by Dortell Williams
In 1991, Senator Jesse Helms argued that prisoners were being afforded free education that many tax-paying citizens couldn’t afford, inciting a hate debate. In 1993, Senator Kay Bauley Hutchinson claimed that prisoners “received as much as $200 million in Pell Grant funds.” A year later, the hate debate had grown so fierce that Senator Claiborne Pell, for whom Basic Education Opportunity Grants were named, interceded to clarify the record, stating: “… a student qualifies for a grant, and the size of the grant depends on the availability of appropriations. Thus, the child of a police officer would not be denied a grant in favor of a prisoner. If both are eligible, both would receive grants.”
Another more accurate delineation of Pell Grant distribution to people incarcerated was published in 2004, the last year the grants were available to us. Approximately 25,000 incarcerated individuals received funding among the 4.7 million Pell Grants dispersed. Only one-half of one-percent of all grants went to people incarcerated. The average amount issued was $1400 – a mere fraction of the $200 million that Senator Hutchinson had claimed.
Like many people in society, I’d always assumed the department of “corrections” was just that, a venue where we sent our most misguided to be reformed – or at least have that option. As a prisoner for the last two decades, I’m sad to share how very wrong I was.
So I must ask: Why are taxpayers supporting a system that represses educational opportunities and literally fosters failure? I think people forget that the vast majority of prisoners will eventually get out. Shouldn’t people incarcerated be prepared to reintegrate? Wouldn’t that be the humane approach?
Nevertheless, I realize that the resurrection of this debate seems ill-timed during our country’s current financial fix. But is it really bad timing?
Imagine if “corrections” actually meant that. The nation currently spends $60 billion annually on its massive penal system. California doles out $10 billion of that alone. And in the past ten years California’s education budgets (including higher education) have seen marked declines while corrections has increased about $1 billion a year, for the past five years. California taxpayers pay a whopping $43,000 annually to incarcerate each person. Yet with the current model most fail and come back.
Still, imagine if just 25,000 of California’s 172,000 prisoners could learn a viable skill through Pell Grants. They could then contribute to the taxpaying community, instead of draining it. Now what if we did this nationwide, wouldn’t t it be worth it? Not only in financial and human terms, but also in terms of public safety.
Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation / www.cdcr.ca.gov
Clark, David D. (1991) Analysis of Return Rates of the Inmate College Program Participant, Albany, (NY): New York Department of Correctional Services
Congressional Record – House (1992) Amendment offered by Mr. Coleman of Missouri: 1892-93, March 26
Congressional Record – Senate (1992) Higher Education Amendments:
Congressional Record – Senate (1993) Amendment No. 1158: 15746, November 16
KABC-7 Eyewitness News, February 12, 2009 (California’s budget crisis)
Pell, C. (1994), “Yes: Pell Grants dramatically reduce recidivism,” USA Today, March 17