Cutting prison Pell Grants would be a crime

June 24, 1994|By Glenn Walker Moomau

Both houses of Congress have agreed in their respective versions of the Omnibus Crime Bill to eliminate Pell Grants for prison inmates taking college courses. Congress' stance is a thoughtless one. To cut federal education grants in a bill that purports to fight crime undermines the objective.

I teach freshman English in Essex Community College's prison program at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup, a medium-security prison where some 156 student-inmates are enrolled in college programs out of a prison population of 1,400. Some 75 percent of the inmates lack a high school diploma, and many are functionally illiterate.

Without Pell Grants to pay for student tuition and books, our two-year degree program most likely will shut down. That would leave the state's general equivalency diploma program as the only real rehabilitation service at the overcrowded prison, known by staff and inmates as "The Cut."

The prison is a dreary place surrounded by sprawling truck and rail warehouses and lacking in meaningful activity for most of its inmates. In such a place, education becomes an attractive alternative.

NB But, more important to the taxpaying public, studies show that

such programs make a difference in inmates' lives once they are freed. There's a recidivism rate of less than 30 percent for those who get college degrees before leaving prison and up to 65 percent for thosewho don't, according to studies cited during the House debate on April 20.

Also, set the Pell Grant's modest price of $1,300 per student per year against the "warehousing" cost for that inmate of $30,000, and it it is clear that the Pell Grant might save money by reducing the number of repeat offenders.

One of the chief arguments against inmate Pell Grants is that every grant received by an inmate-student means one that doesn't go to a nonincarcerated student. However, only $35 million of the $6.3 billion Pell Grant program goes to inmates, according to the Correctional Education Association. That means inmates use only one-half of 1 percent of the available Pell money. Also, so that this money isn't wasted on those who will never return to society, inmates serving life sentences without parole and inmates on death row cannot receive Pell Grants.

In a draft of a letter to President Clinton, inmate-student Clifton T. Footes Jr. writes about what will fill the vacuum left by the prison's college programs should it end: "What society fails to comprehend is that prison is a college within itself, and ignorance needs no textbooks or formal teachers to promote criminal mentality."

Inmate-student John Sipes says: "Without college, I would be entering the city streets with no job skills, and having served 10 years in prison for narcotics violations, I would be at a loss. I feel I can do things on my own for the first time . . . I have gained self-respect."

I hope that while the Omnibus Crime Bill sits in House-Senate conference, more rational heads will prevail and restore the small, but successful inmate Pell program.

Glenn Walker Moomau teaches English at Goucher and Essex Community colleges.

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