College Behind Bars: More Funders Are Stepping Up

More than two decades of a get-tough approach to crime have swelled the nation's prison population to more than 1.6 million people, more than the entire population of Philadelphia. Many of these inmates are repeat offenders. Education programs for inmates were casualties of this tough-on-crime approach. The 1994 crime bill signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton barred inmates from receiving Pell Grants.

However, studies have shown that education programs for prisoners reduce recidivism. A 2013 Rand Corporation study found that inmates who participated in education programs, including those that offer college credit, are far less likely to return to prison.

This is not news to the Ford Foundation or the Open Society Foundations, which are longtime supporters of Bard College's program that allows inmates to earn college credits leading to a degree from Bard, one of the most respected liberal arts colleges in the country. The Bard Prison Initiative began as a tutoring program in the 1990s and awarded its first degrees in 2005.

Ford has also funded the Prison University Project in California, which offers higher education courses to inmates of that state's notorious San Quentin state prison near San Francisco. Ford funds these projects through its Higher Education for Social Justice program. Doris Buffett's Sunshine Lady Foundation is another longtime supporter of these programs. Now other funders are getting behind the idea. While we wrote about this trend early last year, a lot has happened since then.


Recently, the Wall Street Journal spotlighted this trend, reporting that the Kresge and Andrew Mellon foundations have awarded grants to support college behind bars. Mellon awarded $1 million to the Center for Justice and the Heyman Center for the Humanities, both at Columbia University, for a "Justice in Education" initiative to provide education to current and former inmates in New York correctional facilities. Kresge, meanwhile, has supported the Michigan Prison Arts Initiative, which brings creative arts instruction to Michigan prisons.

A shift in criminal justice policy in some states has helped fuel a growth in educational opportunities behind bars. California Gov. Jerry Brown this year signed legislation to promote college classes in state prisons. New laws in other states have strived to reduce prison populations and reduce recidivism, thereby reducing the high costs of incarceration.

However, not all policymakers are enthusiastic about college classes for prisoners. Opposition from state lawmakers in Albany forced New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to kill a proposal to use state funds to pay for college courses for inmates. At the federal level, Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) introduced a bill to prohibit the use of federal funds to pay for higher education for inmates. Collins called such programs an affront to families who are struggling with the high costs of college.

While not all lawmakers have embraced the idea of college behind bars, there is at least a growing recognition that we cannot incarcerate our way to a safer society. It is also clear that more needs to be done to ensure that released inmates do not return to prison. With the growing evidence that prisoners who complete education programs are less likely to reoffend, here's hoping that these new funder-supported efforts to expand education behind bars are successful — and that more policymakers take notice.