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Colleges are gearing up for a spike of interest in prison education programs. That's because incarcerated people will soon be eligible for Pell Grants. It will be the first time in 28 years prisoners can access that federal funding for higher education. Stephanie Sy reports for our series, "Rethinking College."
Many American — excuse me — many American colleges are gearing up for a spike of interest in prison education programs. That's because incarcerated people will be eligible for Pell Grants starting next summer.
It'll be the first time in 28 years that prisoners can access that federal funding for higher education.
Stephanie Sy has this report for our series Rethinking College.
Pedro Rivera is a senior at Pitzer, a private college in Claremont, California, with a picturesque campus that Rivera has never stepped foot on.
Pedro Rivera, College Student:
It's not easy. Like, I put in the work and I obsess over the details and I prepare.
He's earning his degree while in a medium-security prison, the California Rehabilitation Center, more than 20 miles away.
I was convicted of multiple counts of bank robbery from incidents that happened in 2005.
Rivera has been incarcerated for 16 years. A few years ago, he was watching PBS when his ears perked up. It was a PBS series called "College Behind Bars" featuring Bard College's Prison Initiative in New York state.
More than anything after watching this program, that's what I wanted. Like, I signed up for everything I could. And, finally, someone saw something in me that I didn't see in myself, and they was like, we're going to give you this opportunity.
Forty-three-year-old Rivera is now just a few classes away from his bachelor's degree. He is part of a pioneering program that brings students inside prison together with students from the outside.
Professor Nigel Boyle runs the program.
Nigel Boyle, Professor, Pitzer College:
Outside students, traditional students will learn more from a class taught inside prison than they would in the same class taught conventionally. And, similarly, the inside students will learn an awful lot.
And it's this learning across often generational differences, as well as obviously the difference in legal status, that is very powerful.
The inmates pursuing higher education here get to live in a dedicated section of the facility, the prison equivalent of a college dorm, where there's an exchange of ideas and a common scholastic pursuit.
Section 308 is a special place. Textbooks and school supplies litter the bunks. About 48 incarcerated men here are enrolled in higher education courses.
We have students in this classroom that are..
That number may be about to balloon. For decades, Pell Grants, federal financial aid to help low-income students pay for college, were off-limits for incarcerated men and women.
It was a vestige of the controversial crime bill sponsored by then-Senator Joe Biden and signed by President Clinton in 1994. But that ban is being lifted next year.
Margaret diZerega, Vera Institute of Justice: The reintroduction of federal student aid through Pell Grants is going to be transformative.
Margaret diZerega is a researcher at the Vera Institute of Justice.
With the new law, all people in prison are going to be eligible for Pell, regardless of the conviction type or sentence length, which is huge.
In the criminal justice reform field, we rarely see this type of victory that is inclusive of everybody who's incarcerated.
Some half-a-million incarcerated people will be able to apply for a Pell Grant next year, aid that will allow them to earn a college degree, before being released from a prison like this.
Research by the RAND Corporation has shown that providing prison education reduces recidivism by 43 percent. And diZerega says it also addresses deeper inequities.
There's so many reasons that these college programs are important. There's a very strong argument to be made for racial disparities in terms of who is impacted by the justice system, who is left behind from our education system.
One of those left behind was Kenny Butler. He describes middle school in Watts when he was a kid.
Kenny Butler, Pitzer College Graduate:
It was a gang factory, pretty much. They had the LAPD on campus in the middle school, which was unheard of before, but they actually had the LAPD at this campus.
Jumped by a gang when he was only 10 years old, the script was written for him.
A lot of people are forced to be part of the gangs. They may not want to, but you get jumped on enough times, you're going to be looking for protection from somewhere.
He was 12 when he first went to jail. In June of last year, at 48, he was released early from the California Rehabilitation Center, having spent 15 years in prison for the charge of aiding and abetting homicide.
Reading was a way to break up that time, break up the monotony of prison. And so I just fell in love with it, started studying etymology, and realizing the origins of words, and things like that.
Butler became a standout scholar, earning his associate's degree from Norco College and graduating from Pitzer with his bachelors degree. He was one of the first inside out students.
A lot of us doubt ourselves in that space, if we're really educated or not. And so to sit inside a classroom with liberal arts professors and students from around the world, and it just — it does something for you. It builds confidence in yourself. That's all. That's the difference, I believe.
He recently won a prestigious Fulbright scholarship for research on a Ugandan prison. He's never been out of the country.
Prison administrators say stories like Kenny's prove what incarcerated people are capable of if given the chance.
Shannon Swain, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation: All of a sudden, you learn that skill and you can catapult forward.
Shannon Swain runs the education Department in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation office.
Correctional education is transformative, and higher correctional education is — it's mind-boggling what you see in the classroom. So, I believe correctional education is a big key component to public safety.
With Pell Grant money becoming available, colleges around the country are expected to pounce. Nigel Boyle says that can create a quality control problem.
There's more to a college education than just accumulating X amount of credits. So, I think we have a concern that academic standards are upheld and this is a high-quality bachelor's education that inside students are receiving.
So, how did this make sense to you?
So, we get a system based off a story.
If done right, a higher education is the best chance at rehabilitation, says warden Glen Pratt.
Some people might say, this is a prison. It's supposed to be about punishment. Why should they get access to educational opportunities?
Glen Pratt, Warden, California Rehabilitation Center:
The reality is these people — these men here at CRC are going to be our neighbors, and we have to provide them with successful tools to be productive citizens when they are released.
Jack, Pitzer College Student:
For most of my life, I have mostly just been around people with really similar experiences as me.
Pitzer sophomore Jack, who, for safety, is allowed to use only his first name, was impressed. It was his first time setting foot in a prison.
It puts me outside of my comfort zone. Nobody likes to thinks about, like, systems of inherent injustice. But being here and hearing different points of view is really impactful to me.
It's about bring the community inside these closed institutions, right, equally. And equality is a big thing. So, no one's response to a question is more important than the next person's. We all respect each other in that space.
Shared respect, and, for Pedro Rivera, an opportunity to earn more than just a degree.
Prior to coming to prison and winding up in this situation in my life, I have dishonored myself and I have dishonored my family. And this is how I see I can bring honor back to my name.
A name, like those of many other inmates nationwide, that will soon be written on a college diploma.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy, reporting from the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, California.
Watch the Full Episode
Stephanie Sy is a PBS NewsHour correspondent and serves as anchor of PBS NewsHour West. Throughout her career, she served in anchor and correspondent capacities for ABC News, Al Jazeera America, CBSN, CNN International, and PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior to joining NewsHour, she was with Yahoo News where she anchored coverage of the 2018 Midterm Elections and reported from Donald Trump’s victory party on Election Day 2016.
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