end the ban on Pell funds for incarcerated students. That measure passed through the House Education and Labor committee at the end of October 2019. It is currently awaiting a floor vote by the full House of Representatives.
Republicans, Democrats, business leaders and criminal justice reformers have all thrown support behind extending Pell grants to the incarcerated beyond the current pilot program. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos also supports the proposal.
“It’s not really controversial and contested at this point,” Yoon said. “I think everyone kind of recognizes this is a really important policy change. The only thing that we need now is for Congress to act and change the law.”
In the meantime, DeVos has said more colleges and universities can apply to the pilot program.
Because the Pell recipients in Connecticut are all community colleges that offer an assortment of certificates and associate’s degrees, a new school will need to receive Second Chance Pell funding in order to offer bachelor’s degrees, said Ruth Delaney, program manager at The Vera Institute of Justice. That’s important, Delaney said, because “the farther someone goes in their education, the more successful they’re likely to be in terms of not coming back to prison, as well as securing work and being able to meet the challenges and complications of reentry.”
Research backs up Delaney’s point. A 2014 study found that earning a post-secondary degree behind bars correlated with lower rates of recidivism and better odds of securing employment and earning higher wages.
Yoon stressed that Pell funding shouldn’t be tied to certain criminal convictions or limited to people who have shorter chunks of time remaining on their sentences. Even people incarcerated for decades can benefit from getting an education.
“They often act as mentors for young folks,” Yoon said. “It can change the entire culture of a prison if everyone has access to the program.”
Growth through education
The classrooms at MacDougall-Walker are safe spaces for inmates to explore weighty concepts – and to unravel the traumas of their past and build a foundation for healing.
“It helps you regain your humanity,” said Abraham Santiago, who has been incarcerated since 2004 for manslaughter. “I love school now. I wish I loved it 30 years ago, or 40 years ago.”
Santiago credits his college coursework with giving him a sense of purpose. He’s reading a lot of philosophy in his Second Chance Educational Alliance, Inc. class, work he said is giving him a framework to understand his past and look toward the future.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever fully be healed, but I started on that road,” he said.
Santiago is eligible for parole in 2022. The latest he’ll be released is 2024. Chief among his goals in the interim is finishing his associate’s degree and showing his children and family that they didn’t waste their time or love believing in him all the years he’s been physically absent from their day-to-day lives.
“It proves I didn’t have to be thrown away,” Santiago said. “I can be redeemed.”
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