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April 17, 2017

Ashland University in Ohio is one of 67 colleges selected to participate in the Second Chance Pell pilot program. (Lydia Emmanouilidou/WGBH)

In 1978, decades before landing in prison, Wayman Washington, 57, did what many Americans do after graduating from high school: he enrolled in college.

“I was in school for about two months and I dropped out,” Washington said, shrugging then bursting into laughter when I asked what he was studying. “I was there on a scholarship – a football scholarship – and I really didn’t take it serious.”

Washington’s attitude towards his education changed after he ended up at the Richland Correctional Institution -- a medium-security prison in Mansfield, Ohio -- on drug trafficking charges in 2012. 

“Prison really makes you look at yourself,” Washington said, fidgeting with the sleeve of his navy uniform. “You know that song [by] Michael Jackson - Man in the Mirror? Well, in here it’s a real mirror and it’s a real man. And you have to really look at yourself and say ‘Why am I here?’ And once you get to that part of your life, then you can say ‘Well, how can I avoid from ever coming back here and improving my life?’”

In Washington's case, getting a college degree was the answer. 

Today, while serving out his six-year sentence, Washington is working towards a two-year Associate’s degree in General Studies from Ashland University, a private, Christian, Liberal Arts college in Ashland, Ohio – nestled halfway between Columbus and Cleveland. Washington is able to follow lectures and complete his work from prison using a specialized tablet.

Scrolling through his device -- which resembles an iPad -- Washington proudly lists the classes he’s taking during the Spring semester: Business Ethics, English Composition, and Philosophy.

“These are really good lectures,” he said. “And the good thing about the professors is you just email them and they’ll email you right back.” Even though the inmates are not permitted to access the internet, they can download course materials and submit their work and questions to their teachers -- a combination of current and retired Ashland faculty and adjunct professors -- through their tablets, using secure kiosks located inside the prison.

Washington is one of 16 inmates at this intuition earning a two-year degree while serving their prison sentence.

“This is real. [There’s] a lot of homework, a lot of studying, a lot of time invested… But it really gives us a brotherhood because we help each other out... I have guys on the block who tutor me,” Washington said, adding that he often turns to fellow inmates who were previously teachers for help with his work.

For these inmates, getting a college degree – and getting it for free – was not an option until 2016, when then-President Barack Obama’s Second Chance Pell pilot program went into effect.

Under the three-year pilot, up to 12,000 inmates set to be released within five years can use federal Pell Grants – up to $5,800 each, annually – to cover books, tuition, and other fees associated with obtaining certificates and college degrees through the 67 institutions chosen to participate in the program. The funds going to prisoners amount to less than one percent of the $30 billion Pell Grant program and, according to former Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., do not affect non-incarcerated Pell recipients.

The grants are not new; they were first introduced in 1972. At the time, they were called Basic Educational Opportunity Grants, and were issued to non-incarcerated and incarcerated students with financial need. But during the tough-on-crime era of the 1990s, prisoners were banned from using the grants under a provision of the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994.

At the time, prisoners accounted for less than one percent of the students benefiting from Pell Grants. (The year Pell funding for prisoners was banned, $34.6 million of the $5.3 billion in funding had gone to inmates.) Still, the money was crucial in sustaining the hundreds of prison programs that had been built from the ground up in decades past. Without it, the educational infrastructure inside prisons crumbled, forcing most colleges and universities to withdraw their programs from facilities due to lack of financial support. In the years that followed, the number of education programs in prisons plummeted from approximately 350 to about a dozen.

Many of the programs that survived with state and private support were largely underused, because prisoners and their families could not afford them. Eventually, some colleges – including Ashland University – were left with no choice but to cut back on the types of services they offered.

“Unfortunately we lost the [two- and four-year] degrees in that process.” said David Webb, Ashland’s Director of Correctional Programs.

The university managed to keep some programs alive through state support, and has been offering employment-related certificates to inmates since the ban of the 1990s. 

Sixteen inmates the Richland Correctional Institution in Mansfield, Ohio are using federal Pell Grants to work towards Associate’s degrees while serving out their sentences.

But with renewed funding, roughly 650 prisoners in Ohio, Louisiana, and West Virginia can now work towards Associate’s degrees. Any costs not covered by the grants get picked up by Ashland. The university is also in the process of making its Bachelor’s degree program available to prisoners.

