Liz Holliday

Communications Specialist
Written Work

The State Of Women In Prison

This post was ghost-written by Liz Holliday, on behalf of CCF’s Executive Director on August 4th, 2016. Find the original version here

The U.S. incarcerates far more people than any other country in the world, yet only recently have the stories of the nation’s incarcerated individuals begun to emerge. With the exception of a very popular Netflix show, the plight of women in prison continues to be overlooked and misunderstood, despite women making up the fastest growing population in US prisons today.

Our mothers, sisters, aunts, neighbors, and friends make up the more thanone million women currently under the supervision of the criminal justice system in the United States. Life for women behind bars is far from easy, especially when women face serious gender-specific issues that men simply do not.

Women are more likely to have issues with mental illness or addiction, and more likely to have minor children at home who depend on them. Instead of focusing on services to help women deal with the issues of livelihood and survival that landed them behind bars in the first place, we are incarcerating women for longer periods of time at a rate that is frankly disturbing.

The female U.S. prison and jail population has increased by over 700% over the past four decades, rising to 215,000 women, with black women more than twice as likely to be in prison than white women.

When we factor in the role of socioeconomics and lack of education to understand who is incarcerated and who’s not, we can see a disproportionate amount of female incarceration as the issue of class and race that it is. I should know. I’ve spent the last decade leading a non-profit called College and Community Fellowship, which helps formerly incarcerated women put education at the heart of reentry in order to reach their full potential.

Through the eyes of our students, I have seen firsthand the lifelong disadvantages—and systemic injustices—that have landed so many women in prison. I’ve spoken with women who have committed crimes to feed their kids, or as a result of mental illness and addiction, or in some cases because crime had become a cycle of survival in their families and communities.

According to The Sentencing Project, nearly half of women in state prisons have not completed high school. Sixty percent were not employed full-time when they were arrested, and nearly 1/3 had been receiving some kind of welfare benefits prior to arrest.

To me, the causes of crime are complex. It is clear that a lot of women in prison are people doing whatever they can do to feed their families and survive in a world where they have not been given quality education or opportunities to thrive. Whether they are deemed “criminals” by society or not, everyone deserves a second chance.

In a place like prison it isn’t easy to see a bright future upon release, but I want to ensure that every woman in prison knows that education can provide a beacon of light. The transformative powers of education have the ability to show that a future away from the criminal justice system is possible, and that whatever dreams women have for themselves prior to incarceration, don’t have to die with their sentencing dates. CCF understands that women need a gender-responsive, individualized approach to reentry, and that education is the strongest way to combat the stigma and barriers of a criminal conviction.

According to the White House, job applicants with a criminal record are 50 percent less likely to receive interview requests or job offers, a shocking number that only increases for applicants of color. We help combat that at CCF, by hosting college- and job-readiness workshops, focusing on self-confidence, and helping women emphasize their achievements when others try to reduce them to their past mistakes.

Yes, reform in this country needs to include better mental health and trauma services for women in the criminal justice system. Yes, we need to look at alternatives to incarceration that allow mothers in this country to rehabilitate themselves, while continuing to care for their children. And no, we cannot overlook the transformative powers education can have on those exiting the criminal justice system. We cannot funnel our reentering population into minimum-wage jobs with no regard for their personal skills and strengths.

However what women in prison need is more exposure. CCF is the only organization in the country that focuses on the intersection of criminal justice, higher education, and gender. We need more to be the voice of incarcerated women. We need more to discuss the needs, desires, and aspirations of incarcerated women, who have been ignored for too long.

We need to have an honest conversation about the state of women in prison, and discuss how we can help. On August 9th at 2PM EST, CCF will be hosting a Twitter TownHall on #WomenInPrison. I hope you will join us for the crucial discussion on the issues facing women in prison right now as well as the struggles that await them when they are released.

Quite often the biggest change, comes from a simple conversation, and we hope you will join us in ours on August 9th as we seek to not only raise visibility of the issues of #WomenInPrison, but to help galvanize collaborations and ideas for change.

