“Why did you do it?” This was the first question posed to then-17-year-old Jarrod Wall by his attorney. The year was 1989, and Jarrod was facing a felony murder charge. The “why” could have provided an important explanation, or at least context, for his actions. But Jarrod wasn’t able to answer. He didn’t have the insight or language—tools that often come with an education—to understand his own behavior.
Thirty years later, Jarrod reflects on that moment and the impact of his education behind bars during an interview with R Street Criminal Justice Fellow Emily Mooney, “Not knowing terrified me. Stricken with remorse, confusion and distrust of myself, I. . . . committed to answering my attorney’s question to and for myself. That is, I committed to change.”
Jarrod would go on to serve 26 years in prison for his crime. Yet far from marking the end of his story, prison served as the beginning of a new chapter in his life. Along with mentoring and counseling, Jarrod credits the education he received behind bars for helping him change.
The year after he was arrested, Jarrod began his first semester of postsecondary education through Indiana’s Ball State University. He was fortunate enough to be able to fund his bachelor’s degree through a combination of federal Pell Grants and state grants. “I was on the end of the golden years of education. . . .We were even able to keep our books,” he shares with Mooney. Jarrod went on to get a second bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree while in prison through the support of private sponsors.
An education like the one Jarrod received can be incredibly transformative for people who find themselves in prison. Access to postsecondary education enables these individuals to gain the knowledge needed to understand their past decisions and to make better choices when tense circumstances arise. In other words, they become equipped to do more than respond to difficult situations out of their own pain. Jarrod recounts taking a class on the psychology of violence: “[Education] helped me understand myself, understand my problems, my background, and then it helped me understand the culture around me.”
What’s more, education has positive trickle-down effects for everyone involved in the individual’s life. While receiving an education behind bars, Jarrod sent his report cards to his parents. Watching their son pursue a degree gave Jarrod’s parents something to be proud of—it gave them hope for their son’s future.
Given that more than nine out of ten people in state prisons are destined to re-enter society, providing people like Jarrod with access to education is a no-brainer. Granting them this access not only helps those in prison, but can also help enhance the economy of the surrounding community as well as public safety.
Unfortunately, others sentenced just a few years after Jarrod were not able to access the same opportunities. In the midst of the “tough on crime” era, then-President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which, among other things, prohibited incarcerated individuals from accessing Pell Grants. Before the ban, prison education programs like the one Jarrod took part in were thriving, with about 23,000 impoverished individuals relying on Pell Grants to fund their education in 1993 and 1994. Following the ban, the number of these programs plummeted; some estimate that the amount in existence a few years after the ban could be counted on two hands.
In Indiana, where Jarrod was incarcerated, those imprisoned after the Act went into effect were still able to access state education grants. But that changed in 2011, when the Indiana Legislature rendered individuals behind bars ineligible for state scholarships. The state Department of Corrections was ultimately forced to phase out the remaining degree-granting programs in early 2012.
For many students behind bars, these policy changes signaled the end of hope. But starting in 2016, the Federal Second Chance Pell pilot program re-opened a window of opportunity for some of those in prison interested in broadening their educational horizons. The pilot is currently taking place in over 60 institutions and, during this past academic year, enrolled approximately 10,000 students. While we don’t yet have data on the program’s results, site participants are already reporting that providing access to education within facilities has had positive effects.
Sadly, since they are not serving time at a pilot site, most people who are academically eligible for Pell Grants (an estimated 64 percent of all prisoners) cannot access federal tuition assistance. This barrier means that we cannot maximize the positive impact that education is having in our nation’s prisons.
Fortunately, signs of support for re-entry-based programs in prison have recently emerged. Last year, the Federal government passed the bipartisan First Step Act of 2018, part of which helps provide individuals released from prison with programming to help them reintegrate into society. Today, additional proposals are pending in the Senate and the House that would reinstate Pell Grant access to otherwise eligible incarcerated students. This legislation is backed by diverse groups including, among others, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National District Attorneys Association, the American Correctional Association, Prison Fellowship Ministries, and the Unlock Higher Ed Coalition—a national coalition on behalf of which Jarrod presented on Capitol Hill in July.
Some may argue that funding Pell Grants for those in prison is costly, but the fact is that we are paying a far higher cost by not funding education. We spend far too much on our justice system in this country: approximately $182 billion annually. Few interventions in prison are so effective at promoting successful re-entry, and the savings incurred from reduced recidivism rates add up. Estimates from a 2018 RAND study suggest that educational programs behind bars are associated with reductions in future reoffending rates by as much as 32 percent, and an earlier study calculated that every dollar spent educating a person in prison could result in up to five dollars in savings from the avoided costs of future incarceration. A more recent report by the Vera Institute of Justice and the Georgetown University Law Center on Poverty and Inequality estimates overall annual savings for state prison costs following Pell reinstatement to be hundreds of millions of dollars.
What’s more, the Pell Grant program is not a zero-sum game. When individuals in prison receive an education supported by grants, it does not mean that an eligible young person on the outside will be less able to receive funding for their higher education. Every person that qualifies for a Pell Grant can receive one. It also would not reduce the award amounts that other eligible individuals who are not incarcerated receive.
But what about individuals in prison who are unlikely to re-enter society? What benefits could an education have for them?
