From his prison cell, Jon Marc Taylor sits at the heart of a national debate over prisoners' access to higher education.
He has earned four degrees and is halfway through a fifth. Last week, he enrolled in a doctoral program. While the government paid for his first two diplomas, he managed to pay for the rest himself.
"I did it by begging from family, friends, and church groups," says the inmate-scholar in a collect call from the Jefferson City Correctional Center in Jefferson City, Mo., where he's serving 30 years for several violent offenses.
For conservative lawmakers who believe prisoners should not receive taxpayer-subsidized education grants, Mr. Taylor is an example to be championed. He is proof, they contend, that inmates who really want to learn will find a way to cover the cost.
But Taylor believes he is a rare exception and, instead, is leading the charge to restore federal funding for higher education in prisons. He is trying to rally support from the American Civil Liberties Union and prisoners-rights groups, as well as from associations of correctional officials and prison administrators.
In taking on the fight, Taylor enters a renewed national debate over the merits of educating imprisoned criminals - and over how society should spend its limited education resources.
Congress ended federal education subsidies to inmates in 1994, when it passed an omnibus crime bill. The law makes all prisoners ineligible for Pell grants, which are directed to low-income students.
One year later, the number of college-level programs in prisons dropped by 40 percent, according to two national surveys. The number of prisoners enrolled in college programs dropped 44 percent. Seven states eliminated higher-education programs altogether. Today, experts estimate, those numbers are even lower.
"One of the most important things a college program does within the walls of a prison is provide hope," Taylor says. He rattles off study after study that shows the more education inmates have, the better they behave in prison - and the less likely they are to be arrested or incarcerated again once they're released. "Without that hope, prison becomes a very dangerous place," says Taylor, who has offered a legislative proposal that would require Missouri to replace Pell grants with profits from its prison phone system.
But opponents who prevailed in the Pell grant debate in 1994 insist that prisoners should not share in the country's limited educational resources.
"Skyrocketing costs make it more difficult each year for parents to afford college education," says Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas, who sponsored the amendment that made prisoners ineligible. "I still believe that Pell grants should be reserved for students from families that are squeezed by rising college costs."
All major associations of correctional officials and administrators fought Senator Hutchison's amendment and believe the grants should be reinstated.
"I frequently use the term, 'Pay me now, or pay me later,' " says J. Michael Quinlin, former director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons during the Reagan and Bush administrations. "Society should recognize that the cost of college is really very insignificant when you compare the cost of the damage done by crime."
PRISONERS who receive at least two years of higher education have a 10 percent re-arrest rate, according to the Correctional Education Association (CEA), a nonprofit association of people who work in prison education. That compares with a national re-arrest rate of about 60 percent. (The national re-incarceration rate stands at 35 percent.)
"I think it's very short-sighted," says Steve Steurer, CEA executive director. "The public really needs to decide what they're going to do with the people we're incarcerating, because the great majority of them, 97 percent, are out in seven to 10 years."
The average cost of keeping an inmate in jail is $30,000 a year. The average Pell grant award to prisoners in 1994 was $1,500, according to the US Education Department. Some 25,000 inmates received $4.5 million in grants that year, less than one-half of 1 percent of the $6.3 billion spent on the entire Pell grant program.
But opponents argue the federal government should not be in the business of rewarding criminals with privileges that are not available to most middle-income people. They also contend that if prisoners are motivated, they will get the education they want.
"The kind of prisoner who's ambitious, who wants to succeed, is obviously the kind of prisoner who's unlikely to go back to prison, and it doesn't matter whether he gets the Pell grant or not," says Eric Altshule, chief of staff for Rep. Bart Gordon (D) of Tennessee, who led the House fight to eliminate prisoners' eligibility.
But Taylor disputes that. For the vast majority of inmates, their families do not have resources to help pay for an education, he contends.
"I forget which head of the American Correctional Association said this, but it made a real impact on me," says Taylor. "If you're sitting next to a convicted felon on the bus, would you rather he spent his seven years in prison opening his mind and learning a skill, or staring at a crack in the wall?"