The Unfolding Penal Drama or How Pell Grant Funding for Postsecondary Correctional Education for Prisoners Was Lost

Prison EducationDrawing upon and extending Emile Durkheim’s communicative theory of penality, Joshua Page shows how popular narratives—including racialized narratives—disseminated via mass media and employed by politicians to further their own political interests were key factors in a “legislative penal drama” whose purported happy ending was to deny Pell Grant funding to prisoners.[1] In this unfolding drama, we find villains and heroes. Chief among the villains are those criminals whose social identity is more or less equated with poor, black males—those already incarcerated, as well as those deemed “on their way” by virtue of their skin color and their residing in a socially vilified space (for example, a ghetto). Conversely, the heroes are hard-working, white middle-class families, otherwise known as deserving citizens. These two categories—the legitimate, deserving (white) citizen and the illegitimate, undeserving (black) criminal—are inextricably linked. To define one is to say what the other is not and vice versa.

As the drama plays out, the division between the two poles becomes increasingly rigid. The criminal is understood as being so utterly unlike the citizen that the former no longer deserves full citizenship or basic rights and liberties (even after serving his time). Given this dualistic framework, federal funding for the postsecondary education of inmates can only be seen as outrageous, an affront to the hardworking citizen struggling to send his son or daughter to college. Thus, an overly simplistic zero-sum game is pictured in which federal dollars granted to inmates for postsecondary education translates into dollars taken from qualified citizens on the other side of the prison walls. As Page observes, by framing Pell Grant funding in facile either/or terms and presenting the issue as battle between honorable, working class families and dishonorable, undeserving criminals, lawmakers not only “presented a clear-cut choice to their colleagues” but also obfuscated the social, political, penological, and economic consequences of denying Pell grants and thus funding for postsecondary correctional education (PSCE) to prisoners.[2]

Even though multiple studies have shown that PSCE significantly reduces recidivism and promotes carceral order, President Clinton eventually signed the Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (1994), “which, among other things, prohibited all prisoners from receiving Pell Grants.”[3] In order to illustrate the role that both the media and elected officials played in the vilification of inmates, I highlight selections from Page’s excellent study. Following Dr. James Gilligan’s Erikson Lectures at Harvard University in 1991 in which he drew attention to the high success rate of PSCE in Massachusetts’ prisons, namely, over a 25 year period, 100 percent of those who had earned a college degree while in prison successfully reintegrated back into society and were not re-incarcerated.[4] What should have been encouraging news was seen by certain public officials as a direct attack on hardworking middle-class families unable to afford a college education for their children. Republican Governor William Weld (MA) held a press conference in which he expressed a line of thought that would recur often in debates over PSCE. In brief, Weld’s claim was that we must put an end to PSCE because if we fail to do so, those who cannot afford a college education will intentionally break the law in order to obtain a free college education in prison. On May 5, 1991 Weld was featured on a special segment of 60 Minutes, entitled “Prison U.”[5] This media opportunity allowed Weld and those sharing his sentiments to promulgate an overly negative view of PSCE and inmates while simultaneously assuring white middle-class voters on whose side he and his colleagues stood.

Four months after “Prison U.” aired on national television, Republican Senator Jesse Helms (NC) “introduced an amendment to an appropriations bill, which called for the denial of Pell Grants—the main source of funding for PSCE in the USA—to all state and federal prisoners.”[6] The Senate passed the proposal with relative ease. Then after a series of modifications and back and forth legislative exchanges, Helms’s amendment eventually became part of the Higher Education Act (1992). Two other representatives, Republican Thomas Coleman (MO) and Democrat Bart Gordon (TN) entered the picture in order to push Helms’s proposal forward. The Coleman-Gordon measure had no trouble passing either (351–69); however, due to differences between the House and Senate versions of the legislation, the participants voted, agreeing that only those inmates “condemned to death or serving life sentences” would be denied Pell Grants.[7]

The following year, 1993, Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (TX) took up the torch and advocated for the denial of Pell Grants for all prisoners. Hutchinson’s Senate Amendment 1158 was passed and was then presented to the House for final approval.[8] Once again the media was utilized and played a key role in shaping and sorting the good, deserving students from the bad, undeserving prisoner students.[9] On April 19, 1994, NBC’s Dateline aired a show entitled “Society’s debt?” The show presented stories of hardworking students struggling to pay for college while simultaneously working long hours to cover their tuition costs. In addition to these accounts, crime victims voiced their outrage over “rewarding” criminals with a free college degree for committing horrible crimes such as murder. The show was a success, as it galvanized popular collective sentiments of particular (white) middle and upper class audiences. The division between “us” (the deserving) and “them” (the undeserving) was reinforced and publicly affirmed, allowing politicians across bipartisan boundaries to eventually pass the Gordon-Fields-Holden amendment denying Pell Grants to all convicted felons.[10]


[1] Joshua Page, “Eliminating the Enemy: the import of denying prisoners access to higher education in Clinton’s America,” Punishment & Society 6 (2004), pp. 357–378.

