Leaders in educating the incarcerated, but underfunded

Community colleges play a critical role in preparing incarcerated individuals for a return to society, but their programs simply need more funding, according to justice reform advocates.

While community colleges are leaders in providing access and opportunities to eligible inmates, they are the most underfunded institutions in higher education, according to Tiffany Jones, senior director of higher education policy at The Education Trust, who participated in a panel discussion Wednesday on restoring Pell Grant eligibility to inmates and economic justice.

Selective colleges that don’t have prison programs receive three times as much money per student as community colleges, Jones said at the event hosted by the College & Community Fellowship.

“It’s important for policymakers to adequately invest in community colleges so they can do this good work,” she said.

Related article: Providing prisoners access to Pell grants

The education provided to inmates by community colleges spans certificate programs to career pathways that lead to an associate degree or bachelor’s degree and jobs, said Allison Dembeck, executive director for congressional and public affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“The community colleges are the foundation of it all. Having them involved in this is crucial,” she said.

She also argued the importance of student inmates earning college credits for such courses.

“Classes that are not credit-bearing are not helpful in the long term. It might help toward an immediate certification, but it won’t help those who want to continue along their educational or career path,” she said.

Restoring Pell

Restoring Pell Grant eligibility to qualifying inmates is critical, said Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia), chair of the House Education and Labor Committee. That’s also a priority of the American Association of Community Colleges, which supports legislation to allow all eligible inmates to access Pell grants for higher education.

Related article: Bill would restore Pell eligibility for inmates

Currently, only community colleges in the Second Chance Pell pilot program can provide Pell funding to incarcerated individuals. In April, the U.S. Education Department expanded the Second Chance Pell program, doubling the number of participating institutions. But that program reaches a small percentage of those who could benefit, advocates argue.

Denying access to inmates is “unnecessary, punitive and counterproductive,” Scott said at the virtual event.

A good investment

Research shows that assisting this population access higher education is a good investment, Scott said. It helps people attain family-sustaining jobs and leads to lower rates of recidivism.

“The fact that the Pell Restoration Act hasn’t moved is just unacceptable,” Dembeck said.

Education in prisons is critical because at least 95 percent of incarcerated people return to the community, said Satra Taylor, a higher education policy analyst at The Education Trust. But reinstating Pell for prisoners is only the first step, she said. States also need to provide more financial aid for education to inmates.

In addition, higher education needs to become more affordable, Taylor said. But she acknowledged that it will more financially difficult for colleges as states slash their budgets in response to the pandemic.

At a time when higher education has been very public and vocal in its commitment to equity and social and justice, “it’s important to follow up those statements with real action,” Jones said. Restoring Pell eligibility to prisoners is a big part of that, along with making sure programs are high quality and that faculty have the resources and support they need.

Remove barriers

D’Antonette Burns, a policy researcher and advocate for incarcerated women based in Indiana, highlighted how difficult it is to complete a degree while incarcerated. She earned 200 credits while serving more than 11 years in prison. She transferred to several different facilities and had to start her college courses over at new institutions, losing many credits in the process.

Finally, after earning a degree, “they didn’t want to honor it,” Burns said. “They said I needed to wait until I got out. I had to fight for about a year to get them to give me the degree that I earned.”

Education in prisons should align with the current job market, said Burns, who noted that prison programs for women often focus on sewing or housekeeping.

Commentary: Why we offer second chances to inmates

Taylor urged education programs for inmates to have culturally responsive curricula and noted that some programs “are entrenched with racist pedagogy.”

For folks in the criminal justice system, “it’s not always due to bad choices they made and their need to be redeemed,” added Jones. “It’s about systemic racism.”

Students of color have a hard time accessing faculty who look like them and are often subject to racist curricula, Jones said.

“That impacts students’ success and wellbeing,” she said.

For young children of color, the problem starts when they attend underfunded schools with no access to guidance counselors, Jones said. School systems that serve large numbers of Black and Latinx students receive $1,800 less per student than predominantly White school districts, she said.

Better help for re-entry

Burns called for prisons to better prepare inmates for life outside. The re-entry training she received had more information about sex education than how to get a job, and the list of job leads she was given was outdated.

Unemployment rates for formerly incarcerated Black women is 37 percent higher than for Black women overall, Dembeck noted. She said it’s important to make sure training in prisons meets licensing requirements “so people can leave and re-enter the community and have actual jobs.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched Equality of Opportunity in response to the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, Dembeck said. The initiative is focusing on education, employment, entrepreneurship and the criminal justice system.

“We came together and said this is the time for the business community to step up,” she said. “We’re trying to find sustainable solutions to close race-based opportunity gaps.”

Inequality in these areas perpetuates inequality in society as a whole, Dembeck said. That holds back individuals and businesses and hinders economic growth. She noted that the chamber has an entrepreneurship program for people leaving prison and offers micro-grants to help them get started.

Giving people information on how to start a business “is not the most important thing,” Burns countered. For people re-entering society, the top priorities are finding a place to live, paying fees and fines, getting a job and, if they have kids, trying to get them back.

Two weeks before she was released, Burns found she was required to register as a violent offender because she was convicted of conspiracy, and that was considered a violent crime.

“There are a lot of steps that come before you can focus on starting a business,” she said.

Even with a degree, it took Burns six months to get a job in a restaurant. She subsequently worked her way up to become an assistant general manager.

“Having a degree really helped me a great deal,” she said.

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.
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