When It Comes to Prison Education, Some Who Need It Most May Be Left Behind

In 1994, 17-year-old Cedric X. Cal was incarcerated in Illinois with a natural life sentence for murder. He had no chance for parole hearings, no possibility of release. Maintaining his innocence, he knew he’d fight the conviction, and he applied to a prison-based college program. He wanted to learn as much as possible to help his case and prepare to eventually be freed.

But his hopes for continuing his education were dashed that September when the Clinton crime bill eliminated Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated people, halting nearly all funding for college in prison programs.

In the early 2000s, some colleges started offering classes at Stateville Correctional Center, the maximum-security prison where Cal was housed. The offering was rare, but with Stateville located less than 40 miles from Chicago, it’s relatively easy for instructors to reach compared to Illinois’s other 27 prisons. However, given his natural life sentence, Cal was ineligible for these classes.

Undeterred, he taught himself, becoming a student of history, especially Black history, by reading books from Stateville prison’s small library. Then in 2011, the Chicago-based Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project (PNAP), a prison-based arts and education organization, began offering classes to those incarcerated at Stateville, regardless of their sentence length. These classes, combined with his own readings, gave Cal a deep sense of dignity. “I can go into any room and present myself with pride and joy,” he explained in an Illinois Coalition for Higher Ed in Prison panel discussion. This pride sustained him for more than two decades as he fought to overturn his conviction.

It feels absurd to call Cal, a man imprisoned at 17 with no chance of parole, “lucky.” But compared to most incarcerated people, he’s been very fortunate to access any form of education. Of the nearly 28,000 people incarcerated in Illinois, only a small fraction has access to higher education courses. According to the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison, only five of the state’s 28 prisons offer higher education programming. Moreover, when the pandemic forced lockdowns in early 2020, education programs in prisons abruptly halted. Some programs resumed in limited forms in the fall of 2020, mostly through paper-based correspondence. With technology extremely restricted in prisons, only a few programs were able to conduct classes via video conferencing.

Now, like many aspects of American life, prison education has rebounded — but in modified ways. The distance-learning options necessitated by the pandemic are being explored as innovations to reach incarcerated people in remote facilities far from urban centers and universities. And for the first time in almost 30 years, funding will soon be widely available for prison-based college classes. When Congress passed the omnibus COVID relief bill in December 2020, it included a reinstatement of Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated individuals. What this means for colleges and prisons is currently being shaped through the U.S. Department of Education. With funding expected to begin in 2023, many colleges are looking to expand into prison settings.

While advocates of prison education welcome expanding opportunities through the Pell Grant, many veteran prison educators are worried about how this moment will define the future of prison education.

Will the Quality of Prison Education Decline?

Rebecca Ginsberg at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Education Justice Project (EJP), which offers college programming at Danville prison, describes a sense of “foreboding about what the next chapter is going to look like.”

Back when her project and PNAP began offering programs at Danville and Stateville Correctional Centers respectively, there were very few educational groups going into prisons. Having to fund the programs through grants, donations and many unpaid hours meant that only programs with an impassioned dedication to the work were doing it. These groups are hopeful about expanded opportunities, but concerned that new programs might be more motivated by profit than by what they refer to as “liberatory education.”

“I’ve noticed new actors coming to the field with varying levels of experience and sophistication around the work,” Ginsberg told Truthout. She’s worried that programs unprepared to deal with carceral settings could reinforce the dehumanizing aspects of prison.

For example, a harmful pattern that sometimes makes its way into educational settings is “de-individualizing individuals and sending constant messages that they don’t matter, that they aren’t worth anything, that they don’t deserve high quality. That they’re rejects from society, that they have no place,” Ginsberg says. “And I think it’s very clear … that an educator can send that message. And an educational program can convey that message as well.”

Several formerly incarcerated individuals Truthout spoke to mentioned low-quality classes in prison programs. Pablo Mendoza, who was released in October 2020 after serving 22 years, described a reentry program at Graham Correctional facility in Hillsboro, Illinois, that the warden hired his daughter to run. While Mendoza didn’t participate in the program, he said the guys who did called it “a joke.” It’s a description that he uses for most of his prison education programs, except for EJP’s. Most of them, he says, didn’t require him to apply himself and gave passing grades easily.

Adding to the concern are the expanding technological options of remote teaching, which were necessary during COVID lockdowns, but now threaten to displace in-person teaching. “Before the pandemic,” says Sarah Ross, cofounder of PNAP, “there had been conversation about doing online learning, and we had insisted … that’s not a great method.” Teaching in prisons, she explains, is about much more than delivering content; it’s about showing up in solidarity with individuals who live in violent conditions.

Ginsburg echoes that sentiment, saying of the Pell Grant change, “if this had happened 10 years ago, it would be a different climate, but that’s happening right on the cusp of [prisons] having observed that it’s possible to offer programming via video….” She anticipates that many new programs will use technologies in place of in-person learning. “I think it’s unfortunate,” she says. “You owe it to yourself and to the students to get to the prison” if it is physically possible.

