February 19, 2021

In December 2020, U.S. Congress restored Pell grants to incarcerated learners pursuing college and professional education, reversing a long-standing injustice of the 1994 Crime Bill. As an educator, I applaud this change, knowing the power of education to support a successful return to the community post-incarceration.

Previously incarcerated people are routinely denied jobs, housing, care, security, and even a voice after prison. Our society erects barriers and then blames previously incarcerated people for their lack of success (see What Are Collateral Consequences?). Education provides a hopeful pathway for navigating these barriers and taking control of one’s life.

So why are these limited opportunities for education during and post incarceration distasteful to some? I’ve heard comments such as, “Maybe I should commit a crime and get a college education.” I get the sentiment—everyone should have the right to pursue the education they desire. But who would really trade their current life for the lack of security, rights, human contact, autonomy, and dignity to get that education in prison? Perhaps, some people worry that any perception of kindness or support might signal absolution.

However, education isn’t a reward, and it certainly doesn’t make prison worthwhile. But it can rebuild hope in a place that often takes hope away.

It is possible to ask people to make restitution and still treat them with dignity. Indeed, if we treat people with dignity while expecting them to take responsibility, they likely will feel MORE personal responsibility! Why? When we show people they matter, we build meaningful connections and mutual respect.

People in prison are no different from you or me in terms of hopes, needs, and fears. Providing education acknowledges our shared humanity and that none of us is beyond redemption—including society itself. Most people in prison have been failed repeatedly by society. Poor and inequitable schools, housing, and economic opportunity—coupled with limited access to social services and mental and physical health care—take an incalculable toll on people’s abilities to live healthy lives, make productive choices, and pursue opportunity.

At EDC, we work at all levels of the system because we recognize the interconnectedness of these issues. Incarceration is not a separate issue from high-quality early childhood education, STEM education, mental health support, economic opportunity, or racial equity. While we tackle our biggest challenges, we need to take responsibility for rewriting our relationships with those we’ve let fall through the cracks. In doing so, we might find the missing partners with the knowledge, creativity, and humanity that enable us to transform our society for the better.

What benefits do you see for providing higher education to people who are incarcerated?


 As a mathematics educator, Badertscher works to tackle systemic inequalities in the teaching and learning of mathematics. She is the principal investigator of the NSF INCLUDES Alliance STEM Opportunities in Prison Settings.

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Great article. Educational opportunity, regardless of status or situation, is in my view a fundamental human right. Thank you for lending your voice to this important cause. You and other leaders such as journalist and former Princeton professor Chris Hedges (who runs a prison education program through Rutgers) are paving the way to a better future and breaking the generational cycle of disadvantage.

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