The importance of education for incarcerated women

The Huffington Post: Permanent Pell In Prison: More Than Twenty Years After It Was Taken Away REAL Act brings hope for Higher Ed in prison

07/01/2016 06:25 pm ET | Updated 4 days ago Ghost-written for the Huffington Post on behalf of my non-profit’s Executive Director

From 1997 to 2001 I was incarcerated, without any way to improve myself. I already had my high school diploma, and some college credits, which meant there were no other educational programs available to me inside the prison I was assigned.

I managed to stay inspired through the tutoring of women in prison who didn’t have access to the quality education I did growing up on Long Island. I helped women with their reading, writing, and math; and encouraged them to go after their High School Equivalency, while dreaming of one day finishing my own college degree.

However access to in-prison education wasn’t always so rough. From its creation in 1972, up until a “tough on crime” agenda swept Congress in the mid-1990s, Pell Grants, a federal tuition assistance program, were available to all qualified students, no matter if they lived at home, on their own, or in prison.

That changed, when Congress passed the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act as part of the larger Omnibus Crime Bill, that then President Bill Clinton signed into law. The Act excluded students in prison from Pell grant access, and dramatically reduced in-prison education programs from 350 to just 12 by 2005.

This “tough on crime” rhetoric was especially disheartening given the fact that Pell Grants for incarcerated students did not “take away” grants for others. In fact in 1994, at the program’s highest rate of usage, the percentage of total Pell Grant funds awarded to incarcerated individuals was 0.0001%—in other words, only 6 cents out of every $10 Pell Dollars went to students in prison.

The removal of Pell in prison was a consequence Bill Clinton himself apologized for last year. However apologies don’t go far enough, and it is a time we as a nation separate the notion of punishing the incarcerated, and instead ask how we can equip them with necessary tools to ensure they don’t return to prison within three years of release.

This month, advocates rejoiced, when President Obama announced the 141 state and federal correctional institutions who will be able to use Pell grants to pursue two or four-year degrees from one of 67 approved colleges and Universities as a part of the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program. However while the initiative through the Department of Justice and Department of Education would reinstate Pell Grants to students in prison, it is only approved for a temporary 5-year term—a good start, but by no means a permanent solution.

Pell Grants were created to ensure every American in this country had the chance to educate themselves regardless of their circumstance or socioeconomic status. No one fits into that category more than many of the two million people currently incarcerated in the United States.

With 95% of individuals in prison one day set to be released, it is essential that we equip them with the critical thinking skills and self-confidence that comes with a higher education.

In the words of the late Senator Claiborne Pell, the founder of Pell Grants, “The strength of the United States in not the gold at Fort Knox or the weapons of mass destruction that we have, but the sum total of education and the character of our people.”

So instead of apologies, it would be more impressive if politicians actively showed support for current legislation that would right the wrong taken against incarcerated students more than 20 years ago.

We must support the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, S.3122 which was introduced in the US Senate on June 29th by Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI), and acts as the sister legislation of H.R. 2521 introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep Donna Edwards (MD-4) last May.

If passed the REAL Act would not only help incarcerated students get a higher education, but it’s ripple effects once they return home would lead to decreased reliance on public assistance, increased employment rates, increased public safety, an elevated quality of life for children, and stronger communities.

It’s time we get “REAL” and help the incarcerated students of American help themselves to a better future.

The Huffington Post, We Must Ban the Box in Higher Education

When you are released from prison, the last thing you want to do is spend the rest of your life reliving the mistakes that put you away in the first place. I should know: when I got out of prison in 2001, I wanted nothing more than to go back to school, earn my degree, and get a job that would turn my life around.

Like most of the 95% of currently incarcerated individuals in this country who will one day be released, I hoped to move forward with my life, and to keep the often demoralizing and dehumanizing experience of incarceration far behind me.

Yet I found myself forced to constantly explain these mistakes as I faced questions about my criminal history on job, housing, and even college admission applications. These checkboxes asking me to self-disclose prior convictions weren’t just an annoyance – they threatened to derail my success and keep me from being the engaged citizen I longed to be.

The ability of these checkboxes to keep formerly incarcerated people from successfully reentering society is real – and that’s why US Secretary of Education John King announced new measures last week to “ban the box” on college applications. His smart reforms are ones we should all get behind.

The problem with the box is simple. For the nearly one in three working age adults in this country who have a criminal record, it means that at precisely the moment they’re trying to improve their lives through college education, they are reduced to nothing more than the sum of their past mistakes.

