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).

Loïc Wacquant on the Causes of American Anti-intellectualism: Mammon-worship, Disunity, Puppetry, Fragmentation and Escapism

French sociologist Loïc Wacquant, professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, traces four causes of present-day American anti-intellectualism.  Not surprisingly, topping the list is America’s worship of the dollar.  Elaborating on this point, Wacquant explains,

[t]he first is the unquestioned supremacy of economic over cultural capital in the American field of power, a supremacy that is arguably more pronounced today than at any time in the past half-century. Few modern societies abide by rules of social competition and access to positions of authority that so strongly favor money over knowledge, the wallet (porte-monnaie) over the pen (porte-plume), and give such abrupt precedence to big business over big ideas. The hegemony of the haves is virtually complete when the paradigm of the market imposes itself upon the totality of human activities and needs, from the arts to the media, publishing, health, and education (the fact that these are referred to as “industries” testifies to this), and is elevated to the dignity of a collective ideal at the highest reaches of a state exhorted by its head to transform itself into a mere service provider for taxpayers.[1]

(Forgive my jumping-to-related-current-readings tendencies, but that’s how things go in blog posts). Although I have not finished it yet, Philip Goodchild’s conclusions in his excellent book, Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety, likewise attest to the all-pervasiveness of the market paradigm on our human being-in-the (post)modern world. As he engages Nietzsche’s critique of reason and his discussion of the “murder of God,” Goodchild unearths the new horizon, the new sun to which we have chained ourselves, namely, money.

The meaning of the murder of God, that is, the emergence of a secular worldview with a corresponding affirmation of atheism, is that God is no longer required to play a foundational role in organizing humanity’s activity in relation to reality. The murder of God therefore reflects a shift in pieties. God has stopped paying us our ordered existence; or rather, there is another god who pays us, who responds more immediately, directly and tangibly to our prayers: Mammon.[2]

One could make several comments on this fruitful passage (and I recommend highly Goodchild’s book); however, let’s return to Wacquant’s four causes. In addition to our new god, Mammon, what else has brought us to disparage the life of the mind and contemplative pursuits? The second cause for enthusiastic American misologism is that progressive intellectuals are, on the one hand, “severely handicapped by the debilitation of the organizational vehicles liable to enable them” to effect social change and to engage in (reasoned, if such is possible these days) public debate, and on the other hand, the lack of unity and bickering among various activist groups themselves. In other words, in addition to the absence of a strong left-wing party, those advocating for equal rights etc. for their group or cause end up following “their particular(istic) strategy, and [aim] at distinct goals without sufficient concern for the synergy of agendas and the overall coherence of their lines of action.”[3]

Third, there is the reality of large numbers of intellectual puppets, that is, so-called intellectuals—members of various think tanks on the “Hill”—who produce so-called scientific, scholarly, “reports” for the purpose of reinforcing “the accepted wisdom of the moment” and presenting “a veneer of rationality” to their own public policies.

The new advisers to the Prince salaried by the Manhattan Institute and the Heritage Foundation possess all the trappings—the hexis, the language, and the credentials—of the academic, but they lack the one attribute that makes (or made) the latter troublesome: the capacity to formulate his or her own questions and to seek answers with total freedom, no matter where this leads her. Henceforth, the think tanks and the schools of public policy that serve as their transmission belt within the academic institution are there to stand guard and protect the American dominant class from the impertinent questioning of critical reason.[4]

The fourth cause of America’s anti-intellectual atmosphere is found in the self-absorbed, inwardly turned university community itself, occupied with its own inconsequential “intestinal controversies” and filled with university “professionals,” that is, “expert[s] possessed of a neutral body of knowledge reduced to its technical dimension.”[5] Given this splintered, fragmented milieu, where cross-disciplinary pollination is anathema, serious collegial dialogue within disciplines is rare, and narrow “professionals” abound, it is no wonder that

the mass of academics feel justified to cast aside any and all civic or moral engagement beyond their narrow domain of expertise by invoking the professional imperative of neutrality, for which the precepts of positivist epistemology serve as a convenient philosophical G-string.[6]

Wacquant does have a way with words, doesn’t he? And I thought my dissertation was provocative!


[1] Wacquant, “The Self-Inflicted Irrelevance of American Academics,” Academe 82 (1996), 19.

[2] Goodchild, Capitalism and Religion, 27.

[3] Wacquant, “The Self-Inflicted Irrelevance of American Academics,” 20.

[4] Ibid., 20.

[5] Ibid., 21.

[6] Ibid.