[2] Page, “Eliminating the Enemy,” p. 369. Although in the Senate few raised their voices against the proposals presented between 1991–1993, resistance was offered in the House. For example, members of the Black Caucus presented six solid arguments for retaining Pell Grant funding for prisoners. Their objections to the amendments included the fact that educating prisoners reduces recidivism and is thus a sound economic investment. Likewise, educated prisoners will more easily integrate and contribute to society when released; consequently, educating prisoners helps to create a safer society (see, ibid., 366–68).

[3] Ibid., 359.

[4] Ibid., 357–58.

[5] Ibid., 358.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., pp. 358-59.

[9] Ibid., p. 359.

[10] Ibid. Sadly, reasonable counterproposals to the legislation by Democratic Representative Albert Wynn (MA) as well as “opposition from Attorney General Janet Reno, the Clinton Administration, the North American Association of Wardens and Superintendents, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the American Correctional Association, the Association of State Correctional Administrators, every major educational organization in the nation and numerous civil rights organization” fell on deaf ears (ibid., p. 359).

John Dominic Crossan on “The Challenge of Christmas” or God’s Kingdom is a Kingdom of Peace, Not Violence

Below is an apropos, thought-provoking (and lengthy) excerpt from a Christmas reflection by John Dominic Crossan, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at DePaul University.  You may access the article in its entirety here. I also highly recommend, “More Parables for Our Times: Not Your Grandmother’s Prince of Peace,” by Rev. James Martin, S.J.

Artwork by Fr. Gabriel Chavez de la Mora, O.S.B., of Tepeyac Abbey, MexicoArtwork by Fr. Gabriel Chavez de la Mora, O.S.B., of Tepeyac Abbey, Mexico
Artwork by Fr. Gabriel Chavez de la Mora, O.S.B., of Tepeyac Abbey, Mexico

“When Jesus is born in Bethlehem–ancestral city of David, the once and future king of Israel–an angel tells shepherds that, ‘I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord’ (2:11-12).

Angels direct, as it were the narrative traffic of both [Luke and Matthew] those infancy stories but there is one very special case of angelic intervention found only in Luke. This involves not just a single angel but the entire heavenly choir who descend to earth and chant in the reversed parallelism of typical biblical poetry: ‘Glory to God / in the highest heaven / and on earth peace /among those of [God’s] favor’ (2:14). But, since this is poetic parallelism, divine glory in heaven is human peace on earth. Not either, but both, or neither.

A lovely couplet of hymnic hope, to be sure, but where is the challenge of that first Christmas vision? To find it watch the titles already given to Jesus and to Caesar. Jesus was proclaimed as ‘Son of God,’ ‘Savior of the World,’ and ‘Messiah/Christ (1:32; 2:11). In between those titles appears the name of ‘Caesar Augustus’ (2:1). But, before Jesus the Christ was ever conceived, Caesar the Augustus had been already proclaimed by Roman imperial theology as ‘Son of God,’ ‘Savior of the World’ and ‘Imperator/Autocrator.’ Also, the vaunted Pax Romana was already incarnated and embodied in Caesar himself by the consecration of a magnificent Ara Pacis Augustae, the Altar–not just of Roman–but of Augustan Peace at Rome.

Granted Luke’s Roman matrix for this Jewish child, what precisely was the difference between those identical titles and identical proclamations of ‘Peace on Earth’? If the Roman Augustus had already established peace on earth, what was left for the Jewish Jesus to accomplish? How was the presence of Roman imperial peace different from that promise of Jewish messianic peace–on this one and only earth?

The difference was not in the that of peace but in its how, not in the purpose and intention of peace but in the mode and method of its accomplishment. For Rome, as you can see clearly on the beautiful bas-reliefs of that above-mentioned Altar of Augustan Peace, the mode and method was: religion, war, victory, peace. Rome believed, as did every empire from the Assyrian to the American, that the future of civilization demanded peace through victory. But the messianic vision of the Jewish Jesus proclaimed a different program: religion, non-violence, justice, peace. Its mantra was peace through justice. Or, as Jesus told Pilate in John’s powerful parable: God’s Kingdom, as distinct from Rome’s Kingdom, precludes violence–not even to liberate himself from imperial power (18:36).

Victory’s violence establishes not peace but lull–until the next and always more violent round of war. The Christian challenge of Christmas is this: justice is what happens when all receive a fair share of God’s world and only such distributive justice can establish peace on earth. But how can we ever agree on what is fair for all? Hint: ask what is fair–in first or 21st century–of the 99 percent of earth’s people and not of the 1 percent.”