Recently, one of the largest providers of prison-based education under the Pell Grant pilot program has drawn criticism for its tablet-based program. Critics claim that Ashland University, a small Christian college that received over $30 million in Pell Grant funding between 2017 and 2021, provides little support for students and delivers poor educational outcomes. In an investigation of the school, The Marshall Project cites advocates who say that quality prison-based education is “grounded in debate, dialogue, critical thinking and the arts — rather than digital educational ‘content’ produced in partnership with private corrections companies, like Ashland’s.”

How Prison Education Lost Favor Among Liberals and Conservatives

Prison education has had an inconsistent trajectory, with rapid starts and stops, often driven by political trends. The most significant development in post-secondary prison education came with the Higher Education Act of 1965. Among other sweeping changes, the act provided Pell Grants for low-income students. Incarcerated individuals were nearly all eligible — not due to their incarceration status, but due to being poor. Programs expanded quickly. As Cathryn A. Chappell writes in the Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Foundations of Education, post-secondary correctional education expanded from 182 programs in 1973 to 350 programs in 1982.

As colleges moved into prison education, they were not always as committed or prepared as they could be. In a 1997 retrospective on prison education, prison educator and researcher Thom Gehring writes, “Many colleges and universities earned reputations for taking Pell Grants and other funding without improving their program. This author worked at a community college that viewed its Prison Education Program as a ‘cash cow.’”

During the ‘70s and ‘80s, researchers began questioning the value of programs for incarcerated people. The 1974 publication “What works? — questions and answers about prison reform,” an in-depth investigation by anthropologist Robert Martinson, came up with a simple answer: Nothing works to rehabilitate incarcerated people. The fact that this research was conducted and published by a UC Berkeley-educated leftist and socialist made the findings particularly noteworthy. Martinson became a bit of a celebrity, with an interview in People magazine and a segment on “60 Minutes” in which he reiterated his bizarre conclusion.

Martinson’s work was criticized by researchers, and he himself later retracted his findings. However, the doctrine of “nothing works” caught on with lawmakers. This outlook fueled a push against prison programming, especially Pell Grants for incarcerated people though the ‘80s and ‘90s until they were shut down by the 1994 crime bill.

“Prison should not be a pleasant place,” Illinois Republican State Rep. Al Salvi was quoted as saying in the Chicago Tribune in 1995, echoing the sentiment of many Republicans as well as Democrats at the time. “Giving them a college education and law libraries that lawyers would envy, that’s not the way to punish them…. There are people living honest lives who don’t get that.”

Following the elimination of Pell Grants, college programs in prisons dropped from 350 in 1990 to only eight in 1997. Advocates have been working for decades to restore Pell Grants for incarcerated people. Under the Obama administration, a pilot program began in 2015. With findings from a series of RAND Corporation studies now showing that prison education is cost-effective for taxpayers by reducing recidivism, the topic is having a rare moment of bipartisan support.

An Uncertain Future

Last fall, negotiations were conducted at the U.S. Department of Education to define exactly what the Pell Grant changes mean by creating guidelines that institutions must follow in order to run a prison education program.

A coalition of long-running Illinois programs has formed the Illinois Coalition for Higher Education in Prison (ILCHEP). With the upcoming changes, members are focused on providing best practices for new programs. They hope to serve as a model for other states and are working with similar groups in Missouri and Pennsylvania. However, the coalition is still not being included in Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) planning talks.

“Maybe some educators are at the table, but certainly not the coalition,” Sarah Ross of PNAP says. “We represent several programs that are successful and working against the odds. The department doesn’t open the door easily for us.” She says it feels like “doublespeak” from IDOC: The department wants the education programs, but at the same time makes it hard for coalition members to operate and provide input.

One main concern for educators teaching in prisons is how the U.S. Department of Education is assessing programs — measuring success based on recidivism rates and employment after release. These sorts of assessments could determine which programs can continue to access Pell Grant funding. That emphasis on recidivism and employment might incentivize programs to serve only students with shorter sentences, and could continue to ignore students like Cedric X. Cal with life sentences.

In 2009, 15 years after Cal began serving his sentence, the only witness to the fatal shooting that he was charged with recanted his testimony. Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions took up his case and filed an appeal in 2011. All his teachers, he said, signed affidavits on his behalf, even at the risk of losing their jobs. They could have been banned from the prison for showing that sort of support to an incarcerated person. Despite their efforts, the court denied Cal’s appeal.

Then in 2018, Cal was resentenced following a Supreme Court decision that ruled natural life sentences for juveniles to be unconstitutional. His sentence was reduced to 60 years, with 30 required to be served. And in July 2020, after spending 28 years inside, 45-year-old Cal was granted clemency by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker right as COVID hit Jacksonville Correctional Center, where he was incarcerated.

Reentry hasn’t been easy. While Cal’s PNAP education has helped him continue fighting to clear his name, convictions are rarely overturned. Another appeal was denied in March 2021, and he’s now hoping his case will be heard by the Supreme Court. Finding work has been nearly impossible. “For the first six months, I was hired and fired [from multiple jobs] because of background checks,” he says. He got by delivering food through DoorDash under an alias and eventually secured a job unloading trucks at a warehouse.

In addition to his job at the warehouse, he’s studying advanced manufacturing at Chicago’s Daley College and volunteering with the Nation of Islam’s prison reform ministry.

Cal hopes that the coming changes to prison education funding could mean that one day there will be college programs in every prison in the state. But he’s still worried that other individuals with long or life sentences still could be left behind.