Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Raising Pell: How Industry Support and Federal Grants Improve Prison Education

Buried in last month’s stimulus bill is a provision reauthorizing the use of Pell education grants for incarcerated individuals. Federal Pell Grants were prohibited for use by prisons in the infamous Clinton- era crime bill. Since that time, there has been a long, inevitable decline in the availability and use of education programs in US prisons. While politicians of all stripes voice support for bail, sentencing and prison reform, it may be that reviving education policies and practices would benefit and improve the prospects of those incarcerated in US prisons the most. In a widely referenced report by the Rand Corporation, access to education and degree granting reduces recidivism by overwhelming rates. Not only that, providing education pathways to inmates improves the lives of others within the prison and family members outside the prison.

The Biden Administration has a unique opportunity to take meaningful action on education reform within prisons. Building on the significant work done by the Obama Administration, Biden’s Department of Education could position this issue as a true cross-party initiative.  And there are several areas on which they can focus.

An initiative to establish a uniform ‘school’ district across the Federal Bureau of Prisons was left stillborn in the last months of the Obama Administration and reinvigorating this initiative would enable access to standard content and tools, compatibility across the system, shared knowledge and learning. Publishers and content owners would be better positioned to offer complete programs to a much larger ‘market’ and thus would be more willing to produce specific products where required. The same could be true of technology providers, more inclined to provide equipment matching the specific requirements of the prison environment.

In turn, if content and solutions are even loosely standardized, then data collection becomes more meaningful and useful. While the Rand report has been influential, there is a dearth of comprehensive information about the access to, as well as the delivery and efficacy of, in-prison education programs. Collection of data across the prison system should be required so that continuous improvements can be made leading to improved results. The Department of Education should also fund broad-based (open access) research to encourage further advancements across the community.

As a publishing industry executive, I’d like to see more supportive initiatives from publishers and libraries. I believe all publishers are willing to provide both print and digital products to aid in advancing education options for incarcerated people. As a past board member, I would like to see the Association of American Publishers (AAP) take a leadership role in advancing the use of up-to-date materials in US prisons. AAP has ventured into public service advocacy in the past and supporting this initiative in the context of general prison reform could prove highly beneficial to all parties. Similarly, I’d like to see the American Library Association (ALA) step up their activities to foster broader access to research materials, professional development tools and advocacy which would further engage prison administrators, educators and incarcerated students. Given the direct relationship between improving the education qualifications of those prisoners and declining recidivism and better life choices, there would be few initiatives more powerful for their members to get behind.

Targeted data analysis can help identify incentives to modify behavior as well as reward good performers. Where education programs are available, many prisoners are self-motivated to take advantage of them, and incentive programs directed at prison administrators and policy makers could lead to greater availability of educational opportunities. Redirecting budget money, creating reward structures around specific outcomes, and other policy and procedural changes will create a better environment for the delivery of meaningful education programs in our prisons.

The Obama Administration recognized that a coordinated and organized approach from the Department of Education and Bureau of Prisons would improve prison education programs. In the years since, quality education programs – where they exist – remain concentrated and reach less than 10% of incarcerated individuals. Allowing Pell Grants to be used by this population is an important step; however, if educational programs are a hodge-podge of well-intentioned but uncoordinated initiatives, they will only ever be partially successful (if success means delivering an efficacious education program to all who seek it).

Obviously, reducing the number of those imprisoned is a primary goal of prison reform. But to those already in prison, let’s extend a duty of care to those who seek a better life through education. This is an opportunity ready for the taking and I hope the Biden Administration does so.


Michael Cairns served on the board of the Association of American Publishers and has served as President and CEO of several library services and education and information publishing companies. He is currently a consultant and board advisor to global publishing companies.

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