Arne Duncan Announces Pilot for Prisoners to Get Pell Grants

In an update to our piece on identical twins Abby and Amy Roza (D.C. Region ’99 and L.A. ’99 respectively), Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Amy's prison education program Friday to deliver some good news.

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Friday, July 31, 2015

ABOVE: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visits the Goucher College Prison Education Partnership on Friday, July 31, 2015, to announce the new Second Chance Pell pilot program. (PHOTO: ROB FERRELL COURTESY OF GOUCHER COLLEGE)

 

EDITOR'S NOTE: In an update to our One Day piece below, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and several federal and state government officials were on hand Friday at the Goucher College Prison Education Partnership (GPEP) in Maryland for the announcement of the Department of Education's Second Chance Pell Pilot program. The pilot will test new models to allow incarcerated Americans who qualify under the program to receive Pell Grants and pursue post-secondary education.

"As the President recently noted, for the money we currently spend on prison we could provide universal pre-K for every 3- and 4-year-old in America or double the salary of every high school teacher in the country," Duncan said via a press release. "America is a nation of second chances. Giving people who have made mistakes in their lives a chance to get back on track and become contributing members of society is fundamental to who we are—it can also be a cost-saver for taxpayers."

Approximately 100 guests visited GPEP, where some observed a politics class in the morning, followed by a panel discussion centering on college and prison involving Duncan, other government officials, and three GPEP students, according to Amy Roza (D.C. Region '99), who directs the program.

"We're extremely pleased to be chosen as the site for the announcement. It affirms the role of GPEP and GPEP students in the public conversation about mass incarceration, poverty, and educational access," Roza said. "This expansion of access to college is wonderful. We are proud to be present for this important step forward."

 

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The article below was originally printed in the Spring 2015 issue of One Day magazine and titled "Books Behind Bars". Read more articles on our Top Stories page or explore more content from One Day.

 

IDENTICAL TWINS AMY AND ABBY ROZA (D.C. REGION ’99 AND L.A. ’99, RESPECTIVELY) start their days in much the same way. The gates lock behind them. The solid metal doors slide shut. The school day begins—for Amy at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women and the Maryland Correctional Institution–Jessup; for Abby at the Hennepin County Adult Corrections Facility outside of Minneapolis.

Amy directs the privately funded Goucher College Prison Education Partnership (GPEP), offering credit-bearing college courses taught by Goucher faculty to eligible inmates. She and a colleague recruit and support faculty, manage admissions and day-to-day operations, and provide academic advising for the program’s 70 incarcerated students. The waiting list is long: They’ve received more than 500 letters of interest since GPEP’s start in 2012.

In Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis and its inner-ring suburbs, Abby teaches adult basic education available for all inmates, from literacy skills to intensive GED preparation. She works on a team of five teachers typically serving about 100 students—about 90 men and 10 women who choose to take classes.

Ample studies show that educational programs behind bars are a smart bet. A 2014 study published by the RAND Corporation reported that participating inmates lower their odds of returning to prison by 43 percentage points. But the work is difficult and the funding is never enough. Many of the students had negative experiences with school. Many struggle with mental illness and the emotional legacies of trauma. Day to day, they’re coping with the stresses of prison life.

 

Michael Johnson (left) and Sekwan Merritt, inmates at the Maryland Correctional Institution–Jessup, study American history.
Michael Johnson (left) and Sekwan Merritt, inmates at the Maryland Correctional Institution–Jessup, study American history through the Goucher College Prison Education Partnership. Their credit-bearing course is taught by Jean Baker, a nationally renowned scholar of the Civil War era. First-year student retention in the program is 88 percent, rivaling the rate at some of the top liberal arts schools in the nation. (PHOTO: J.M. GIORDANO)

 

FOR THE ROZAS, educating inmates is an essential and too often overlooked component of educational justice. Their students were kids once, too, they say—many of them kids in failing schools, in hurting families, in communities burdened by poverty.

“We’ve done a really good job thinking about incarcerated people as the ‘other,’”Amy says. “We haven’t done a good job thinking about them as community members and as parents.”

In a small classroom with windows overlooking the Jessup women’s facility courtyard, about 15 miles outside of Baltimore, seven women pore over each other’s essays as part of GPEP’s intro-level writing course. Yellowed copies of The Norton Field Guide to Writing sit on their desks. No laptops, no Internet access.

Meghan Kuhn has been in prison since 2010, serving a 10-year sentence for armed robbery. Her son, Dominick, is five years old. She’s getting educated for him, she says, to be a better mom when he visits, and especially once she’s out. “You don’t use your mind” in prison, she says. “My thoughts feel encircled. So to come to college and open my mind back up—it’s a breath of fresh air.”

Kuhn hopes to finish her degree on Goucher’s main campus once she gets out. GPEP students earn transferable Goucher College credits, but as yet there’s no option to earn a degree in prison. Amy and her colleagues are working to change that, navigating channels within the school and with state and regional authorities.

Kuhn’s classmate, Reneé Bowman, is serving a life sentence for murder. The classes have helped her find her voice. “I write to help other people cope with stress and depression, anxiety and anger,” she says. Writing has taught her a lesson about second chances, too. “We’ve learned about [bad] first drafts,” Bowman says. “It’s okay to ball up a bunch of paper and throw it away.”

“Giving meaningful education in prison is an incredibly powerful way to partner with adults in disrupting cycles of poverty.”

