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Home arrow Law arrow The Voluntary Sector in Prisons: Encouraging Personal and Institutional Change

Post-secondary Prison Education

In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (1994), which eliminated prisoners’ access to Pell Grants.1 Pell Grants help college and university students afford post-secondary education. The elimination of this funding shaped prisoner access to post-secondary education. There were about 350 established college or university prison education programs leading up to the 1994 decision and now only 12 remain (Murphy, 2014). Not all post-secondary education was in the form of structured programs, as much of the educational programming was in the form of a course being offered here and there. However, all post-secondary education in prison, whether formal or informal, took an immediate and indisputable hit with this ruling. In the last year of Pell Grant eligibility for the incarcerated, about four-fifths of state correctional systems offered post-secondary prison education, but just 3 years later only about half offered the same options (Tewksbury, Erickson, & Taylor, 2000). Prison administrators were left scrambling to find ways to maintain post-secondary prison education programming because the cost was now out of reach for many inmates.

Despite the change in Pell Grant eligibility, a number of initiatives continue to make post-secondary education possible in prisons. One of the most famous is the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI). The BPI, started in 1999, offers degree-granting programs to inmates in six prisons in New York State. As of 2013, 300 inmates had received degrees with a total enrollment of 700.[1] [2] One aspect unique to the BPI is that they offer enough courses for students in the prisons to earn an associate or bachelor’s degree in liberal arts, while most post-secondary programs focus on a technical or applied degree. Since the development of the BPI, the Consortium for the Liberal Arts in Prisons initiated similar liberal arts programs in colleges across the country.

Another well-known post-secondary prison education program is the grassroots Inside-Out International Exchange Program.[3] Founded in 1997, the Inside-Out program trains college and university instructors to run post-secondary courses inside prison walls to a combination of incarcerated “inside” students and college “outside” students. The program is notable in that it facilitates interactions between those on the inside with those on the outside of prison, which Davis et al. (2014) found to be beneficial post-release.

The Prison Education Project (PEP) is another model prison volunteer program. According to the website, “the overarching philosophy of PEP is to use resources, for example, university student and faculty volunteers, in the backyard of each of California’s prisons to make change. There is a college within a 25-mile radius of the majority of the state’s 35 prisons.”[4] The Prison University Project[5] at San Quentin State Prison in California is significant in that it emerged after the elimination of Pell Grants for prisoners,[6] it offers college prep and associate of arts degrees, and it actively recruits volunteer instructors, teaching assistants, and tutors. Despite the Pell Grant ruling, some successful higher education prison education programs have clearly emerged and persisted.

Individuals who teach within these types of post-secondary education programs are typically defined as volunteers as they are not paid employees of the prison. As these programs rely quite heavily on volunteers, it is important to better understand their experiences. Ideally the programs want trained volunteers to return for the sustainability of the program as well as to maintain and increase the quality of the programming offered. However, little is known about the institutional factors that retain, promote, and encourage sustained volunteerism.

  • [1] “The Federal Pell Grant Program provides need-based grants to low-income undergraduate and certain post-baccalaureate students to promote access to post-secondary education.Students may use their grants at any one of approximately 5400 participating post-secondaryinstitutions. Grant amounts are dependent on: the student’s expected family contribution(EFC) (see below); the cost of attendance (as determined by the institution); the student’senrollment status (full-time or part-time); and whether the student attends for a full academic year or less” (
  • [2]
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  • [4]
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  • [6] At the date of this publication, President Obama has introduced legislation that wouldprovide a limited number of prisoners the opportunity to use Pell Grants at a select group ofcolleges and universities (Anderson, 2015).
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