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).

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