It’s no wonder that just being faced with the box drastically increases the likelihood that a person with a criminal history will not even finish the process out of fear of stigma, rejection, or sometimes a complicated or impossible set of supplemental requirements that come after the box has been checked.

In fact, a study looking at the State University of New York’s use of the box found that for every student rejected by SUNY admissions committees because of a felony conviction, 15 do not complete their applications due to the experience of facing the checkbox.

I, myself, was rejected after checking the box on a SUNY application, but thankfully was able to return to a school I had enrolled in prior to incarceration. In the end, I earned my degree – but imagine how many potential students are out there, and just aren’t so lucky.

We know that education is an effective tool for changing the trajectory of one’s life. I now run a non-profit that helps women with criminal justice histories go back to school and achieve a higher education; to date, the women of College & Community Fellowship have earned more than 300 degrees, and less than 2 percent have gone back to prison in our 16 years of operation.

It’s understandable that those not well versed in the issue would assume checkboxes protect public safety, but they don’t. Research shows that colleges that restrict access to students with criminal histories do not have demonstrably lower crime rates. In fact, colleges in the large California State University and City University of New York systems don’t even ask the question at all.

While more than 100 cities and counties in the United States have taken steps to “ban the box” on job applications, the idea of such a ban in higher education is only now picking up the momentum it deserves. The US Department of Educationis just the latest institution to question the box’s relevance on college applications, joining the New York State Bar Association, New York University officials, and students at NYU and SUNY.

After all, if we want people coming home to stay out of prison and engage in society, shouldn’t we be encouraging them to get an education, in order to better provide for themselves, their families, and their communities? Isn’t blocking access to education only stifling their potential, possibly forcing them back into old habits and behaviors?

Education increases self-esteem. It strengthens the critical thinking skills that help determine the differences between right and wrong. It helps to ensure higher paying employment, and decreases a person’s likelihood of returning to prison. In short, the transformative powers of education are real, well documented, and should not be withheld from anyone looking to better themselves or their position in life.

I applaud the US Department of Education supporting Americans looking for a second chance. Formerly incarcerated people in this country have served their time, and paid their debts; it’s time we allow every American equal access to the vital tools necessary to succeed.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-vivian-nixon/we-must-ban-the-box-in-hi_b_9996780.html

Ithaca Journal, Ban the box for students, too

When I was released from prison in 2001, a fresh start was all I wanted. But it was a simple question on most job and college applications that threatened to dismantle all of my plans for a successful, self-sufficient future far away from the criminal justice system.

I’m talking about “the box,” in which an applicant is forced to self-disclose any criminal convictions by checking a box before they have even had the chance to show their worth as a candidate. For the one in three working age adults who have a criminal history in this country, the box acts as a scarlet letter that turns a past offense into a life sentence.

Recently, Cornell’s Employee Assembly announced the university’s intention to “Ban the Box” by July 1, removing all criminal conviction questions from the preliminary job applications. Cornell joins the City of Ithaca, New York City and more than 100 other cities and counties that have adopted “ban the box” legislation.

I applaud Cornell for banning the box for future employees of the university, but why isn’t it also banning the box on its own admission application? Cornell is one of more than 600 universities nationwide that utilize the Common Application, an application that still uses criminal history check boxes.

A 2015 study done by the Education from the Inside Out Coalition and the Center of Community Alternatives showed that for every applicant rejected by SUNY because of a felony conviction, 15 do not complete their applications due to fear of stigma or a complicated, sometimes impossible set of supplemental requirements. Further, there isno empirical evidence that shows any relationship between asking questions about criminal history and crime on campus — just ask the California State University andCity University of New York systems, since neither asks the questions.

Momentum is growing across the state to ban the box on college applications and remove all unnecessary barriers to higher education for students with criminal histories. Hundreds of students have taken action at New York University and SUNYcampuses this semester, and university leadership is taking notice.

As the executive director of a nonprofit organization that helps formerly incarcerated women achieve a higher education, I can proudly tell you that after 15 years and more than 300 degrees, less than 2 percent of College and Community Fellowship students have gone back to prison. That is compared with the 40 percent of formerly incarcerated New Yorkers who end up back in prison within three years of release.

