Inmates get a ‘second chance’ at federal grants for higher ed under experimental program

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GWEN IFILL: Next, we continue with our Rethinking College series.

Hari returns now with a report on whether taxpayers should cover college tuition for convicted criminals.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Jermaine Isaac (ph) killed a man when he was 15. He’s been in prison for second-degree murder 11 years. During his punishment, he is trying to make something better of himself. For the past two years, he has been attending college behind bars.

JERMAINE ISAAC, Student, Goucher Prison Education Partnership: Going to college gave me tools. It’s taught me patience. It’s taught me hard work. It taught me that more things are possible.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Isaac is one of 100 Maryland prisoners studying for a degree as part of a partnership with Goucher College, a private liberal arts school in Baltimore.

Goucher provides the professors and pays for the education with private donations.

Amy Roza directs the Goucher Prison Partnership.

AMY ROZA, Director, Goucher Prison Education Partnership: We have a chance to change the way we do criminal justice in the United States, if we invest in the root causes of what brings people to prison.

HARI SREENIVASAN: When Jermaine Isaac came to the Maryland correctional institution in Jessup, he could barely read.

JERMAINE ISAAC: College was never in a realm for me. It was never in sight.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, with a GED and 16 college credits, Isaac feels he’s getting a second chance. In January, he will be released.

There’s going to be people watching, thinking, why are we giving a guy who took somebody else’s life an opportunity and an education? Shouldn’t he be punished in prison?

JERMAINE ISAAC: We are the people who are coming back into society. Whether they like it or not, we’re coming back to society. And we’re trying to come back prepared to be citizens, and give back to where we took from.

HARI SREENIVASAN: This summer, the Obama administration said it will extend that second chance to 12,000 inmates across the country. As a pilot project, the Department of Education will partner with 67 colleges, including Goucher, to provide higher education to prisoners who can’t afford it.

Called Second Chance Pell Pilot, eligible inmates will be able to apply for federal grants.

Education Secretary John King:

JOHN KING, Secretary of Education: Students who have the opportunity to pursue education while they’re incarcerated are dramatically less likely to return to prison, 42 percent reduction in recidivism from students just having exposure to education; 98 percent of the folks who earn a bachelor’s degree don’t end up back in prison.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Advocates for college in prison say those statistics can break the link between poverty and crime.

AMY ROZA: We see huge changes in lifetime earnings, $8,000 more a year for a student who has access to some college, $22,000 more a year for a student who has access to a bachelor’s degree. All of those impacts have a deep impact on children. And more than half the people we incarcerate in the U.S. are parents of school-age children.

BRAD STODDARD, Professor, Goucher Prison Education Partnership: This case was a consolidation of two cases.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But is the education that these prisoners receive comparable to college courses on the outside? Professor Brad Stoddard teaches religion and social reform for the Goucher Prison Education Partnership.

BRAD STODDARD: It is the exact same curriculum that I do for my general population students. We use the same reading material. We use the same primary sources, the same secondary sources.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Until the mid-’90s, inmates of state and federal prisons were allowed to apply for Pell Grants, money offered to any low-income college student in the nation. But as part of the 1994 crime bill, Congress took away grant money for the incarcerated.

Critics of Second Chance Pell Grants say the Department of Education is now overstepping its authority.

Congressman Chris Collins:

REP. CHRIS COLLINS (R-N.Y.): There is a law on the books that there is no ambiguity in. Pell Grants shall not be allowed for prisoners, period, end of discussion.

HARI SREENIVASAN: By designating the program an experiment, education officials say they can access the money and help prisoners get jobs upon release.

JOHN KING: We need them to come back prepared to be successful. Otherwise, they will end up back in jail, which is a cost to — not only to them and their families, but to the to the country.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Collins says inmates should be trained in the trades and helped to complete a GED, but he stops short of money for college.

REP. CHRIS COLLINS: We have no surplus. There’s no extra money anywhere in the federal government. So, I do not believe our children and grandchildren should be paying off in the future with interest moneys so a criminal behind bars can take a few random college courses.

HARI SREENIVASAN: James Flood, the director of security operations for Maryland’s Department of Correctional Services, says classes do more than help the individual. They improve the environment.

JAMES FLOOD, Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services: You don’t have time to dwell on negative things. You’re working. You’re going to school and you’re studying. You’re concentrating on positive things. And so we benefit as an institution, and it makes the facility safer.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And he says other inmates view those enrolled in classes differently.

JAMES FLOOD: This is positive peer pressure, because it fuels admiration and respect.

DEVAL WALLACE, Student, Goucher Prison Education Partnership: I started college here because I needed a change, man, something positive, something productive. It was a search for achievement, something to better myself.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Deval Wallace is incarcerated for attempted murder. He will not be eligible for parole for another six years. Still, he is enrolled in Goucher classes and hopes to get a degree in psychology.

DEVAL WALLACE: It still benefits me.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How?

DEVAL WALLACE: Even though I’m not able to go out and use a degree, just being — having that knowledge and having to — I can help the next person that’s in here that might have a chance of going home, help steer him in the right direction, give him positive information.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What’s your guarantee to me that, five years from now, when I catch up with you, it’s not going to be in a room like this?

JERMAINE ISAAC: I can guarantee that because I hate prison. I can’t be here. Like, this is not a place for me. There’s no way I will return here, no way.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The Department of Education estimates 100 correctional institutions across the country will take part in the Second Chance Pell Pilot program.

In Maryland for the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Hari Sreenivasan.

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