If we are pushing to fund the education of people behind bars solely for the benefits it might provide upon their re-entry into the community, then there is no reason to make “lifers”—those serving life sentences, or sentences so long they equate to life sentences—eligible. But such an approach is both practically and philosophically wrong-headed.
On the practical end, the general culture behind bars plays a key role in determining whether time in prison promotes individual growth and rehabilitation or hinders it. When violence is commonplace and positive role models are absent, the potential for a transformative prison culture to emerge or endure greatly diminishes. This is harmful to both the individuals who live or work in prison and the communities to which most of those in prison will return.
As the ones who have been and will remain behind bars the longest, lifers set the tone in the prison environment. They see generations cycle through the system and often serve as mentors and informal leaders to those incarcerated for shorter periods. Jarrod experienced the impact of lifers firsthand. When he first arrived at prison, he was just a young man. Luckily, he found a group of lifers and other long-timers interested in mentoring him. They saw that Jarrod wanted to change and encouraged him to make growth-oriented decisions. One of them was a jailhouse lawyer who looked through his case and began asking him questions. “He became the first person that I really talked to about my background,” Jarrod observes. Thanks to the lawyer’s encouragement, Jarrod soon began therapy.
Other lifers mentored Jarrod as he pursued his education. They taught him how to run the prison education program for which he would eventually serve as a clerk and administrator for 15 years. “I was young, and they knew I didn’t want to be stuck in a cell all day, so they sent me passes so I could come work.” During lunch breaks, the lifers would discuss concepts like social learning theory. These men were ultimately Jarrod’s role models. When they were transferred to other facilities, Jarrod took their place—mentoring and encouraging younger men to make wise choices and to pursue education and healing.
Given lifers’ influential position within the prison environment, we must ask ourselves: What values do we want them to teach others? Do we want them to remain stagnant or model poor behavior, or do we want to help them grow into positive role models?
The fact is that individuals who participate in educational programs while in prison tend to have better institutional disciplinary records than those who do not. They are also far more motivated to stay out of trouble. And those who complete their classes are less likely to engage in violence while incarcerated, making prisons safer and more productive environments for staff and incarcerated individuals alike. So even when the student is a lifer who will never see the sky as a free person, their behavior sets an example for others to follow, meaning that we should be doing everything we can to ensure that the example they set is a positive one. By providing Pell Grant access to lifers, policymakers can help ensure that everyone housed in our nation’s prison is immersed in a more positive culture.
There are also other practical benefits to making sure lifers are educated. The children of incarcerated individuals—including long-timers and lifers—experience positive effects when their parents gain a higher education. Today, 2.7 million children have a parent behind bars. These children are at a higher risk of being stigmatized and shamed, having issues in school, and experiencing poverty. Yet children with educated parents are more likely to have aspirations of education for themselves—and to view their parents with pride, as role models. Even when parents are serving long sentences, they can use education as a connecting point and encourage their children to pursue a new life alongside them.
On top of all this, as a more pragmatic matter, sentences can differ for the same offense depending on where and when the offense was committed. Jarrod himself is one of those individuals: “Had I been sentenced a few years later, I could have been sentenced to life without parole. It wasn’t law yet in Indiana.” Excluding long-termers or lifers from accessing Pell Grants makes an unfair pre-emptive judgment of both the person’s ability to change and the policy climate ahead.
As a philosophical matter, offering educational opportunities to lifers cements a commitment to recognizing the inherent dignity of all human beings. The truth is that decreasing the number of people behind bars is not enough; improving re-entry prospects is not enough. What is required to address our nation’s incarceration problem is a new approach to how we treat individuals in prison. It requires showing them that they are worthy, not because they will be one day released, but because they are human beings, deserving of basic respect and care.
Yet our carceral state currently undermines human dignity at almost every turn—by isolating individuals, by denying them basic avenues of communication with their families, and by limiting access to necessities like medical care, clothing and hygiene products. Sprinkle in violence, untreated trauma, and mental illness, and it’s easy to see how the environment within prisons can be both dehumanizing for incarcerated individuals and, relatedly, toxic for prison staff.
Thus, postsecondary education’s value lies not just in the way it improves re-entry prospects for those in prison, but in how it offers a path for individuals to discover their potential, achieve something tangible, and bring about positive shifts in their development. When we unnecessarily prohibit individuals serving life or virtual life sentences from accessing education, we deny them a critical tool they can use to understand their own pasts and to claim their own redemption. We’re denying them a chance at a future in which they are also known for the good they can do rather than only the bad they’ve done. As Jarrod puts it, “We’re sentencing them to a living execution.”
Grants for funding postsecondary education have the potential to improve the lives of so many Americans. But by preventing hundreds of thousands of people from accessing them simply because they are behind bars, we are making it harder for prisons to become constructive environments that foster growth and transformation, and for families and communities to become productive and whole. Moreover, we are preventing people from gaining the knowledge, skills and maturity necessary for them to become positive examples of sons or daughters, fathers or mothers, and leaders within their networks—whether they remain within prison facilities or continue their lives outside the iron fence.
It’s time we reverse directions and embrace postsecondary education for those who are incarcerated. Only then can we truly unleash the potential of the hundreds of thousands of men and women locked up within our communities.