Education has a proven link to lowering recidivism, increasing self-confidence and empowering individuals with the critical thinking skills necessary to come to terms with their pasts, while focusing on a better future for themselves, their families and their communities.

It’s time that institutions like Cornell stand up for prospective students with a criminal justice past, and realize that every person in this country should have equal access to an education.

http://www.ithacajournal.com/story/opinion/2016/05/06/guest-viewpoint-ban-box/84019388/

The Huffington Post, Criminal records create more than financial barriers to higher education

Data shows education to be one of the most effective ways to keep people out of prison or from returning to prison. Unfortunately, many college applicants with a criminal record face myriad barriers to accessing the education they need to begin building a new life. By eliminating criminal history disclosure requirements on college applications, colleges and universities can actually help end mass incarceration and reduce recidivism across the United States.

Nationally nearly 44 percent of people who have reentered society from prison are likely to return to prison within three years of release, but when they are enrolled and engaged in education, those numbers plummet. Only 13.7 percent of formerly incarcerated people enrolled in an associate degree program return to prison within three years, and the more they study, the lower those numbers get; 5.6 percent for baccalaureate students and 1 percent for master’s candidates.

While in the past, advocacy efforts have focused primarily on reinstating eligibility for financial assistance such as federal Pell grants and New York’s Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) grants, which were denied to incarcerated students starting in 1994 as part of misguided “tough on crime” policies; there are several other obstacles college and university administrations could alleviate through changes to the application and admissions process.

One such challenge is the check box on college applications that requires applicants to disclose their criminal history. A 2010 study by the Center for Community Alternatives, a lead organization of the Education from the Inside Out Coalition, found that of 273 higher education institutions, 66% reported that they collect information about applicants’ criminal justice history, while only 40% of those schools trained staff on how to interpret those results.

Further, a separate study looking into the box across the State University of New York (SUNY) system showed that 2 out of every 3 applicants who checked the box, never completed their application; likely due either to a fear of stigma or to complicated, and sometimes impossible sets of supplemental requirements ranging from rap sheets, letters from correctional officers, parole boards, etc. This means that for every student rejected by SUNY admissions committees because of a felony conviction, 15 do not complete their applications due to attrition.

Currently, criminal justice policy makers and thought leaders are examining the racial disparities in both our criminal justice system and the ways laws are enforced. Because of this, education policies that create additional barriers for those with criminal records disproportionately and unjustly impact people of color.

So what can college administrators do?

First and foremost: Ban the box. Removing from college applications the requirement to disclose one’s criminal record gives these applicants a fairer shot at being considered for admission based on their academic merit and other skills. Secondly, requiring a letter from a corrections officer or requiring that an applicant participate in a community supervision program inserts college administrators into the criminal justice system where they don’t belong.

Education is the surest way to keep someone out of prison; which is why the Education from the Inside Out Coalition urges state legislators to pass the Fair Access To Education Act (S969/A3363) in New York, which would ban the box in college admissions for private and public institutions throughout the state.

However this is not the job of legislators alone, it is critical in the meantime, that college administrators acknowledge the many ways we can work within our institutions to remove barriers to higher education for those who need it most. Let’s make this dream of equal opportunity, safer streets and smarter citizens a reality and in doing so, strengthen the diverse experiences and backgrounds of our student bodies.

The Huffington Post, The True Way to Reform is to Educate: Reinstate Pell for Incarcerated Students

Criminal Justice Reform has been on the minds and tongues of many this year, making what was once seen as a controversial subject become a more common talking point on both sides of the aisle. Politicians like Hillary Clinton, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Conservative Senator Rand Paul and even Oscar winner John Legend are using their voices to call for change in a broken system.

While important movements like the Black Lives Matter campaign continue to keep criminal justice reform in the forefront of our minds, and on the front page of our papers, it is a new move by one congresswoman that has potential to be the real game changer.

Thursday afternoon US Representative Donna Edwards of Maryland, along with the support of five of her colleagues in the House, introduced the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, which would re-grant access to Pell grants for qualified incarcerated students across the country.

Offering Pell grants to incarcerated students is not a new idea. Up until the 1990s, incarcerated students in prison had access to Pell grants, which allowed more than 300 in-prison college programs to thrive in our country. When a “tough on crime” wave hit Washington under the Clinton administration it stopped in-prison post-secondary education programs across the country dead in their tracks. The culprit: the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which banned Pell grants to currently incarcerated individuals, and immediately crippled the once thriving in-prison college programs, diminishing them to merely 12 by 2005.

