Academic journal article International Social Science Review

Denying Pell Grants to Prisoners: Race, Class, and the Philosophy of Mass Incarceration

Academic journal article International Social Science Review

Denying Pell Grants to Prisoners: Race, Class, and the Philosophy of Mass Incarceration

Article excerpt

Denying Pell Grants to Prisoners: Race, Class, and the Philosophy of Mass Incarceration

As a result of the United States Congress passing the 1993 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act and the Higher Education Reauthorization Act of 1994, prisoners no longer became eligible to receive federal financial aid in the form of Pell Grants, ending a thirty year era of eligibility, (1) which had hitherto been available to qualifying low-income Americans to finance their higher education. (2) Even though only between .82 percent and 1.2 percent of all Pell Grants went to prisoners in the early 1990s, these resources were very significant for funding prisoner education. (3) "With the exclusion of prisoner-students from participating in the Pell Grant financial aid program, approximately half of the existing [Post-Secondary Correctional Education] opportunities ceased to function, with many of the remaining options undergoing reductions." (4) Now that the U.S. prisoner population has surged to over 2 million, (5) and the tremendous need for higher education opportunities in penal institutions has far outpaced the meager supply, there have been a growing number of appeals among activists, such as the Education From the Inside Out Coalition, (6) and academics, such as John Garmon, Richard Tewksbury, David John Erickson, and Jon Marc Taylor, (7) to restore Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students.

The goal of this paper is to analyze this controversy as a distinctly philosophical problem while clarifying and assessing the arguments that can be put forward to support the present policy. (8) To that end, this analysis is divided into four sections. First, this paper will examine how Pell Grants for prisoners should be understood in terms of deterrence, rehabilitation, and retribution. Second, it will explore two arguments against ending the ban. Third, it will contextualize and broaden this analysis by examining imprisonment in terms of race and class. Lastly, this paper will conclude with a critique of mass incarceration informed by the theories of Erich Fromm.

Traditional Theories of Punishment

Punishment as Deterrence

One theory maintains that punishment is justified insofar as it prevents the offender from committing offenses in the future (primary deterrence) and prevents others from becoming offenders themselves (secondary deterrence). (9) Thus one could argue that "[i]f prison is too appetizing, with free education and the like, it may no longer serve as a deterrent to crime." (10) For the vast majority of potential offenders, however, it seems unlikely that the denial of financial aid will be a decisive deterrent when they contemplate the advantages and disadvantages of committing a crime, especially when one considers the routine, and well-publicized, violence and suffering present within U.S. prisons. (11) Insofar as punishment has any deterrent effect, these features of prison life surely deter crime more than denied access to Pell Grants. It is possible but unlikely that there are some who are truly deterred by preserving the ban. If this is the case, then one should weigh the beneficial consequences that follow from preventing the crimes of a handful of individuals against the multitude of harms, including increased risk of recidivism, that are likely as a result of denying higher education grants to tens of thousands of inmates.

When considering the issue of deterrence, it is important to acknowledge that "research conducted to determine prison education's effects continues to produce mixed results and on-going academic debate," (12) and more generally, "extensive data are not available regarding the operation of the deterrent principle." (13) Even with these caveats, however, it is not difficult to imagine how deterrence works in many aspects of life, including how prison education possesses the potential to prevent future crime on the outside, (14) and encourage good behavior on the inside. …

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