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Pell Grants & the Prison Experience…

“Hey, Medvecky!  You got a minute?”

Finishing up some production procurements on the govt’s internal computer system, I strolled over to where several fellow prison Business Office workers and the Associate Warden (AW) were having an argument.

Being one of the resident inmates taking college courses, I had occasion to be asked for information and opinions related to education.

It was 1994.  We were in a federal, medium-security prison.  Congress was debating President Clinton’s legislation to eliminate prisoners from getting Pell Grants.

It passed and there was a mass exodus of universities and colleges from the nation’s prisons—not that there were a whole lot of inmates taking such accredited school work to begin with (some 23,000 out of 1.3m).

The education exodus was astounding. Virtually overnight, every prison in America was vacated by local schools and the prisons further cut practically ALL education of all types except for the Congressionally-mandated GED, which basically turned into a punitive program to cut the few prisoner privileges allowed.

     My own experience was that never more than 5% of any given inmate population ever availed themselves of the opportunity in any event.  Up to 80% of inmates are shown to be illiterate or low-level readers.

     However, among those inmates who did take college-work, there was a consistent negative correlation with reincarceration rates.  Out of some 93% of prisoners who eventually return to their respective communities, 67% return to prison within a 3-yr period.  For those who take education courses, there was a 65% reduction in the re-offender rate.  Easily, penology’s most proven rehabilitative factor.  Why kill such a program?

UTNE_1I asked, “What up?”  The basic discussion was that the son of the AW’s downtown hairdresser had just been denied a Pell Grant, “due to the fact that prisoners had used up all the budgeted funds.  Besides,” she added, “why should the law-abiding public now have to pay for what inmates had earlier refused when they turned to crime?”

Aside from the social argument that those same communities might have a stake in getting back these sons and daughters in better shape and disposition than when they went to prison, I realized from long experience that such discussions were largely wasted on conservative reactionary and fundamentalist thinkers.  Their focus was on obedience to authority and self-discipline.  If you fail to succeed, then that’s your fault and problem.  You deserve what you get.  Period.

She was a nice lady and boss to work for—better than most.  (In my 20+yr prison experience, most then still in front of me, she would prove to be a better friend among staff than most.) But, like many in the prison system, she clung to a retribution-punitive orientation.  We were prisoners, ipso facto, we were ignorant and willful, un-redemptive  criminals.

I patiently explained that there was no connection between her hairdresser’s son being denied a Pell Grant and prisoner’s use of the funds.  Pell Grants are a form of Entitlement program.  The appropriations are divided equally among all qualifying students.

According to Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI), the author of Pell Grants back in 1973, prisoners never used more than ½ of 1% of the available funds in any given year.  (Without prisoner use of the funds, the remaining grantees would have increased their disbursements by a mere $5 each.)

I answered that the most likely explanation for her friend’s son being declined a Pell Grant was that he was living at home.  In that case, his parent’s income would be figured into that of his own.  Thus—under gov’t rules—he did not qualify for a Grant.  It had nothing to do with prisoners.

American GulagPrisoners also received scholarships from Federal Prison Industries, Inc. (UNICOR).  While never a whole lot—not even enough to pay for one class’s tuition—every little bit helped.  (Readers should also take note that any time that is taken for education by prisoners was over and above all other required activities–including a prison job–which is mandatory to all.)

As irony will have it, the AW also argued that if Congress cut the Pell Grants, the prison and UNICOR would pick up the difference and keep the higher ed programs.

I recall that it was some time later, after the Pell rejection by Congress and Clinton, when I asked that same Associate Warden—who’s duties included both prison Industries and Education—what was the status of the UNICOR scholarships?  Even they had disappeared.

She responded, “Since Congress eliminated Pell Grants for prisoners, we are therefore complying with their wishes to not supply any education at all beyond the mandated GED!”  Standard prison/staff logic:  Punishment first, last and always

Personally, I’ve found that the only people who leave prison rehabilitated, are either those who came in that way or did it on their own.

Dr. Publico (Nick Medvecky. PsyD), August 2010…

Category: PellGrants
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3 Responses
  1. […] Congress ended Pell Grants claiming it was done for budgetary considerations.  Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-RI), answered Congress […]

  2. […] Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-RI) wrote in the Wall Street Journal, this was the usual reactionary lie. At no time in the […]

  3. […] Lutherian time at McKean (1994-95) also coincided with the denial of prisoners having Pell Grants (moneys used for undergrad tuition), despite the fact that prison schools never accessed more than […]

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