Back in 2015, President Obama created the Second Chance Pell Grant Pilot Program, which selected higher ed institutions around the country to implement higher education programs in prisons within their service area. In this photograph, Barack Obama's Education Secretary Arne Duncan, center, speaks with inmates Alphonso Coates, bottom right, and Kenard Johnson, both participants in the Goucher College Prison Education Partnership at Maryland Correctional Institution-Jessup, on Friday, July 31, 2015, in Jessup, Maryland. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Columbia College, located in rural Tuolumne County, California, has always strived to serve its community. But several years ago, the community college realized they were missing something. 

“We realized there is a large prison in our service area,” said Brian Sanders, the vice president of instruction at Columbia College. “Those individuals are being counted as part of our population, but we weren’t serving them.” 

In 2015 the college created its Incarcerated Students Program (ISP), which offers in-person instruction to students at the Sierra Conservation Camp, a nearby prison with over 4,000 incarcerated people. The program serves an average of 300 incarcerated students a semester, with hundreds more on the waitlist. 

State funding has allowed Columbia College and other California community colleges to implement free programs for incarcerated students. But now that federal funding for prison education has been restored after 26 years, rural colleges around the country are gearing up to provide higher education opportunities to incarcerated students.

Positive Returns on in-Prison Education

The benefits of college-in-prison programs are well documented. Participants are 48% less likely to return to prison after being released, and the Vera Institute estimates that providing postsecondary opportunities to incarcerated people could reduce state prison spending around the country by $365.8 million annually.  

Other studies show that as an investment, “prison education is almost twice as cost-effective as incarceration,” and that taxpayers save $4-5 for every $1 spent on prison education. This is partially because earning a college degree in prison open opportunities for returning citizens who are often locked out of employment and further educational opportunities through background checks and other hiring policies that discriminate against the formerly incarcerated

The unemployment rate of formerly incarcerated people in 2008 (the most recent year for which data are available) was 27.3% (compared to 5.8% in the general public), exceeding even the highest level of unemployment ever recorded in the U.S. (24.9%), during the Great Depression. (Prison Policy Initiative, July 2018)

A college degree can help them balance the scales and find higher-paying jobs than they might otherwise have access to. Furthermore, a college education can help create upward mobility for the families of the incarcerated, and break cycles of generational poverty. Prison education programs are also proven to reduce violence within the prisons themselves, creating a safer and more stable atmosphere for incarcerated people as well as prison staff. 

But despite these notable benefits, higher education programs in prisons have been few and far between for the last 26 years. This is because the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (commonly referred to as the 1994 Crime Bill), which was sponsored by then-Senator Joe Biden and achieved bipartisan support, prevented incarcerated people from accessing Pell Grants, which was the primary funding source for prison education. 

In 2015, President Obama created the Second Chance Pell Grant Pilot Program, which selected 67 colleges and universities around the country to implement higher education programs in prisons within their service area. The pilot program was successful, and doubled in size under the Trump administration. 

In December of 2020, Congress voted to restore Pell Grant eligibility to incarcerated people as part of the FAFSA Simplification Act. Full access will be restored by no later than 2023 for an estimated 463,000 eligible incarcerated people. 

History shows that funding for postsecondary prison education makes all the difference. From 1965 to 1994, incarcerated people were eligible for Pell Grants, and higher education programs in prisons were widespread. The American Enterprise Institute estimates that by the early 1990s, “772 programs were operating in 1,287 correctional facilities across the nation.” But by 1997, only three years after the passage of the 1994 Crime Bill, only eight college-in-prison programs existed in the United States. 

Now, as Pell access is restored to all incarcerated people, rural two- and four-year colleges will play an important role in creating new higher education programs in prisons around the country. This is because prisons are disproportionately located in rural communities. 

Dozens of rural colleges and universities participated in the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, offering face-to-face instruction to thousands of people incarcerated in rural prisons until the Covid-19 pandemic forced programs to shift to correspondence-style courses. 

Many of the colleges are focusing on providing degrees that will lead to practical career paths for incarcerated students, said Dr. Kevin Trutna, the president of Feather River College in Quincy, California. “It gives incarcerated individuals hope.”

Feather River College offers associate degrees in business and sociology through correspondence courses in 17 different California state prisons. “A lot of the health and other professions require a background check, and we didn’t want to offer a degree that would be very limited in what type of jobs the students could get after they are released,” he said. “So if we can only offer a few degrees, we want to make sure that they lead to jobs that someone with a criminal background can go and get.”

Similarly, Glenville State College in Glenville, West Virginia, enrolls 246 students in two nearby correctional facilities, where incarcerated students can earn either an associate or bachelor’s degree in business management. Dr. Mari Clements, the associate vice president of academic affairs at Glenville said that the business degree was chosen both because it is logistically feasible and because it provides practical skills that can help students find jobs upon their release. “We are trying to get the most marketable skills for individuals, and to help them with their rehabilitation in the strongest possible way,” she said. 

Michelle Walker of Columbia College in Sonora, California, said that meeting students’ interests and helping improve employability are their top concerns. “It’s multilayered,” she said, “but from my standpoint it’s what are the students going to benefit from, and what can we actually deliver on.” A certificate in psycho-social rehabilitation has become one of their most popular degree offerings, Walker said, because so many incarcerated students are interested in becoming drug and rehab counselors. 

The Prison Education Initiative at Bennington College in Southwestern Vermont, however, takes a different approach. While considering reducing recidivism and increasing employability to be important, program director Dr. Annabel Davis-Goff believes in “education for education’s sake.” 

“I teach English literature,and one of the questions I would ask is what is literature for? What is education for?” she said. “It’s not just for getting a job. It’s not just for the qualifications.”

Instead, she emphasized that the purpose of prison education should be the same as the purpose of education in general. “It’s for elevating the spirit, developing the intellect, defining and strengthening our ethics.”

Michelle Walker, who oversees the Incarcerated Students Program (ISP) at Columbia College in Tuolumne County, California, believes that ISP is intrinsically tied to the mission of the college. She grew up in the same rural county as the college but moved away to get her degree. 

“Living in a larger city and then coming back with my degree has really made me passionate about finding those people in the community who already exist who don’t think [getting a degree] is possible, and demonstrating how it is possible,” she said. Reaching these underserved and forgotten communities, including the incarcerated people within the county, is one of the most important things the college does, she said.