The Prison-Education Connection

Monday, November 2, 2009
An article in today's Chronicle Review covers a surge of scholarly interest in "prison studies." The author does a nice job of capturing key areas of research on this topic, though coverage of work by Bruce Western, Chris Wildeman, Alice Goffman, Nikki Jones, and Devah Pager would have deepened the portrait. For example, a discussion of Goffman's recent ethnography of men in Philadelphia could have illustrated how prison life (and the threat of life in prison) is intimately connected with how daily life--outside prison--is experienced by many of today's young urban men.

I just hope educators are paying attention. It's far too easy (and common) for scholars to focus on a single societal institution (like schools) to the exclusion of all others. But anyone committed to democratizing education must connect to the conversation on prison reform.

For example, here are two reasons why higher education researchers, practitioners, and policymakers should follow the debates over prisons:

(1) We want to find ways to broaden access to new populations and spread opportunities. Just 2% of those in state prisons and 8% of those in federal prisons have attained any form of college degree.

At least one study has found that after prison, African-American men are more likely to attend college, perhaps because they hope it will protect them from future participation in undesirable activities.

(2) College attendance during prison is associated with lower rates of recidivism (though evidence has not yet established the relationship as a causal one).

It is thus highly disconcerting that several recent education policies have made it more-- not less-- difficult to use prison time to enroll in postsecondary education and to access college after leaving prison. Consider the following

--Since the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act in 2000, the "aid elimination penalty" has blocked access to aid for adults with drug convictions. By one estimate, this rule has made over 200,000 students ineligible for federal grants, loans, and work study. While the penalty has since been reformed (currently, only students who receive drug convictions during college enrollment and do not pass two unannounced drug tests are ineligible for aid), some suggest that even in its current form it discourages college enrollment (because the financial aid application includes a question about drugs) and perpetuates dropout among vulnerable populations. Wheelock and Uggen write that "relative to whites, racial and ethnic minorities are significantly more likely to be convicted of disqualifying drug offenses and significantly more likely to require a Pell Grant to attend college...It is therefore plausible that tens of thousands have been denied college funding solely on the basis of their conviction status."

--Since 1994, Pell Grants may not be used to support college course-taking that occurs while in prison, a change that has made college much less affordable for that population. Yet at the same time, the number of state prison systems offering postsecondary education is rising (from 30 in 2002 to 43 in 2003-2004)--in Texas and North Carolina more than 10 percent of all inmates participate in some form of college coursework, typically offered by community colleges.

It's time for educators to start thinking hard about who isn't enrolled in their schools, and why. Looking to the ever-growing prison state in this country is a good place to start.