A big mistake, one even Clinton himself has recently admitted, given the myriad of data that shows in-prison education has a direct link to lowered recidivism, and lessens the stress on public services upon reentry due to the ability to qualify for better jobs. Not to mention an increase in mental health and quality of life in the process.

America has more documented incarcerated individuals than any other country in the world. Forty percent of which are released only to re-offend and end up back in prison within three years. This is largely due to the fact that few programs exist in prisons that properly prepare incarcerated citizens to face the challenges of life on the outside.

As a nation, we spend roughly $68 billion a year on corrections, an estimated $39 billion of which comes directly from the taxpayer. What Representative Edwards understands, is that re-granting federal assistance to qualified incarcerated students will help reduce costs, by educating individuals, so that those involved in the criminal justice system exit with the necessary tools to set and achieve goals that will keep them out of prison and place them on a more positive path.

I see this truth everyday in the lives of the women I work with at College and Community Fellowship, a New York based nonprofit I run, which helps formerly incarcerated women enroll in and complete college and graduate school.

Time and time again I have heard professors praise students who have made the choice to go college during incarceration or post-incarceration, calling them the best in their class. I’ve watched as our women go out into the world, and see how society views a person with a criminal history record. Our students and alumnae are fully integrated into society, and ready to take back the future for themselves and their families.

Punishment does not lead to reform. If the goal is to punish, then punishment works. But the true way to reform is to educate and provide opportunity. More so, to offer a quality education, one that makes incarcerated men and women utilize critical thinking skills, which will ultimately help cut down on our prison populations across the country. Representative Edwards knows this, and if recent articles are to be believed, President Obama’s Administration does too. In addition to Edwards’ Act, it appears the Department of Education may soon announce an experimental access to Pell Grants for incarcerated individuals as well.

These are exciting times! Our nation’s leaders are finally coming to terms with the mistake of using the criminal justice system as a blunt weapon to deal with social problems. The nation is learning that our prison system must be severely reduced and that, to the extent that the prison system exists, it doesn’t have to be a dehumanizing experience; it can be a place where we help build up character, teach critical thinking skills, and encourage people to set goals for the future. Because let’s face it, if you really want people to escape poverty, addiction, crime and all the other social issues that keep them marginalized, you’ve got to create policies that support that vision. This includes equipping them with the intellectual skill-set that education brings.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-vivian-nixon/the-true-way-to-reform-is_b_7422166.html

City Limits, Do Inmates Deserve a ‘Do Over’ After Prison?

We can all think of a time when we’ve been given a second chance; it could have been from a friend, a family member, or even our boss. For me, getting a second chance to go to college helped me recover from addiction and kept me out of prison. A college education can be a powerful do-over for people coming out of prison. New York State should make it easier for more incarcerated people to turn their lives around with a degree, just like I did.

I grew up in a normal, middle class home until I fell into the wrong crowd as a teen. I started drinking and doing drugs and when my behavior became too much, my parents kicked me out but agreed to care for my young daughter.

I took on a series of low-wage jobs to support my addictions and was arrested a few times. I never served much time, until I was involved in a raid that landed me two to four years in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. I was also three weeks pregnant and my baby’s father had been killed in the raid.

Doing time while pregnant was eye-opening. I wasn’t on my own anymore. I was worried that something would happen to my son while I was pregnant and what our lives would be like when I got out.

I was determined to make things work after prison but the world outside was still a challenge. I struggled with alcohol abuse and because I’d never been to college, I lacked the skills for anything but low-wage work.

It wasn’t until I learned about the College & Community Fellowship that I got a real second chance. They helped me realize that it wasn’t my felony standing in my way – it was my lack of education. CCF helped me get the support I needed to apply to college and start improving my life.

Today, I am working towards a degree in social work from Lehman College and hope to pursue a master’s in social work after graduation. In my current job, I work with clients who suffer from mental illness, substance abuse, and other conditions to help them get the treatment they need to also have a fair shot at improving their lives.

Second chances are critical. That’s why CCF is launching the #MyDoOver Campaign this month, to allow everyone to share times they were given a second chance to succeed. My achievements so far are living proof of the power of do-overs. I’ll always be thankful that I had another shot.