GPEP IS ONE OF A HANDFUL of prison programs like it in the country, including one run by Bard College and another by Cornell University. Others thrived in the 1970s and ’80s, but public funding dried up in 1994 when President Clinton signed a crime bill rescinding Pell Grant eligibility for prisoners. Federal “Specter funds,” named for the correctional education advocate and former senator Arlen Specter, offer limited state grants for correctional higher education programs, but Congress has failed to fund them since 2011.

The lack of higher education programs for inmates represents a giant step backward for communities, Amy says. The vast majority of prisoners eventually return to a society where some form of higher education is almost a requirement for financial sustainability. And most of them have kids. Some 65 percent of federal prisoners are parents of school-aged children, as are 70 percent of students in GPEP.

“Giving meaningful education in prison is an incredibly powerful way to partner with adults in disrupting cycles of poverty,” Amy says. “We fail when we imagine for our most vulnerable students that a GED and a paycheck-to-paycheck job is sufficient.”

Benefits of higher education extend to the cell blocks, too. Students can serve as leaders and mentors, lifting an environment often clouded by anger and boredom. “The liberal arts offer all sorts of benefits that stay in place whether or not the person will go home,” Amy says. “Hopefully, we’re not measuring the importance of higher education just in terms of recidivism.”

THE ROZA SISTERS GREW UP in Queens, New York, the only children of two educators. After college, Amy taught for three years in Washington, D.C., where she was named D.C. Public Schools’ first-year elementary teacher of the year. Then she moved to New York City, where she worked for Teach For America as a program director and volunteered at Rikers Island jail. She began her career in correctional education at California’s San Quentin State Prison before being tapped to lead GPEP in early 2012.

 

Janet Johnson (left) revises an essay with input from Amy Roza (right) and classmates in GPEP’s introductory writing course.
Janet Johnson (left) revises an essay with input from Amy Roza (right) and classmates in GPEP’s introductory writing course. The course is identical to the one taken by Goucher College freshmen. (PHOTO: J.M. GIORDANO)

 

Abby taught middle school in Compton for five years before moving to Minneapolis, where she taught adult English-language learners. She took the job with Hennepin County in 2011. Though Amy and Abby are identical twins, their shared vocation isn’t attributable to a twin mind meld, they say. They simply share a belief in corrections-system education as a means to educational justice.

Abby says her students are the first to admit that criminal behavior can’t be explained away by lousy schools or dysfunctional upbringings. Even so, their stories reveal flaws in the K-12 system.

Many tell Abby they took special education classes. She always asks what learning strategies they found most helpful. “Ninety-nine percent will say they don’t know. That’s totally unacceptable. That’s bigger than them,” she says. “Friends from privileged backgrounds can tell me a million things—this software, this accommodation—whereas my students can’t think of one thing.”

The special education services required by law for pre-K-12 students don’t extend to adults.

Abby has no access to the Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) explaining each student’s disabilities and accommodations. Nor does she have funding for special needs assessments. “I don’t know why adult basic education and K-12 are so divided,” she says. “There’s an untapped and rich opportunity to share best practices back and forth.”

 

A middle-aged man with a bald head and a gray bearded chin sits at a table, wearing a blue dress shirt.
“I have five nieces and nephews,” says inmate Shawn Vankirk. “I hope they see that I’m taking college classes." (PHOTO: J.M. GIORDANO)

 

Abby’s students with special needs weren’t the only ones to slip through the cracks, she says. Many of her students can’t get enough of their classes. “I’ll say, ‘How did we miss you?’ They’ll say they didn’t want to learn, or they’ll talk about the limits of their intellectual capacity. That’s a message they received that isn’t correct,” she says.

Abby works to create a classroom that feels apart from prison culture, where inmates have input and autonomy. She acts as their coach, creating individual plans based on their course preferences and holding them to their goals. “When you’ve had a lot of crappy experiences with authority, it’s easy to slip into an attitude of ‘I don’t want you to tell me what to do,’” she says. “I try to remind them that by showing up, they’ve hired me to work for them.”

One of her students has a particularly draining job at the jail that allows him only an hour each day for class. He recently told Abby that his mother really wants him to earn his GED, but he told her he’s too far behind. “He said that as a statement, but I took it as a question because he’s coming to school every day,” she says. “What gives someone the willingness to hold on to that hope? There’s something there for me to learn from my students.”

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TAKE ACTION

Prison education programs like the ones where Amy and Abby Roza work rely heavily on volunteer teachers, tutors, and mentors. Abby says, “When my students see people who have power—and who are seen as smart—take time out of their day to volunteer,” they’re affirmed in their efforts to learn. “That’s a value that I can’t provide alone.”

The Prison Studies Project has a national directory of postsecondary programs at U.S. prisons, including volunteer contact information: www.prisonstudiesproject.org/directory/.

Many states’ departments of corrections have volunteer service directors. Do an online search for “[your state] department of corrections volunteer.”

County detention centers typically are smaller than state prisons, but many still have a volunteer coordinator. Do an online search or contact the office of the warden to inquire about opportunities.

If you live in the Baltimore-Washington region and are interested in volunteering with GPEP, visit www.goucher.edu/GPEP and click “Get Involved.” If you’re interested in working with Abby’s students in Hennepin County, visit “Get involved” under the “Your government” tab on the Hennepin County home page: www.hennepin.us.

Stay informed. The Marshall Project (www.themarshallproject.org) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering the criminal justice system in the United States, which incarcerates more people than any other country in the world.

 

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