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.

4 Replies


Replying to:
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.

Replying to:
Eden Badertscher
As you say, the notion of "human right" is the critical concept! Historically, we have treated incarcerated people as less than human; the 13th amendment after all does not outlaw slavery in the instance of conviction of a crime. That needs to change as it legally conveys someone's value to less than human. There are groups like the Algebra Project that have made it a goal to have a constitutional amendment around the right to education. That we have to seek such means tells us a lot about the underlying principles that permeate our society. Humanity is imperfect and wonderful, and everyone is capable of amazing things if we lift each other up.

Replying to:
Mira Lew
I strongly agree with your point. Every person should get a chance to live with mainstream people and start afresh. Incarcerated learners should be treated better and this problem of being sidelined by society can also be solved by switching to remote learning or online schooling.

Replying to:
Eden Badertscher
Great point about online education. Unfortunately, the majority of people in prison have almost no access to technology. Worse yet, in most cases where they do, the costs of the technology are passed on to those who are incarcerated and their families, further burdening in yet another way, those very people and families who have been failed repeatedly. You are so right that remote learning could transform educational access (though it should be combined with face-to-face modalities for a variety of reasons) for those who are incarcerated, and yet, we don't as a society readily provide that. It is frustrating but connected to your point about treatment. The US is far and away the country that incarcerates the most people per capita; our system is set up to punish & control rather than rehabilitate & empower. And it feels as though we are extending this model into schools with metal detectors, school security, and the like, rather than transforming our approach. We need education advocates like you!

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