As Second Chance Pell Grant program grows, more incarcerated people can get degrees – but there’s a difference between prison-run and college-run education behind bars

Only 15% of adults in prison have earned a postsecondary degree or certificate – either before or while being incarcerated. Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Mneesha Gellman, Emerson College

People in prison rarely get to go to college.

But an expansion in access to federal financial aid through Pell Grants for those who are incarcerated will soon make higher education a bit more available.

As of 2014, only 15% of people earn a college degree or postsecondary certificate either before or during their incarceration. Among U.S. adults as a whole in 2021, 53.7% earned such degrees.

Joshua Dankoff, who works as director of strategic initiatives at the nonprofit Citizens for Juvenile Justice, collects data on prison education. He found that in Massachusetts, where I live, of the 5,300 people in Department of Correction custody are on college or vocational education waitlists. Only 213 are enrolled in some form of postsecondary education. Just 77 are enrolled in a bachelor’s program.

The reason so few U.S. prisons offer college education is due to a 1994 crime bill that banned federal financial aid to people in prison.

The Second Chance Pell Experiment, launched by the Obama administration in 2015, reinstated Pell Grants for incarcerated students who are Pell-eligible. To apply for Pell, students must qualify via the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, or FAFSA, and be enrolled in college through a Pell-eligible institution while in prison.

The program initially covered just 67 programs. An additional 67 were added in 2020.

The Biden administration is expanding Second Chance Pell access by adding 73 schools, including 24 historically Black colleges and universities. Beginning July 1, 2023, up to 200 higher education programs will serve incarcerated students.

As the director of the Emerson Prison Initiative at Emerson College, I believe it’s important to distinguish between the different educational programs offered within prisons.

There are three main types. The first includes high school equivalency and vocational programs run by departments of correction. The second is educational non-credit-bearing programs offered by outside volunteer organizations, such as gardening clubs or Toastmasters. Third are credit-bearing degree programs run by outside colleges and universities, like mine.

Prison-run education programs

Many U.S. states such as California, New York and Massachusetts provide adult basic education, or ABE. Some also mandate access to English language instruction. ABE is meant to improve literacy and numeracy and offer the opportunity for incarcerated people to get a high school equivalency diploma. Many prisons also offer computer classes and other supplemental, non-credit-bearing courses.

Researchers call educational opportunities like these “prison education.” The programs are designed and carried out by correctional staff.

Although prison education programs may strive for universal benchmarks such as passing HiSET or GED high school equivalency tests, the guidelines for who can participate are set by prison administrators in partnership with state agencies.

For example, in Massachusetts, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education provides curricular standards and funding for adult basic education and testing both within and outside of prison. Currently, in Massachusetts are on the waitlist for ABE. And while the state Department of Correction received funding for just under 200 ABE spots per year in recent years, it did not request funding for the next five years, suggesting that fewer people will have access to prison education.

Further, while incarcerated young people under age 22 with an identified disability and no high school diploma have a right to special education services, Dankoff analyzed Massachusetts data and found that only a fraction of young people in this situation actually receive these services. This is largely because jails and prisons do a poor job identifying young people with special education needs. It is also because the systems are oriented toward punishment rather than education.

College-run programs in prison

Prisons also allow education programming through outside partnerships with colleges and universities. Students in “college in prison” programs are usually enrolled into college-level degree-granting programs, including certificates, associate and bachelor’s degrees. These are the types of programs that will grow under the Pell Grant expansion.

Many colleges and universities that bring their programming inside prison walls try to provide an education for incarcerated students that is comparable to what they provide traditional college students. Educators from the outside come into the prison to teach. The programs often offer library research support, accessibility services and academic advising as well – in line with best practices for colleges in general. However, they must adapt to censorship restrictions within prisons, as well as limited internet and technology access, along with a host of additional regulations.

Power of language

In my experience, many prison educators are dedicated to the transformational power of education, just like their college-in-prison counterparts.

