Prison Education Rankles Critics

Some legislators say that letting inmates use Pell grants for college coddles criminals

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AS an inmate in the medium-security Massachusetts Correctional Institution-Norfolk, Tom Farina was serving a five-year term for armed robbery and armed burglary when he turned his life around. He entered the Boston University (BU) Prison Program, and by the time he was released in 1985, he was 12 credits away from completing a bachelor's degree, paid for by a federal Pell grant.

Mr. Farina, who has since received a master's degree in social work, and now works for a mental health clinic and a methadone clinic, says the opportunity to get a college education sped up his rehabilitation.

Without a liberal arts degree, "I'd be doing life by now," he says. His fight against narcotics and alcohol addiction was won only after he channeled his anger toward positive goals, such as developing a better self-image and helping others, he adds. The BU program helped him to see that he could be "a decent, moral human being."

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As state and federal budgets tighten and as citizens call for policies that "get tough on criminals," some legislators have begun to label prison education programs as another example of policies that coddle criminals. BU's program, like others across the United States, is privately run, but prisoners apply for federal Pell grants to pay for tuition and books. This federal funding is what rankles conservative critics.

In July 1991, Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina sponsored legislation that would end prisoner access to Pell grants.

"You may teach inmates how to fix automobiles," the senator argued. "You may teach them how to write, certainly how to read. But a college education free of charge? Such a policy is an outrage." The Helms measure, which passed with overwhelming support in Congress, had been watered down to exclude funding only for prisoners sentenced to death and to life without parole.

Prison education is not a bad thing in itself, a Helms aide says, but inmates should not be competing with law-abiding citizens for government funds. Pell grants, which are designed to pay up to 60 percent of tuition fees, are based on financial need. The aide argues that inmates have an unfair advantage against other college applicants: Since inmates have no income, they can demonstrate a greater need for grants and often receive the maximum amount ($2,400). In some states, colleges charge higher tuitio n for prisoners, take the maximum level of Pell grant assistance, and then "forgive" the remaining 40 percent of prisoners' tuition.

Calling this practice a "rip-off," the aide asks, "Why not set up a separate funding program for prisoners so that we can keep track of where the money goes?"

The US Department of Education does not keep statistics on how much Pell-grant money goes to inmates, but the aide says a computer survey of the 1990-91 academic year estimates the figure to be nearly $100 million.

Some colleges may profit from prison programs, says Rom Skvarcius, acting dean of BU's Metropolitan College, but BU's program is running at a deficit. Last academic year, BU spent almost $1 million on teacher stipends, a full-time administrator, textbooks, and other administrative costs; in return, BU received $100,000 in Pell grants.

BU only began taking Pell funding last year for its prison program. The professor-volunteers, who teach inmates at the prison, often are willing to work without pay to reduce costs.

Prison education can actually save money, says Elizabeth "Ma" Barker, professor emeritus of English and the BU program's founder. Massachusetts spends $23,000 to imprison one inmate for a year.

Only 3 to 4 percent of those graduating from the program at Norfolk return to prison after release, she says, compared with the state's 27 percent rate of recidivism. By reducing the number of returning prisoners, proponents of education programs say the state saves on money required to house prisoners.

A lower recidivism rate for prisoners who attend college makes sense, says Ken Schoen, a former corrections commissioner in Minnesota, now the justice program director at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, a social affairs think-tank in New York City.

Prisoners who make the effort to take college courses tend to have the qualities it takes to become responsible citizens, Mr. Schoen notes.

Six courses are offered in an average semester at Norfolk, each class meeting for two and a half hours once a week. Class size averages 25 inmates, though some classes accept 40 students. Twenty inmates graduated last year, some with master's degrees.

(A request to visit the BU classes at Norfolk was denied. Corrections officials say previous visits by the press have been disruptive.)

Women inmates can take college courses at the state facility in Lancaster, Mass., but they rarely serve sentences long enough to complete a four-year degree. Nearby Curry College, the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and several community colleges also offer prison programs. Vocational training and high school general educational development (GED) programs usually make up the bulk of prison education programs.

Ms. Barker says inmates tell her that, along with the discipline involved in getting a college degree, "liberal arts totally changes their views. [They] wake up to the history of the Western world and how their family came to be where they are."

Inmates who come from poverty, she adds, say they would have had other options than a life of crime if they had had better access to education.

This argument sounds like blackmail, says Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, who last year cut funding for textbooks, the state's only support for prison higher education. "Let the BU professors go to the inner city and confer their free educations on people who are desperate to get an education, but who have committed no crime," he told CBS news correspondent Morely Safer in a 1990 report on "60 Minutes."

Farina does not disagree with the governor. "There is a problem if a person has to go to prison to get a college education." But the solution is making higher education more available for poorer citizens, he says, not taking it away from prisoners.

OLITICIANS have long ridden to office on anticrime campaigns, Barker says, noting that Governor Weld won his 1990 election in part by promising "to reintroduce our inmates to the joys of busting rocks."

"Prisons that don't have programs to give [inmates] higher ambitions ... are not tough on crime; they're tough on people," she says. "When men are just warehoused, many come out more antagonistic than when they entered."

Prisoners "don't learn to pick locks in prison," Farina says. "They just get bitter. If you take that energy and redirect it to something productive, not only do you have someone with a better attitude, but you get someone who is eager to go into human resources [jobs], which are among the lowest paid positions."

Farina was a typical prisoner: a high school dropout and ambivalent about education. Fewer than 7 percent of Norfolk inmates apply for college-credit courses. But through a job in the prison library, he began to find strong role models: Plato, Victor Hugo, Stendhal, and Shakespeare - people who were unlike the "gangsters" and drug dealers of his childhood neighborhood in Somerville, Mass.

Farina spent hours in his cell writing his frustrations and rage. After passing a GED test, he applied for college-credit classes in literature, economics, biology, and history.

In preparation for his eventual release, Farina was transferred to a nearby minimum-security prison, where he took a job working in the Wrentham State School for the mentally disabled in Wrentham, Mass. "I went out there trying to look good to the parole board," he says of his job helping to care for mentally disabled children. "But the education became me. I changed."

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