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Thousands More People in US Prisons Can Soon Go to College for Free

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Three young men in black graduation gowns walk through a prison courtyard, as a man in a blue gown looks on.
A prisoner applauds as Lambert Pabriaga, right, and Eric Pomatto, center, walk into their graduation ceremony at Folsom State Prison on Thursday, May 25, 2023. Pabriaga and Pomatto earned their bachelor's degrees in communications in prison through the Transforming Outcomes Project at Sacramento State University. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

The graduates lined up, brushing off their gowns and adjusting each others’ tassels and stoles. As the graduation march played, the 85 men appeared to hoots and cheers from their families. They marched to a stage surrounded by barbed wire fence.

For these were no ordinary graduates. Their black commencement garb almost hid the aqua and navy-blue prison uniforms they wore as they received college degrees, high school diplomas and vocational certificates earned while they served time at California’s Folsom State Prison.

Thousands of prisoners throughout the United States get their college degrees behind bars, most of them paid for by the federal Pell Grant program, which offers tuition aid to lower-income undergraduates who have persevered through challenging circumstances.

That program is about to expand exponentially next month, giving about 30,000 more students behind bars some $130 million in financial aid per year.

A solid investment

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 nation’s booming prison system that now holds nearly 2 million people behind bars.

For people in prison who get their college degrees, including those at Folsom who received grants during an experimental period that started in 2016, it can be the difference between a decent life ahead or ending up back behind bars. Finding a job is difficult with a criminal conviction, and a college degree can be an invaluable advantage.

Gerald Massey, one of 11 Folsom students graduating with a degree from the Sacramento State University, has served nine years of a 15-year-to-life sentence for a drunken driving incident that resulted in the death of his close friend.

“The last day I talked to him, he was telling me, I should go back to college,” Massey said. “So when I came into prison and I saw an opportunity to go to college, I took it.”

It costs roughly $106,000 per year to incarcerate one adult in California, and about $20,000 to have that person earn a bachelor’s degree through the Transforming Outcomes Project at Sacramento State, or TOPSS.

If a prisoner receives parole 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.

“I would say that return on investment is better than anything I’ve ever invested in,” he said.

Major policy shift

That doesn’t mean the idea is always popular. Using taxpayer money to give college aid to people who’ve broken the law — especially those convicted of violent crimes — can be controversial. When the Obama administration offered a limited number of Pell Grants to prisoners through executive action in 2015, some prominent Republicans opposed it, arguing in favor of improving the existing federal job training and reentry programs instead.

The ban on Pell Grants for prisoners caused the hundreds of college-in-prison programs that existed in the 1970s and 1980s to go almost entirely extinct by the late 1990s.

Congress voted to lift the ban in 2020, and since then, about 200 Pell-eligible college programs — like the one at Folsom — have been running in 48 states, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico. Under the coming expansion, any college can apply to use Pell Grant funding to serve incarcerated students, and, if approved, launch its own program.

Since entering the White House, President Joe Biden has strongly supported giving Pell Grants to prisoners. That’s a big turnaround — the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, championed by the former Delaware senator, was what barred prisoners from getting Pell Grants in the first place. Biden has since said that he didn’t agree with that part of the compromise legislation.

A group of men, wearing blue prison shirts, walk out of a fenced yard, past a mural of a person in a gown, that says: 'More than a number.'
From right, Jamal Lewis, Lambert Pabriaga and Sherman Dorsey — all college students in prison, majoring in communications — walk to their class at Folsom State Prison on, May 3, 2023. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had 200 students enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs this spring, and has partnered with eight universities across the state. The goal, says CDCR spokesperson Terri Hardy: transforming prisoners’ lives through education.

Aside from students dressed in prisoner blues, classes inside Folsom Prison look and feel like any college class. Instructors give incarcerated students the same assignments as they do to pupils back on campus.

‘A big accomplishment’

The students in the Folsom classes come from many different backgrounds. They are Black, white, Hispanic, young, middle aged and senior. Massey, who got his communications degree, is of South Asian heritage.

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Born in San Francisco to parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan, Massey recalls growing up feeling like an outsider. Although most people of his background are Muslim, his family members belonged to a small Christian community in Karachi.

In primary school, he was a target for bullies. He remembers, as a teen, seeking acceptance from the wrong people. When he completed high school, Massey joined the Air Force.

“After 9/11, I went in and some people thought I was a terrorist trying to infiltrate,” he said. “It really bothered me. So when I got out of the military, I didn’t want anything to do with them.”

Massey enrolled in college after one year in the military, but dropped out. Later, he became a certified nursing assistant and held the job for 10 years. He married and had two children.

More on prison education programs

But he said his addiction to alcohol and a marijuana habit knocked him off course.

“I was living like a little kid and I had my own little kids,” Massey said. “And I thought if I do the bare minimum, that’s OK.”

He said prison forced him to take responsibility for his actions. He got focused, sought rehabilitation for alcoholism and restarted his pursuit of education. He also took up barbering to make money.

