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PAP 513/413: Ethics in Public Policy: Responsibility for Racial Justice

Policy Prescription Op-Ed

Monica Wilson

Should the worst thing a person has ever done define their life chances? Should it
shape their opportunities to gain an education, obtain gainful employment and contribute
to the support of their household? For most people, the worst thing we have ever done is
but a memory that may or may not impact our behavior, but does not create lifelong
barriers to opportunities or success. Whether or not our actions resulted in a distant
memory or a constant reminder is often tied to whether or not we got caught and whether
or not our actions broke a law. The legacy of structural racism in the United States results
in a system that is more likely to not only catch black and brown folks at their worst
moment, but to prosecute and incarcerate them at disproportionate rates than white
Americans1. For those who get caught, the criminal justice system often becomes a series of
traps that is nearly impossible to escape.

In order to help maintain the freedom of offenders after release from incarceration,
state and federal policy makers must work to ensure access to affordable and relevant
education within jail and prison systems, as well as for those under state or federal
supervision. Specifically, the Department of Education should expand the availability of the
Second Chance Pell Grant program and provide adequate funding.

The Second Chance Pell Grant Program is a pilot program that created the
opportunity for up to 12,000 incarcerated individuals to apply for and receive Pell grants in
order to pursue a degree while confined, provided they are within five years of their
release date2. While there may not be widespread public support for funding education for
criminals while law-abiding citizens struggle to pay for college, a study by the RAND
corporation estimates that for every dollar invested in educational options for inmates,
four to five dollars is saved over the long term through reduced rates of recidivism3.

What if the savings from reduced recidivism could be funneled into funding for
education or other grossly underfunded social services? Considering that high school
dropouts are much more likely to be incarcerated than those who graduate, it is reasonable
to assume that a greater investment in education and social programs may keep people out
of jail in the first place4. Getting arrested and incarcerated becomes a cycle whereby
individuals are released, arrested, and incarcerated again. Policy makers have the potential

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow : Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
New York : [Jackson, Tenn.] :New Press ; Distributed by Perseus Distribution, 2010.
Davis, Lois M., Robert Bozick, Jennifer L. Steele, Jessica Saunders and Jeremy N. V. Miles.
Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education: A Meta-Analysis of Programs That
Provide Education to Incarcerated Adults. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2013.
to create a new cycle that includes education that can lead to a job upon release,
maintained freedom after release, and contribution to society and community over time.
Such stability is not only good for the individual offender, but can be a catalyst for
intergenerational change as well.

Moreover, with enhanced prospects for employment upon release, ex-offenders who
have traditionally struggled to get or keep a job are more likely to contribute to the tax
base and further improve opportunities for their communities. This is particularly true for
Black Americans, whose unemployment rate is double that of white Americans.5 We cannot
expect that prisoners will be released and not re-offend without prospects in their lives
that are greater than when they were sentenced. There is no other tool available to make
this happen that is more powerful than education.

I know firsthand the power of education. I have this understanding as a first

generation college student, but also from my time working in higher education for the last
eight and a half years. My most meaningful interactions with students have been with
inmates writing letters from prison wanting to know how to get started in college, ex-
offenders recently released from prison trying to figure out what degrees will lead to jobs
in sectors that hire felons, and folks recently released from jail looking to begin their
working toward a GED or high school diploma. While there is growing commitment on the
part of educational institutions to develop corrections programming, create re-entry
services and to provide professional development for staff in order to provide a welcoming
environment for ex-offenders that will help lead to their success, it is all for naught should
the Department of Education changes course on Second Chance Pell. Rather than double
down on tough on crime policies that have contributed to the ballooning prison population,
investment in polices that put people first, such as Second Chance Pell, are what’s needed
to improve the life chances for the most marginalized in society.