Our Rachels Are Weeping, Our School Children and Teachers Are Slain, and “They” Say It’s Not the Time to Talk About Guns

Gun Control and Message from the GraveThis post is dedicated to the memory of the twenty precious children at Sandy Hook Elementary whose lives tragically, unexpectedly, and senselessly were taken from them—as well as from their families and friends—and the six brave women who selflessly gave their lives to save as many children as possible.

Charlotte Bacon, female (6 years old)
Daniel Barden, male (7 years old)
Rachel Davino, female (29 years old)
Olivia Engel, female (6 years old)
Josephine Gay, female (7 years old)
Ana M. Marquez-Greene, female (6 years old)
Dylan Hockley, male (6 years old)
Dawn Hocksprung, female (47 years old)
Madeleine F. Hsu, female (6 years old)
Catherine V. Hubbard, female (6 years old)
Chase Kowalski, male (7 years old)
Jesse Lewis, male (6 years old)
James Mattioli, male (6 years old)
Grace McDonnell female (7 years old)
Anne Marie Murphy, female (52 years old)
Emilie Parker, female (6 years old)
Jack Pinto, male (6 years old)
Noah Pozner, male (6 years old)
Caroline Previdi, female (6 years old)
Jessica Rekos, female (6 years old)
Avielle Richman, female (6 years old)
Lauren Russeau, female (30 years old)
Mary Sherlach, female (56 years old)
Victoria Soto, female (27 years old)
Benjamin Wheeler, male (6 years old)
Allison N. Wyatt, female (6 years old)[1]

I won’t repeat the details of Friday morning’s massacre, as you are likely quite familiar with the news by now. Nor will I present arguments for stricter gun laws (which I in fact support). Rather, I ask you to try to put yourself in the place of those who have lost loved ones.  Imagine what it must have been like for the parents of those twenty children—those six to seven year olds—who were shot Friday morning, reports say, at close range and multiple times.  It began like any other morning. I’m sure that many were rushing around trying to get their children dressed, fed, and in the car in order to make it school on time. All of us who are parents know how hectic it can be in the morning before school. Perhaps there was an argument over what could or could not be worn that day. Or even if things went relatively smoothly, the opportunity to say all those things that a parent wants to say, that a parent feels every day and multiple times a day when thinking of his or her child—those opportunities are gone, forever gone in a matter of hours. Imagine too hearing the news that a shooting has occurred at your child’s school. You hear the report; you drop everything, rush out of your house, get into your car and drive as fast as you can to the school, hoping that your child has somehow been survived.  You wait. You see police officers, neighbors, and other parents, crying, screaming, anxious, numb. Some fortunate parents have been reunited with their children, but you are still waiting. You begin to doubt as the hours go by and your child hasn’t come out. Then finally along with twenty other parents, you are told that your child didn’t make it.

As a parent, I simply cannot imagine the pain, the loss, the anger, the despair that these parents are experiencing and will experience in the days, months, and years to come.

Public officials, such as Jay Carney, claim that now is not the time to talk about gun control. No, Mr. Carney, I disagree. Would it be time to talk if one of the victims had been your child, your mother, your wife? As Alex Koppleman at the New Yorker writes, “Carney’s response was a predictable one. This is the way that we deal with such incidents in the U.S.—we acknowledge them; we are briefly shocked by them; then we term it impolite to discuss their implications, and to argue about them. At some point, we will have to stop putting it off, stop pretending that doing so is the proper, respectful thing. It’s not either. It’s cowardice.” Where are the public officials who are willing to take the hit, put the platitudes and promises aside and follow through with new, more restrictive legislation?

As a Christian, I am praying and will continue to pray for the families who have lost loved ones. But I will also act in other ways (even if they seem infinitely small), and I encourage you to do so as well. The time to talk about gun control and our culture of violence is now. Now is the time to act. Now is the time to call your elected officials, congresspersons, representatives. Now is the time to protest, to petition (or here), to speak out against our lax gun laws, policies, and protocols that make it so easy to obtain weapons completely unnecessary for civilian life. How many more lives must be lost before we enact change? How many children must perish? How many parents must pick up the pieces of their shattered lives after having lost their children? What will it take to change our hearts and minds about the needless, rampant gun violence in our country? Will it taking losing your children or mine? Are not these children and these children and these children our children, our brothers, our sisters? Awaken us, Lord, to Rachel’s weeping; take away our deafness and make us hear her wailing. Then move us to action so that concrete steps might be taken and legislation passed to end or at least drastically reduce this violence.

“Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more”
(Jeremiah 31.15)




[1] This list was taken from a post, which can be accessed here. The gunman’s mother is also said to have been among the victims. However, at present I do not have her information.