While CCF’s programs helped me, there are thousands more women in prison who won’t get the same opportunity. Because of laws preventing incarcerated students from accessing federal Pell and New York State Tuition Assistance Program grants, in-prison education programs are few and far between. Without access to education and the skills and confidence it provides, even women who try their hardest can find themselves back in prison – and many do. Nationally, around two-thirds of formerly incarcerated people reoffend within three years of their release. In contrast, only two percent of women who go through CCF’s programs recidivate.

Letting people out of prison may seem like a second chance, but it’s hardly a fair shot if they don’t also have the tools to make it. It’s time we repealed barriers to in-prison education programs, so that even people who aren’t as lucky as I am have a real chance at a do-over.

www.citylimits.org/2015/11/06/do-inmates-deserve-a-do-over-after-prison/

The Hill, Education from the inside out

In 2001, I was released from prison after serving three-and-a-half years in various facilities in New York State. I was a college dropout with limited prospects. While incarcerated, I had tried to continue my education, and was even accepted into a privately funded college program, but I was transferred to a facility without educational opportunities before taking a single class. I was depressed, had low self-esteem, and was ashamed of my situation.

My experience is just one example of the devastating effect the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill has had on tens of thousands of incarcerated students. By making it unlawful to award Pell Grants to incarcerated people, funding for in-prison education was taken away from 25,000 students and programs became dependent on private donations. Incarcerated students who were eager to learn and turn their lives around could find the resources they needed for their education cut short at any moment.

Now, twenty years later, this wrong has been temporarily corrected thanks to the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice’s Experimental Sites Initiative, which will provisionally restore Pell Grant eligibility to incarcerated students. The ESI will provide grant funding to college programs that help increase access to in-prison education for students, who will undoubtedly benefit from tuition assistance and a second chance to transform their lives.
Federal Pell Grants have provided higher education for more than 60 million students across the country since 1972. At its height, Pell Grants awarded to incarcerated students made up only one-tenth of 1% of total grants awarded – making this program more cost-effective than re-incarceration. However, the 1994 Crime Bill reduced the number of in-prison education programs nationwide from 111 to just 11. Each year, only a small fraction of potential students receive these few, highly competitive seats funded by private organizations, while thousands are left without an education.

When I was released from prison, the first call I made was to my parole officer. The second was to the College and Community Fellowship, a nonprofit organization that helped me get a college education and get started on the right track. I went on to earn a bachelors degree, began my graduate studies, and eventually became the Executive Director of the same organization that turned my life around.

Sadly, my story is far from the norm, and most incarcerated people do not receive the same support I had. Often lacking education, more than two-thirds of incarcerated people are re-arrested for a new offense within three years of their release. This is bad for incarcerated people, bad for public safety, and bad for the families and communities who could use the economic contribution of hardworking members of society.

That is why JustLeadershipUSA President Glenn Martin and I co-founded the Education from the Inside Out coalition, which works to expand access to Pell Grants and other educational opportunities for incarcerated individuals. Access to education is not a privilege, but a human right. Taking Pell Grants from incarcerated students deprives an already vulnerable population the chance to develop critical thinking skills and improve their lives.

Luckily, support for sensible criminal justice reform grows each day. The Obama Administration’s ESIs will not only help track what effects education will have on incarcerated students following their release, but will inevitably prove what those of us who work with incarcerated people have always known – that postsecondary education in prison is the most successful and cost-effective method to prevent crime and increase public safety.

This move is one step of many that needs to be taken to secure lasting Pell Grant funding for incarcerated students in our country. In May, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) introduced the Restoring Education And Learning (REAL) Act to Congress, which would permanently repeal the ban on Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students. While the EIO is an important first step, passing the REAL Act will provide the long-lasting change our justice system needs.

