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Prison college programs reduce recidivism and provide "constructive focus" for incarcerated students

Flickr Creative Common

With help from Augustana College, some prisoners at the East Moline state prison have started studying for bachelor’s degrees.

It's part of the Augustana Prison Education Program--an opportunity for incarcerated people to take college courses while behind bars.

Dr. Sharon Varallo is the Executive Director. She emphasizes that the educational standards are the same for the prisoners as they are for traditional students.

"So we bring faculty who teach the same courses that they would on campus. They go into the prison and teach there. They [the students] were very busy. We kept the bar high, and they surpassed it."

Prison education has been a topic of hot debate over the last twenty years, ever since the 1994 Crime Bill banned incarcerated people from receiving federal Pell Grants. The result was a huge drop in the number of prisoners able to get an education.

"The majority of people in prison want something constructive to do with their time, whether that be vocational work or college work. But our prisons, and our way of doing criminal justice, don't provide that."

That's Jule Hall, a graduate of the Bard Prison Initiative, one of the longest-running programs in the country. Jule was released from prison in 2015, and now works as a consultant for documentaries and criminal justice reform. He says Bard was crucial to helping him adjust to life outside of prison.

"It gave me that proactive stance. It gave me hope to stay positive. It gave me something constructive to focus on--that cannot be downplayed in the monotonous environment that prison can be. You know, reading the works of Nietzsche and Robert Mosley, fiction and philosophy, and you know, being in prison and engaged in that level of humanity brings out the humanity in people."

In 1990, there were more than 700 such programs serving more than 20,000 prisoners in the United States. By 1997, just three years after the Crime Bill, only 8 of the programs remained.

Modern initiatives like BPI and Augustana's Prison Education Program are privately funded--there's no tuition money or tax dollars involved. Dr. Varallo again:

"Even if there were, it's about the best way you could use it, because for every dollar spent on higher ed in prison, five dollars are saved in taxpayer money in all sorts of ways. It is far better for this country--far better for families, for neighborhoods, for employers--if we start remembering that people who are incarcerated are people."

In fact, graduates of prison education programs are much less likely to be rearrested. While more than half of all released prisoners get rearrested within one year of release, that number drops to just 14% for prisoners who got an associate's degree, 6% for those with bachelor's degrees, and 0% for those with master's degrees.

But beyond the benefits for society, Varallo says support for prison education comes down to one key question: whether you think prison is meant to punish people or rehabilitate them.

"And if somebody believes it's for punishment, and they only want somebody to rot in hell forever…nothing I say will convince them. And I'm not talking about the 1%, 2% of people who maybe are irredeemable, you know? The most heinous acts, you know, that's not what we're talking about here. We're talking about millions of people, some of whom made terrible mistakes. They're not monsters."

Jule says much the same. In fact, many other inmates supported his pursuit of higher education.

"What happened was these were the same people who may not have gotten into Bard, but would come to us [and say:] "Hey, I need to write a letter to my lawyer," or "My daughter is struggling with her SATs and she wrote me this letter--can you tell me a way to respond to her?" There's a stereotype that people in prison don't want to do anything positive, but I witnessed firsthand people do it. You provide the space for people to do positivity and constructive stuff, and they will gravitate to it."

The good news for advocates of prison education: public opinion seems to be shifting in their direction. In December 2020, Congress lifted the ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated students.

"With the bipartisan re-implementing of Pell Grants into prisons, finally across the country in the next few years, we may see colleges being able to restart programs that they had had twenty years ago."

Jule's story is featured in the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary, College Behind Bars.

Aaryan Balu first set foot in audio journalism at WTJU Charlottesville and WRIR Richmond, and now works as WVIK Quad Cities NPR's Fellowship Host.