However, another small but I believe important difference is that prison-run programs typically refer to incarcerated students as “prisoners” or “inmates,” continuing Department of Correction language choice. In contrast, programs like the Emerson Prison Initiative refer to the people we work with as “students,” “applicants” or “students who are incarcerated.” This language treats incarcerated students with respect and dignity, which I’ve argued is central to student success and well-being.

The expansion of Pell Grants to more incarcerated people offers an opportunity to make college in prison more available while also maintaining best practices in this rapidly growing field. Such practices include little things, like the labels we use to refer to students, and big things, like ensuring that those who draw Pell Grants enroll in rigorous programs where they get a quality education and earn a degree.The Conversation

Mneesha Gellman, Associate Professor of Political Science, Emerson College

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Is the best way to lessen incarceration to actually make catching criminals easier to the point that criminals know it? (Or something like that.)

If you want to respect writer Matthew Yglesias, don’t start by reading his Twitter feed.

I still haven’t figured out whether he’s extremely bad at hot takes or if he’s just trolling people.

Either way, his Twitter feed obviously lacks the nuance for which I first started reading him at TAP.

His longer form writing has its regular home at, and he has a thought-provoking piece up about America’s mass incarceration problem and ways we might start alleviating it.

It has a headline that is typically provocative for Yglesias: “The best way to end mass incarceration is to catch more criminals.”

A couple of years ago, Anne Sofie Tegner Anker, Jennifer Doleac, and Rasmus Landersø published a really interesting paper about the impact of a law passed in Denmark that allowed Danish police to add anyone charged with a felony to a DNA database, increasing the share of arrestees added from roughly 4 percent to about 40 percent.

So what was the impact? The authors “find that DNA registration reduces recidivism within the following year by up to 42%.”

That’s a big reduction. Obviously having your DNA sample in some database does not have a lot of rehabilitative power per se. But as with the classic fingerprinting1 of perpetrators, once someone is in the system, it’s easier to catch them if they commit a crime. And indeed, the authors find that databased criminals are less likely to re-offend, but if they do re-offend, they are more likely to be caught. Using some math, they “estimate the elasticity of crime with respect to the detection probability” and conclude that “a 1% higher detection probability reduces crime by more than 2%.” So what do all these registered former offenders do instead of crimes? Well, they “find that DNA registration increases the likelihood that offenders find employment, enroll in education, and live in a more stable family environment.” This is a great paper and a very cool result, and I think it makes a strong case for the expanded use of DNA databases.

But I think it also suggests a better way of thinking about the phenomenon of mass incarceration in the United States than the mode that takes a negative view toward all punitive measures.

In this case, raising the odds that a person will go to prison conditional on the commission of a crime lead to a disproportionately large reduction in the odds of offending, meaning fewer person-hours of prison rather than more. Incarceration is costly, cruel, and has certain properties that tend to encourage crime. We should try to create a society that is dedicating fewer resources to locking people in cages in abusive conditions, and the best way to do that is to reduce the number of crimes being committed.

He covers a lot of ground in this piece, but as is usual for Yglesias when he is at his best, he makes you think a bit more deeply about the issues he presents.

My biggest concern with giving everyday police officers and police officials easier access to expanded DNA databases and enhanced surveillance technology is that I, as a middle-class white guy of a certain age, will not generally have to worry too much about these developments. It’s poor people and people of color who are most abused by law enforcement.

We have a huge, mostly unacknowledged or willfully ignored, racist cop problem in this country. I don’t want to give those bad guys any more tools to arrest innocent people of color.

Facial recognition technology — much of it already shown to be unintentionally, but functionally, racist in its mistakes — scares me the most in this regard.

There’s an epidemic of prison suicides. Should we care?

There is an epidemic of suicides among incarcerated people in this country, as the good folks at the Brennan Center note in a current article:

Why are people in jail taking their lives so often? A 2020 Reuters invest­ig­a­tion corrob­or­ates the Justice Depart­ment’s find­ing that suicides are a top cause of jail deaths and suggests three primary drivers.