Many of these inmates, Webb says, won’t get another chance at a college education, so working towards a tangible outcome like a degree can invoke a sense of hope and improve the climate inside institutions. Research indicates that leaving prison with a credential or degree can also improve an individual’s chances of finding a job and thriving after release.

“Even though another credential, like a certificate, can help an ex-offender get a job, the [college degree] carries even more weight in helping that ex-offender get a job,” Webb wrote in an email. “The certificate program we offer is important and beneficial to the students but being able to offer a degree program is even better.”

Despite the benefits to inmates, Webb says that the anti-prison-education rhetoric that was so intense in the 1990s is still very much alive today. Even though the pilot program doesn’t affect funds going to non-incarcerated students, Webb understands why so many are irked by the thought of putting inmates through college for free, while law-abiding citizens graduate tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

“I’ve put two [of my children] through college [and] have another one coming so I completely understand the costs involved. But we also have to look at the impact to society… because 90 percent of [inmates] are going to return to society.” (According to Bureau of Justice Statistics, “at least 95 percent of all state prisoners will be released from prison at some point; nearly 80 percent will be released to parole supervision.”)

Research indicates that prisoners are not the sole beneficiaries of an education behind bars. The communities they return to also benefit.

According to a 2013 meta-analysis by the Rand Corporation, prisoners who participated in education programs were 13 percentage points less likely to return to prison. Participating in college programs reduced the risk of recidivism even further -- by 16 percentage points. 

“What that means is that individuals who participate in college programs are half as likely as those who do not participate in any education programs to go back [to prison],” said Lois Davis, a Senior Policy Researcher for the Rand Corp., and the lead author of the 2013 study.

Davis says this means that the communities ex-offenders return to are safer. It also means big savings for taxpayers. According to the same study, every dollar invested in a prison education program will ultimately save taxpayers between $4 to $5 in re-incarceration costs.

“These are relatively low cost programs. They’re highly effective, but they're also cost effective,” Davis said. “So if we think about rehabilitative programs that help us reduce the amount of funding that we're using in corrections... education programs are a clear winner.”

Researchers and prison education advocates seem to agree.

“I think the RAND study really put to rest the question of whether or not correctional education is effective,” said Michelle Tolbert, a Senior Program Director at RTI International, who studies prison education programs that lead to post-secondary education. “So now the question really is: How do you structure a correctional education program so that it leads to the best results and is most effective for a larger number of students?”

Tolbert says there are a number of unanswered questions about post-secondary education programs inside prisons, including “what types of instructional approaches are most effective? How intense should those services be? How can we ensure that these students actually complete their coursework and earn a credential either prior to release or post-release?”

As part of an independent research project, Tolbert and her colleagues have been reaching out to some colleges and universities selected to participate in the Pell pilot. But Tolbert says the U.S. Department of Education has not attached a research component to this program, and researchers like herself are actively looking for funding opportunities to study the program and better understand the types of post-secondary programs that work best for the prison population – a population that’s grown by nearly 50 percent since the initial ban. (By some estimates, America’s state and federal prisons hold some 1.6 million people today.)

“It’s going to be a big missed opportunity not to evaluate [these Pell programs], because not only are we going to have a chance to look at different instructional models, but also what it takes to put these programs in place,” Tolbert said.

The pilot is set to expire in 2019, and there's no indication that the Trump administration will extend it -- or even allow it to run through its expiration date.

Tolbert says the end of Pell funding wouldn’t be “the end-all-be-all” for prison education programs. 

“Unfortunately, funding comes and goes,” she said, and it will ultimately be up to states to devise innovative ways to fund such programs -- as some did after the initial ban of the 1990s. “That being said," Tolbert added, "the Pell Grant is definitely a very important resource… it has a huge impact on the post-secondary education programs that are in prisons. And you can see that from the large drop-off that happened after the mid-90s.”

In the meantime, while the Second Chance Pell Pilot is still in effect, prisoners like Wayman Washington are taking advantage of the existing funds and getting their degrees.

“This really turns your life around. For me, it turned my life around,” Washington said, hesitating for a few seconds. “I don’t wanna say this the wrong way, but it’s really a good thing that I got [to Richland]. And a lot of guys on this compound will tell you [the same thing]. Because we were just heading in the wrong direction."

Next summer, at 59 years old, Washington will walk out of prison with his two-year Associate’s degree in hand. Eventually, he says, he hopes to get his Bachelor’s.

Earlier: To Help Students Get To Class, Community College Partners With Uber 

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