Cedric Cal, 17, was incarcerated in Illinois for a natural life sentence. He had no chance of parole hearings and no possibility of being released. Maintaining his innocence, he knew he’d fight the conviction, and he applied to a prison-based college program. He wanted to learn everything he could to help his case and to prepare for his eventual release.
His hopes of continuing his education were dashed when the Clinton crime bill, which eliminated Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated persons, in September stopped nearly all funding for college programs in prisons.
DePaul University, along with other schools, began offering classes at Stateville Correctional Center. This was the maximum-security prison where Cal was held. The offering was rare, but with Stateville located less than 40 miles from Chicago, it’s relatively easy for instructors to reach compared to Illinois’s other 27 prisons. Cal was ineligible due to his natural life sentence.
Undeterred, he taught himself, becoming a student of history, especially Black history, by reading books from Stateville prison’s small library. The Chicago-based Chicago-based Chicago Tribune followed suit in 2011. Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project(PNAP), a prison-based art and education organization, began offering classes for those incarcerated at Stateville regardless of length of sentence. Cal felt a deep sense pride and dignity thanks to these classes and his own readings. “I can go into any room and present myself with pride and joy,” he explained in an Illinois Coalition for Higher Ed in Prison panel discussion. He was able to maintain this pride for more than 20 years as he worked to overturn his conviction.
It feels absurd to call Cal, a man imprisoned at 17 with no chance of parole, “lucky.” But compared to most incarcerated people, he’s been very fortunate to access any form of education. Only a small percentage of Illinois’ nearly 28,000 prisoners have access to higher education. According to the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison, only five of the state’s 28 prisons offer higher education programming. Education programs in prisons were also abruptly stopped after the pandemic in early 2020. Some programs were reintroduced in limited forms in 2020, mostly through correspondence on paper. Because prison technology is so limited, only a handful of programs were able offer classes via video conferencing.
Now, like many aspects of American life, prison education has rebounded — but in modified ways. As an innovation to reach people incarcerated in remote locations far from cities and universities, the pandemic necessitated distance-learning options. For the first time in nearly 30 years, prison-based college classes will soon have access to funding. The December 2020 omnibus COVID relief bill was passed by Congress. It included a reinstatement for incarcerated persons of Pell Grant eligibility. The U.S. Department of Education is currently determining what this means for prisons and colleges. Many colleges are planning to expand into prison settings with funding set to begin in 2023.
While advocates of prison education appreciate the expansion of opportunities through the Pell Grant many veteran prison educators are concerned about how this moment will determine the future direction of prison education.
Will Prison Education Quality Fall?
Rebecca Ginsberg at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Education Justice Project (EJP), which offers college programming at Danville prison, describes a sense of “foreboding about what the next chapter is going to look like.”
When her project and PNAP started offering programs at Danville Correctional Centers and Stateville Correctional Centers, respectively, there was very little educational groups going into prisons. The programs were funded by grants, donations and many hours unpaid. It was only programs that were passionate about their work that were able to pay for them. These groups are hopeful about expanded opportunities, but concerned that new programs might be more motivated by profit than by what they refer to as “liberatory education.”
“I’ve noticed new actors coming to the field with varying levels of experience and sophistication around the work,” Ginsberg told Truthout. She’s worried that programs unprepared to deal with carceral settings could reinforce the dehumanizing aspects of prison.
For example, a harmful pattern that sometimes makes its way into educational settings is “de-individualizing individuals and sending constant messages that they don’t matter, that they aren’t worth anything, that they don’t deserve high quality. That they’re rejects from society, that they have no place,” Ginsberg says. “And I think it’s very clear … that an educator can send that message. And an educational program can convey that message as well.”
Many people who were previously in prison are now free TruthoutLow-quality classes are common in prison programs, according to the people I spoke with. Pablo Mendoza was released in October 2020, having served 22 years. He described a reentry program that the warden had hired his daughter to run at Graham Correctional Facility in Hillsboro, Illinois. While Mendoza didn’t participate in the program, he said the guys who did called it “a joke.” It’s a description that he uses for most of his prison education programs, except for EJP’s. Most of them, he says, didn’t require him to apply himself and gave passing grades easily.
The expanding technological options for remote teaching, which were essential during COVID lockdowns and threaten to replace in-person teaching, are another reason to be concerned. “Before the pandemic,” says Sarah Ross, cofounder of PNAP, “there had been conversation about doing online learning, and we had insisted … that’s not a great method.” Teaching in prisons, she explains, is about much more than delivering content; it’s about showing up in solidarity with individuals who live in violent conditions.
Ginsburg echoes that sentiment, saying of the Pell Grant change, “if this had happened 10 years ago, it would be a different climate, but that’s happening right on the cusp of [prisons] having observed that it’s possible to offer programming via video….” She anticipates that many new programs will use technologies in place of in-person learning. “I think it’s unfortunate,” she says. “You owe it to yourself and to the students to get to the prison” if it is physically possible.