First, a signi­fic­ant propor­tion of people who land in jail are from margin­al­ized communit­ies and grapple with symp­toms of poverty, primar­ily substance abuse and mental illness, as well as unem­ploy­ment and home­less­ness. Accord­ing to the latest Justice Depart­ment data, 63 percent of people in jail exper­i­enced drug depend­ence or abuse, and 44 percent of people in jail repor­ted having had symp­toms of a mental health disorder in the prior year.

Second, the preval­ence of detained people with seri­ous mental health needs is at odds with the goals, design, oper­a­tion, and resources in most jails. The near absence of mental health treat­ment or other types of beha­vi­oral health services is exacer­bated by jail staff who are often not trained or equipped to prevent, detect, or respond to beha­vi­oral health crises. For example, only about one-quarter of New York City correc­tions staff repor­ted complet­ing suicide preven­tion train­ing despite a surge in self-harm and suicides at Rikers. A recent invest­ig­a­tion of Indi­ana jails, citing staff short­ages with train­ing or expert­ise, simil­arly found that many suicide attempts occur openly, includ­ing among people on suicide watch or those being monitored by video.

It is perhaps unsur­pris­ing then that accord­ing to the latest avail­able data, the major­ity of people in jail with mental illness — 62 percent — were not receiv­ing mental health care. Yet jails are often described as “de facto mental hospit­als” because they have filled the vacuum created by a pervas­ive lack of adequate beha­vi­oral health services in the community and because beha­vi­oral health issues under­lie many of the circum­stances that land someone in jail.

Third, the condi­tions inside most jails are terrible and the treat­ment often abus­ive, making them unlikely to offer any respite for people exper­i­en­cing crises or mental illness. Jails are typic­ally char­ac­ter­ized by loud and unpre­dict­able noise, bright lights, unsan­it­ary condi­tions, and in many places, an atmo­sphere of threat and viol­ence.

Confront­ing an intrins­ic­ally isol­at­ing exper­i­ence in an insti­tu­tion whose aim is to punish rather than treat or rehab­il­it­ate can also be trau­maticHuff­ing­ton Post invest­ig­a­tion follow­ing Sandra Bland’s in-custody death quoted correc­tions expert Steve J. Martin, who described jail as “a total and abso­lute loss — imme­di­ate loss — of control over your being, over your phys­ical being.”

Put together, it is under­stand­able that jail may in fact exacer­bate a person’s mental illness, and quickly. Indeed, accord­ing to the Justice Depart­ment, most jail suicides happen soon after admis­sion, with nearly half of suicides occur­ring within seven days of arrival. A signi­fic­ant propor­tion of jail suicides — 77 percent — occur by detained people who are charged but not convicted of any crime and are there­fore legally presumed inno­cent.

It’s probably safe to say that if you asked average Americans whether jails and prisons should be more about rehabilitation or punishment, most of them would say punishment. After all, if we make jails and prisons as legally unbearable as is possible – which is basically what we have now – criminals would be more likely when they get out of prison to lead lives that will not lead them back to incarceration.

But that is not what is happening. People who go into prison as the damaged human beings many of them are, are subjected to conditions in most prisons and jails which guarantee that they will come out more damaged than when they went in. Often profoundly more damaged.

Socially and physically damaged inmates, especially the ones with mental health issues, do not come out of the experience ready to start lives as earnest, tax-paying citizens.

Many of them come out with even greater mental health challenges that virtually ensure they will be so broken that getting their lives in order is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible.

Assuming they live long enough to make it out of incarceration in the first place.

This is not soft-headed liberal whining. It’s plain fact there for anyone willing to look honestly at recidivism rates.

A genuine interest in lessening crime has to be accompanied by the conviction that the money we spend now on providing meaningful mental health treatments, along with job training and socialization programs, will save us even greater costs later on repeat incarceration, and increased crimes against persons and property stemming from the prison-to-prison pipeline we now have.

Two PA judges, who sent kids to prison so the judges could get kickbacks from private kids prison, ordered to pay $200 million

As someone who spent the latter part of his childhood stuck in the foster care system, I can attest to sense of helplessness you have when the state has total control over your life.

