Denying Pell Grants to Prisoners: Race, Class, and the Philosophy of Mass Incarceration
As a result of the United States Congress passing the 1993 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act and the Higher Education Reauthorization Act of 1994, prisoners no longer became eligible to receive federal financial aid in the form of Pell Grants, ending a thirty year era of eligibility, (1) which had hitherto been available to qualifying low-income Americans to finance their higher education. (2) Even though only between .82 percent and 1.2 percent of all Pell Grants went to prisoners in the early 1990s, these resources were very significant for funding prisoner education. (3) "With the exclusion of prisoner-students from participating in the Pell Grant financial aid program, approximately half of the existing [Post-Secondary Correctional Education] opportunities ceased to function, with many of the remaining options undergoing reductions." (4) Now that the U.S. prisoner population has surged to over 2 million, (5) and the tremendous need for higher education opportunities in penal institutions has far outpaced the meager supply, there have been a growing number of appeals among activists, such as the Education From the Inside Out Coalition, (6) and academics, such as John Garmon, Richard Tewksbury, David John Erickson, and Jon Marc Taylor, (7) to restore Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students.
The goal of this paper is to analyze this controversy as a distinctly philosophical problem while clarifying and assessing the arguments that can be put forward to support the present policy. (8) To that end, this analysis is divided into four sections. First, this paper will examine how Pell Grants for prisoners should be understood in terms of deterrence, rehabilitation, and retribution. Second, it will explore two arguments against ending the ban. Third, it will contextualize and broaden this analysis by examining imprisonment in terms of race and class. Lastly, this paper will conclude with a critique of mass incarceration informed by the theories of Erich Fromm.
Traditional Theories of Punishment
Punishment as Deterrence
One theory maintains that punishment is justified insofar as it prevents the offender from committing offenses in the future (primary deterrence) and prevents others from becoming offenders themselves (secondary deterrence). (9) Thus one could argue that "[i]f prison is too appetizing, with free education and the like, it may no longer serve as a deterrent to crime." (10) For the vast majority of potential offenders, however, it seems unlikely that the denial of financial aid will be a decisive deterrent when they contemplate the advantages and disadvantages of committing a crime, especially when one considers the routine, and well-publicized, violence and suffering present within U.S. prisons. (11) Insofar as punishment has any deterrent effect, these features of prison life surely deter crime more than denied access to Pell Grants. It is possible but unlikely that there are some who are truly deterred by preserving the ban. If this is the case, then one should weigh the beneficial consequences that follow from preventing the crimes of a handful of individuals against the multitude of harms, including increased risk of recidivism, that are likely as a result of denying higher education grants to tens of thousands of inmates.
When considering the issue of deterrence, it is important to acknowledge that "research conducted to determine prison education's effects continues to produce mixed results and on-going academic debate," (12) and more generally, "extensive data are not available regarding the operation of the deterrent principle." (13) Even with these caveats, however, it is not difficult to imagine how deterrence works in many aspects of life, including how prison education possesses the potential to prevent future crime on the outside, (14) and encourage good behavior on the inside. (15) Another possibility is that continuing the ban possessed roughly equal deterrent value as restoring the grants. If this was true, then perhaps one should ask: Which option is the most cost effective? "Today it costs $25,000 annually to incarcerate an individual," (16) while "[u]sing the Pell Grant as a standard, it costs approximately $4,000 to $5,000 a year to deliver educational services to each inmate." (17) The savings derived from choosing to restore the grants and discouraging future incarceration could then be employed in other ways to prevent future crime, such as creating living wage jobs and improving public education in poor and working class neighborhoods, thus providing an additional, deterrence-based reason to support the repeal.
Another aspect to consider is the symbolic deterrent effect of denying the grants. This, too, is a difficult claim to assess for similar reasons, yet according to Thomas Mathiesen, the entire prison itself should be understood as "a system which is symbolic of a way of thinking about people." (18) Tom Wicker argues similarly, "[P]risons and the violence and despair they symbolize have been and are still a blot on American life and history." (19) Allowing prisoners equal access to educational opportunities create unique symbolic effects, some of which may themselves effectively deter crime. But unlike more repressive measures, progressive prison reform that protects human rights broadcasts an affirming message that all human beings, regardless of their status or class, should be respected and valued. Current and potential offenders may be indirectly influenced by and even begin imitating social institutions and practices that symbolize the fair, generous, and humane treatment of others, and thus to that extent be deterred from committing harmful or unlawful acts.
Punishment as Rehabilitation
One could argue that penal practices can be justified insofar as successful rehabilitation occurs. (20) John Irwin and James Austin point out that: "Inmates enter prison poorly educated, vocationally unskilled, and often suffering from serious physical and psychological problems. Most, particularly at the beginning of their sentences, are desirous of bettering themselves while in prison. . . . But [the] resources for change are less available in today's prisons." (21) If the need is there, then the question must be asked: Does prisoner education rehabilitate? As with deterrence, it is difficult to demonstrate conclusively that it always does; nevertheless, Tewksbury and his co-authors write that:
[The] extant research suggests that prison education programs yield significant reductions in recidivism rates. . . . [Post-Secondary Correctional Education] programming reduces recidivism through a fundamental change in the cognitive processes of the inmate-student. Higher education serves as a catalyst to the maturation process for the maladaptive offender by providing organized exposure to, and development of, a more mature sense of values, improved self-esteem, and a more pro-social worldview. . . . Positive changes in the offender's cognitive processes also lead to a more positive attitude, improved coping skills, and improved behavior. . . (22) As Mary Wright and Charles Ubah argue, (23) denying eligibility for financial aid to prisoner-students was part of a larger societal shift in correctional philosophy away from rehabilitation. One prisoner describes these changed attitudes this way: "[W]hen Congress outlawed Pell [G]rants for prisoners.... the message became clear: We don't really give a damn if you change or not." (24) From a standpoint that takes rehabilitation to be the guiding rationale for institutionalized punishment, denying Pell Grants to eligible prisoners who wish to educate themselves is an unnecessary, and perhaps even tragic, deprivation and missed opportunity. "In a place like this," observed a prisoner-student who graduated in 1990, "we don't have many opportunities for the positive application of our time, and the college program really was that?. You learn to take responsibility for your own actions." (25) Also noting the reformative effects of prisoner education, a twenty-one year old inmate asked: "Why stop me from becoming a better person?" (26) The positive, rehabilitative results of higher education also have the potential to uplift some of America's poorest communities, since most of the 600,000 adults who are returning home from U.S. prisons each year are drawn from poor and working-class neighborhoods. (27)
Punishment as Retribution
One definition of a retributivist is someone who "defends the desirability of a punitive response to the criminal by saying that the punitive reaction is the pain the criminal deserves, and that it is highly desirable to provide for an orderly, collective expression of society's natural feeling of revulsion toward and disapproval of criminal acts." (28) The issue of desert that is inherent to retributivism clearly presents the strongest philosophical and commonsensical reasons in defense of the current ban. Jeffrey Reiman articulates one problem with trying to justify retributivist arguments. (29) He argues that although rapists may deserve to be raped and torturers may deserve to be tortured, these punishments still should not be carried out. If society is not made more dangerous, then refusing to do horrible things to those who deserve them signals the level of one's civilization and advances the civilizing work of morally improving humanity. (30) An expression that is popular with prison reformers, attributed to Winston Churchill (and in a shortened form to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, as well), that "[t]he mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country," (31) captures a great deal of the meaning behind Reiman's objection.
This reasoning affects the retributivist case for denying Pell Grants to prisoners in...