The late Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), for whom Pell Grants are named, once said, “The strength of the US is not the gold in Ft. Knox or the weapons of mass destruction that we have, but the sum total of education and the character of people.” While the passage of the Omnibus Crime Bill weakened our criminal justice system, today we are beginning to build strength. Let’s live up to Senator Pell’s vision and ensure that incarcerated students have the resources they need to help themselves and become part of a more powerful America.

http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/education/251000-education-from-the-inside-out

The Huffington Post, Let’s Get Real: Prison Is No Place for Elitism

Two weeks ago, Congresswoman Donna Edwards (D-Maryland) introduced the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act to the floor. The REAL Act would reinstate Pell grant eligibility for currently incarcerated students. The prison education world has been abuzz with this news, and some important questions have arisen: what does this mean for already-existing prison education programs? More importantly, what does it mean for the nearly 2.3 million people in correctional facilities who might want to pursue an education?

The academic community has raised several valid concerns. As someone who has been incarcerated, I’d like to address these concerns, which I believe to be well intentioned, but ultimately misguided.

One huge concern has been that lower-quality educational programs will actively exploit incarcerated students.

By arguing that incarcerated students will be treated unfairly if Pell grants return to prison, we are ignoring the broader trend of abuse, in which institutions often exploit Pell-eligible students on the outside as well. These institutions prey on poor communities and communities of color, and at College and Community Fellowship(CCF) where we support formerly incarcerated women who are in college; we’ve seen evidence of tremendous exploitation outside of prison. We can correct the broader trend of unethical practices — namely, schools that offer poor education at a high cost. These schools should not be accredited or eligible for Pell funds. By addressing the trend instead of focusing on the possibility of in-prison exploitation, we solve the problem both inside and outside of correctional facilities. The quality of education should be regulated both inside AND out to qualify for Pell funding.

The problematic issue here is the practice of dealing with in-prison students in a highly specialized way — restricting higher education access to a few elite programs further alienates those on the inside from the norms of society. Targeting corruption in prison education programs without targeting it elsewhere only serves to limit options for an already-disadvantaged population without solving any wider problems.

It’s incredibly important to pay close attention to quality education on the inside. Having been inside myself — a high school graduate stuck in a prison with no post-secondary options — I argue that any attempt to create broader access to programming would be welcomed by those who currently have no educational alternatives.

Another concern is that correctional facilities might soon be filled with low-quality educational programming, with staff ill-equipped to give the support and care that the vulnerable prison population needs.

It would be wonderful if everyone qualified for Bard Prison Initiative or other intense liberal arts programs, but we know that many will not. Those who do not qualify for a Bard-caliber program could easily do well in a less rigorous community college program. Furthermore, not everyone has an interest in the contemplative life. Some just want to learn how to be a Computer Technician or gain some other marketable skill because they feel it’s their best chance of escaping lifelong poverty.

That option should be readily available. If one of education’s main concerns is helping students forge a sense of individuality, introspection and self-determination, then the choice to limit educational programs in prison as an attempt to “do what’s best for them” proves antithetical to our ultimate goals. Just as students on the outside participate in educational programs of all levels, incarcerated students should also have a wide range of options — every program should not be exclusive. While quality must not be ignored, we should agree on what we mean by “quality” and not confuse it for elitism. I would also like to point to this article, written by a man enrolled in an educational program at Attica: another voice on the inside arguing that any expansion of such programming would be beneficial for the prison population as a whole.

A third major concern is that the Departments of Correction will play a role in these programs that will take away valuable input power from the educators themselves.

Departments of correction will definitely need technical assistance from the academic community in order to form institutional partnerships that provide quality programming of all types. Hopefully, we can form partnerships that stabilize practices and lay out clear guidelines and expectations for the relationship between correctional officers and educators.

This kind of partnership would not allow undue power to be placed in the hands of correctional officers or make the role of educators more punitive than educational. This partnership would also ensure that all participating entities are on the same page about the state of educational programs now and in the future: if that means that departments of correction make independent partnerships with colleges to run programs, and those programs respond to real gaps in need, then we should support that process by holding everyone accountable.

The introduction of this bill marks a defining moment in criminal justice reform. The practical role of education in helping those incarcerated escape the cycles of marginalization, crime and poverty is as large as its transformative ability to foster critical thought, self-reflection and a stronger sense of self for those in the classroom. When we account for the irrefutable correlation between lack of education and rates of imprisonment, we must take every opportunity we can to provide educational programming for those who need it most. That means a wide range of programs, broader financial aid eligibility and a persistent, long-term commitment to improving educational access for all.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-vivian-nixon/lets-get-real-prison-is-n_b_7468640.html