In some ways that state control was an improvement over my emotionally and sexually abusive alcoholic parents, but in other ways you understood that all it would take is one judge having a bad day and you could be sent to some horrible institution, no question asked.

So I’ve followed the Pennsylvania Kids-For-Cash scandal closely, mostly because there but for the grace of God go I (or any foster kid, really):

Two former Pennsylvania judges who orchestrated a scheme to send children to for-profit jails in exchange for kickbacks were ordered to pay more than $200 million to hundreds of people they victimized in one of the worst judicial scandals in U.S. history.

U.S. District Judge Christopher Conner awarded $106 million in compensatory damages and $100 million in punitive damages to nearly 300 people in a long-running civil suit against the judges, writing the plaintiffs are “the tragic human casualties of a scandal of epic proportions.”

In what came to be known as the kids-for-cash scandal, Mark Ciavarella and another judge, Michael Conahan, shut down a county-run juvenile detention center and accepted $2.8 million in illegal payments from the builder and co-owner of two for-profit lockups. Ciavarella, who presided over juvenile court, pushed a zero-tolerance policy that guaranteed large numbers of kids would be sent to PA Child Care and its sister facility, Western PA Child Care.

Former Luzerne County Court Judges Michael Conahan, front left, and Mark Ciavarella, front right, leave the U.S. District Courthouse in Scranton, Pa., on Sept., 15, 2009. The two Pennsylvania judges who orchestrated a scheme to send children to for-profit jails in exchange for kickbacks were ordered to pay more than $200 million to hundreds of children who fell victim to their crimes.

Ciavarella ordered children as young as 8 to detention, many of them first-time offenders deemed delinquent for petty theft, jaywalking, truancy, smoking on school grounds and other minor infractions. The judge often ordered youths he had found delinquent to be immediately shackled, handcuffed and taken away without giving them a chance to put up a defense or even say goodbye to their families.

“Ciavarella and Conahan abandoned their oath and breached the public trust,” Conner wrote Tuesday in his explanation of the judgment. “Their cruel and despicable actions victimized a vulnerable population of young people, many of whom were suffering from emotional issues and mental health concerns.”

If the world made sense, these two judges would die in prison.

One might. The other was released early because of COVID.

You can read the rest of the AP article here.

Judge re: AZ prisons: “No legitimate humane system would operate in this manner”

A federal judge has finally had enough with the medical neglect in Arizona prisons:

Arizona prison officials were deliberately indifferent to “grossly inadequate” medical and mental health care, violating inmates’ Eighth Amendment rights, a federal judge ruled Thursday in a long-running civil rights lawsuit.

Judge Roslyn Silver of the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona agreed with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and several other law firms that the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation, and Reentry (ADCRR) has been flouting the terms of a previous settlement over gruesome medical neglect in its prison and found that unconscionable delays and incompetence put incarcerated people at risk of grievous harm and even death.

“No legitimate humane system would operate in this manner,” Silver concluded.

In an expert witness report filed during the trial in November, Tod Wilcox, medical director of the Salt Lake County Jail System, described several cases of preventable deaths that he says were offensive to him as a medical professional and showed that Arizona prisons put incarcerated people at unacceptable risks of harm.

The cases Wilcox reviewed included a paraplegic man that was left to physically deteriorate until his penis had to be amputated; a man with undiagnosed, untreated lung cancer lost 90 pounds and died “slowly and agonizingly” without pain medication; and a woman whose multiple sclerosis was ignored and misdiagnosed until she was left, at age 36, nearly completely paralyzed.

“A system that allows this level of sustained incompetence and cruelty, and fails to take decisive action to determine the causes of these myriad and horrific breakdowns and to ensure that the people involved in this case are thoroughly retrained and/or separated from service,” Wilcox wrote, “is morally bankrupt.”

Silver found Wilcox’s testimony persuasive, concluding that a toxic combination of short-staffed and under-qualified nurses puts incarcerated Arizonans at an unacceptable risk of harm and death.

You can read the rest here.