Pace was transferred to a different prison in 1997, where courses from Villanova were available. At first, he was only able to audit classes. “I guess that they was trying to determine who’s serious, who’s not,” he said. “But once I took a couple of audit classes, then they started giving me credit.” The process was extremely slow; Pace took 13 years to graduate. But when he was released, in 2017, he said, he felt far more ready than he otherwise would have been to step back into the world.
In 2015, the Obama administration announced a pilot program known as “Second Chance Pell,” an initial effort to make amends for the damage wrought in 1994. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, over the course of its first three years, the program reached more than 17,000 students in 28 states, who earned 4,500 certificates, postsecondary diplomas, associate’s degrees, and bachelor’s degrees.
Research has begun to identify some of the benefits of providing access to education in prison. Such programs can reduce violence inside prisons, as well as recidivism rates. Among incarcerated people who earned a GED, recidivism rates within three years decreased 14 percent for those under 21, and 5 percent for those over 21. But when people took college-level courses, there was an even stronger correlation: a 46 percent lower rate of recidivism compared with those who did not.
Read: Bringing the Pell grant back to prisons
“The cost-benefit of this does not take a math genius to figure out,” then–Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said when the pilot program was announced. “We lock folks up here, $35-40,000 every single year. A Pell Grant is less than $6,000 each year.”
Duncan is correct, of course, but what I found in my research and in my time teaching in prisons was that the benefits of education in prison are far greater than what can be captured in financial figures. Classes inside prison give people a sense of community, a sense of purpose, a sense of identity, and a sense of hope. These are not the sorts of things that are easily quantifiable, or entered into a spreadsheet that can be presented to policy makers, but they play a profound role in shaping both the time people spend in prison and their life after being released.
A lot of incarcerated people have an acute sense of the possibilities that education offers them while they are incarcerated. That gives many with long-term or life sentences hope that educational attainment, along with good behavior, might lead to a lessening of their sentence and a chance of going home. As another one of the men I interviewed told me, “You always had the feeling that, the more you learn, the more you stay outta trouble; the more you educate yourself, the greater your chances of actually becoming free.”
Pell Grants being taken away was part of a larger effort during the tough-on-crime era in which many states made incarcerated people pay for services and programs themselves. “They would find a way to get money from incarcerated people rather than giving money,” Pace told me. “We were in that particular period of time where they were just stripping things away. Pell Grants are one of those things. So you got a large population competing for the little resources that are available.”