The graduates lined up, brushing off their gowns and adjusting classmates’ tassels and stoles. As the graduation march played, the 85 men heard hoots and cheers from their families. They marched to the stage – one surrounded by barbed wire fence and constructed by fellow prisoners because these were no ordinary graduates.
Thousands of prisoners around the U.S. get their college degrees behind bars, most of them paid for by the federal Pell Grant program, which offers the neediest undergraduates tuition aid that they don’t have to repay.
That program will expand exponentially next month, giving about 30,000 more students behind bars some $130 million in financial aid per year, reports the Associated Press. The new rules, which overturn a 1994 ban on Pell Grants for prisoners, begin to address decades of policy during the “tough on crime” 1970s-2000 that brought about mass incarceration and stark racial disparities in the 1.9 million prison population.
For prisoners who get their degrees, including those at Folsom State Prison who got grants during an experimental period that started in 2016, it can be the difference between walking free with a life ahead and ending up back behind bars.
Finding a job is difficult with a criminal conviction, and a college degree is an advantage former prisoners desperately need. Gerald Massey, one of 11 Folsom students graduating with a degree from the California State University at Sacramento, has served nine years of a 15-to-life sentence for a drunken driving incident that killed his close friend. It costs $106,000 per year to incarcerate one adult in California.
It costs about $20,000 to educate a prisoner with a bachelor’s degree program through the Transforming Outcomes Project at Sacramento State (TOPSS.) If a prisoner paroles with a degree, never reoffends, gets a job earning a good salary and pays taxes, then the expansion of prison education shouldn’t be a hard sell, said David Zuckerman, the project’s interim director.
Studies have shown that taking any kind of courses behind bas results in a 43% less likelihood that a former prisoner will commit more crime and return to prison. Advocates also say college and other rehabilitative programming improve safety in the prisons for staff and the incarcerated population, reducing the number of violent incidents.