On commencement day, Massey was the last of his classmates to put on his cap and gown. He was a member of the ceremony’s honor guard — his prison uniform was decorated with a white aiguillette, the ornamental braided cord denoting his military service.

“It’s a big accomplishment,” Massey said. “I feel, honestly, that God opened the doors and I just walked through them.”

At the ceremony, Massey found his mom, wife and daughter for a long-awaited celebratory embrace. He reserved the longest and tightest embrace for his 9-year-old daughter, Grace. Her small frame collapsed into his outstretched arms, as his wife, Jacq’lene, looked on.

“There’s so many different facets and things that can happen when you’re incarcerated, but this kept him focused on his goals,” Jacq’lene said. “Having the resources and the ability to participate in programs like that really helped him, but it actually helps us, too.”

“There’s the domino effect — it’s good for our kids to see that. It’s good for me to see that,” she said.

In addition to his communications degree, Massey earned degrees in theology and biblical studies. His post-release options began to materialize ahead of graduation. State commissioners have deemed him fit for parole, and he expects to be released any day. A nonprofit group that assists incarcerated military veterans met with him in May to set up transitional housing, food, clothing and health care insurance for his eventual reentry.

A Black man in a blue prison shirt sits at a table in front of a laptop in a classroom, while another man, of South Asian descent, also in a prison shirt, looks over his shoulder.
Gerald Massey, center standing, works with Sherman Dorsey in a classroom at Folsom State Prison on May 3, 2023. Many more prisoners like Massey and Dorsey will have opportunities to leave prison with bachelor’s degrees, when new federal rules on financial aid for higher education take effect in July. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

“There’s a radio station I listen to, a Christian radio station, that I’ve been thinking one day I would like to work for,” Massey said. “They are always talking about redemption stories. So I would like to share my redemption story, one day.”

Work in progress

College-in-prison programs aren’t perfect. Many prisons barely have enough room to accommodate the few educational and rehabilitation programs that already exist. Prisons will have to figure out how to make space and get the technology to help students succeed.

Racial imbalances in prison college enrollment and completion rates are also a growing concern for advocates. People of color make up a disproportionate segment of the U.S. prison population, but have been underrepresented in the college programs, compared to their white peers, according to a six-year Vera Institute of Justice study of Pell Grant experimental programs in prison.

Prisoners with a record of good behavior get preference for the rehabilitative and prison college programs. Black and Hispanic prisoners are more likely to face discipline.

“If you’re tying discipline to college access, then … those folks are not going to have as much access,” said Margaret diZerega, who directs the Vera Institute’s Unlocking Potential initiative, which is focused on expanding college programs in prison. “Let’s get them into college and set them on a different trajectory.”

It’s not yet clear if the Pell Grant expansion will grow or narrow racial disparities. The U.S. Department of Education did not respond to the AP’s inquiry on this issue before publication.

“For America to be a country of second chances, we must uphold education’s promise of a better life for people who’ve been impacted by the criminal justice system,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a written statement to the AP.

Pell Grants will “provide meaningful opportunities for redemption and rehabilitation, reduce recidivism rates, and empower incarcerated people to build brighter futures for themselves, their families, and our communities,” he said.

Redemption personified

Of the 11 men getting Bachelor’s degrees in the jubilant ceremony at Folsom Prison last month, one was no longer a prisoner.

Michael Love, who had paroled from Folsom Prison five months earlier, came back to give the valedictory speech. He wore a suit and tie underneath his cap and gown.

To his classmates, Love is a tangible example of what is possible for their own redemption journeys.

After serving more than 35 years in prison, the 55-year-old is currently enrolled in a Master’s program at Sacramento State. He’s been hired as a teaching aide and will teach freshmen communications students in the fall, and is also working as a mentor with Project Rebound, an organization that assists formerly incarcerated people.

“You have just as much value as anyone in the community,” he told the other prisoners in his speech. “You are loved. I love you, that’s why I’m here.”

A group of men of mixed ages, wearing graduation caps and gowns on top of blue prison gowns, gather in a large room.
Incarcerated graduates, who finished various educational and vocational programs in prison, wait for the start of their graduation ceremony at Folsom State Prison on May 25, 2023. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

For many of the prisoners, it was the graduation that their families never imagined they’d get to see. One 28-year-old attendee met his father in person for the first time, as his dad received a GED.

As the ceremony wrapped, Robert Nelsen, the outgoing president of Sacramento State University, choked up with tears. On the cusp of retirement, this was the last ceremony he would preside over as a university president.

“There is one final tradition and that is to move the tassel — not yet, not yet, not yet — from the right to the left,” Nelsen instructed, amid laughter from the audience and graduates.

“The left side is where your heart is,” the university president said. “When you move that tassel, you are moving education and the love of education into your heart forever.”

The ceremony was done. Many graduates joined their loved ones inside a visitation hall for slices of white and chocolate sheet cake and cups of punch.

The graduates walked back to their housing units with more than just hope for what their futures might bring. One day, they’ll walk out of the prison gates with college degrees — ones that don’t bear an asterisk revealing they earned them while in prison.

They’ll walk toward a second chance.

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