Pell Grant pilot program’s largest provider of prison-based education has come under fire for its tablet-based program. Critics claim Ashland University, which is a small Christian college, received more than $30,000,000 in Pell Grant funding between 2017-2021. This funding has been criticised for its poor educational outcomes and lack of support for students. An investigation into the school revealed that it was not accredited by the Department of Education. The Marshall Project cites advocates who say that quality prison-based education is “grounded in debate, dialogue, critical thinking and the arts — rather than digital educational ‘content’ produced in partnership with private corrections companies, like Ashland’s.”
How prison education lost favor among Liberals and Conservatives
Prison education has had a rocky track, with many rapid starts and stops, often driven largely by political trends. 1965’s Higher Education Act was the most significant advancement in post-secondary prison education. The act included Pell Grants for students with low incomes. Incarcerated individuals were nearly all eligible — not due to their incarceration status, but due to being poor. Programs were quickly expanded. Cathryn A. Chappell explains in the Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Foundations of EducationFrom, post-secondary correctional education was expanded 182 programs in 1973 to 350 programs in 1982.
Colleges that moved into prison education were not always as committed and prepared as they should have been. In a 1997 retrospective on prison education, prison educator and researcher Thom Gehring writes, “Many colleges and universities earned reputations for taking Pell Grants and other funding without improving their program. This author worked at a community college that viewed its Prison Education Program as a ‘cash cow.’”
During the ‘70s and ‘80s, researchers began questioning the value of programs for incarcerated people. The 1974 publication “What works? — questions and answers about prison reform,” an in-depth investigation by anthropologist Robert Martinson, came up with a simple answer: Nothing works to rehabilitate incarcerated people. This research was published by a socialist leftist and UC Berkeley-educated socialist. Martinson was quite famous. an interview in People magazineAnd a segment on “60 Minutes”In which he repeated his bizarre conclusion.
Martinson’s work was criticized by researchers, and he himself later retracted his findings. However, the doctrine of “nothing works” caught on with lawmakers. This outlook fueled a push against prison programming, especially Pell Grants for incarcerated people though the ‘80s and ‘90s until they were shut down by the 1994 crime bill.
“Prison should not be a pleasant place,” Illinois Republican State Rep. Al Salvi was quoted as saying in the Chicago Tribune1995: Echoing the sentiments of many Republicans and Democrats, “Giving them a college education and law libraries that lawyers would envy, that’s not the way to punish them…. There are people living honest lives who don’t get that.”
Pell Grants have been eliminated from prison programs for college. dropped from 350 in 1990 to only eight in 1997. Pell Grants for prisoners have been restored by advocates for over a century. A pilot program was launched by the Obama administration in 2015. Based on findings from a series of RAND Corporation studiesNow that evidence has been shown that prison education is cost-effective and reduces recidivism, there is rare bipartisan support for the topic.
An uncertain future
Negotiations were held at the U.S. Department of Education last fall to define what the Pell Grant changes are and to create guidelines that institutions must follow to run a prison education programme.
The coalition is made up of several long-standing Illinois programs. Illinois Coalition for Higher Education in Prison (ILCHEP). Members are focusing on best practices for new programs with the upcoming changes. They want to be a model for other states, and are working with similar groups from Missouri and Pennsylvania. The coalition is not yet included in the Illinois Department of Corrections’ (IDOC) planning discussions.
“Maybe some educators are at the table, but certainly not the coalition,” Sarah Ross of PNAP says. “We represent several programs that are successful and working against the odds. The department doesn’t open the door easily for us.” She says it feels like “doublespeak” from IDOC: The department wants the education programs, but at the same time makes it hard for coalition members to operate and provide input.
One main concern for educators teaching in prisons is how the U.S. Department of Education is assessing programs — measuring success based on recidivism rates and employment after release. These assessments could be used to determine which programs are eligible for Pell Grant funding. Programs that place more emphasis on recidivism or employment may be more inclined to serve students with shorter sentences. This could mean that programs will continue to ignore students like CedricX. Cal who are serving life sentences.
Cal began serving his sentence in 2009, 15 years later. The only witness to Cal’s fatal shooting was he who retracted his testimony. Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions took up his case and filed an appeal in 2011. He claimed that all his teachers signed affidavits for him, even though they were at risk of losing their jobs. They could have been expelled for supporting an incarcerated individual. Despite their efforts, the court denied Cal’s appeal.
In 2018, Cal was resentenced for the offense. Supreme Court decisionThe court ruled that natural life sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional. His sentence was reduced by 60 years and 30 years of service. After spending 28 years in prison, Cal, 45, was granted clemency from the Illinois Governor in July 2020. J.B. Pritzker, right as COVID hit Jacksonville Correctional Center where he was incarcerated.
Reentry hasn’t been easy. While Cal’s PNAP education has helped him continue fighting to clear his name, convictions are rarely overturned. Another appeal was denied in March 2021, and he’s now hoping his case will be heard by the Supreme Court. Finding work has been almost impossible. “For the first six months, I was hired and fired [from multiple jobs] because of background checks,” he says. He was able to deliver food through DoorDash and eventually got a job unloading trucks in a warehouse.
In addition to his job at the warehouse, he’s studying advanced manufacturing at Chicago’s Daley College and volunteering with the Nation of Islam’s prison reform ministry.
Cal hopes that prison education funding changes will lead to college programs in every state prison. But he’s still worried that other individuals with long or life sentences still could be left behind.