My friend Twist and I are both incarcerated. But I’m getting a college degree, and he, like most prisoners in recent decades, hasn’t been able to:
In 2010, I joined a creative-writing workshop taught by a volunteer at New York’s Attica prison, where I was incarcerated at the time. A handful of us sat in a half circle in a classroom in an otherwise deserted school building on prison grounds. We were reading one of the Best American Essays collections. I checked to see where the stories had originally been published and eventually decided to send a piece about gun control to one of the listed magazines. In 2013, The Atlantic published “A Convicted Murderer’s Case for Gun Control,” my professional debut.
Around that time, my writing instructor secured funding for a pilot community-college liberal-arts program in Attica. Just 23 of the 2,300 men in the prison made the cut, including those of us who had been in the workshop. Attica was a crazy place in which to study or find peace of mind. Alarm bells rang. Men cut and stabbed one another. Tear gas dropped. After class, I’d return to my cell in C Block and sometimes watch sanctioned fight nights, in which two prisoners would brawl on the tier while guards looked on and wagered on them.
This is how I first met Gerard Johnson, who calls himself Twist. He was 23 years old, one of the brawlers, and my neighbor. He had a lot of problems back then, not least because he had renounced his affiliation with the Bloods. When my cell door popped for evening class, I’d hear Twist tell his neighbor in the cell across the tier that he wished he could be in college. He was a knucklehead, but he was also a curious kid who yearned to learn. I shared with Twist a book of essays; he was drawn to W. E. B. Du Bois. In the midst of the chaos, Twist and I would talk about what I was learning in sociology class. Leaning on our gates, we would discuss questions such as, Do our circumstances shape our lives? Do we make choices that carve our own paths? Do we even have choices?
In September 1994, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, penned by Joe Biden, then a Delaware senator. Experts have had plenty of debates about whether the 1994 crime bill was responsible for a subsequent decline in crime rates to record lows, a rise in the prison population to record highs, or neither. (After peaking in the 2000s, the prison population has begun to fall; crime rates continue to decline as well.) What most scholars and policymakers can’t do—but I can—is demonstrate how the crime bill has affected life on the inside of the American prison.
In prisons, two policies in particular, both enacted as part of the law, created a culture of ignorance, violence, and hopelessness. First, a ban on incarcerated individuals receiving Pell Grants led to the removal of most of the college programs—which once numbered more than 770—that were operating in nearly 1,300 facilities nationwide. Second, “truth in sentencing” policies offered states up to $10 billion to build new prisons, on the condition that they restructure sentencing laws to keep violent offenders in prison for at least 85 percent of their sentence, without regard for the individual’s behavior or rehabilitation efforts.
Even though the total education debt of Americans—$1.5 trillion—is more than what they owe on their credit cards or auto loans, there’s still a lot of support for the Restoring Education and Learning Act (REAL Act), which would lift the 25-year-old ban on prisoners receiving Pell Grants. Even the National District Attorneys Association, representing the prosecutors who put us here, supports the REAL Act. Many top Democrat presidential candidates—including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris—have also signed on to sponsor it. Even Joe Biden, the author of the original crime bill, has said in a campaign speech that he would extend Pell Grants to prisoners, though he hasn’t commented directly on the REAL Act.
In 2016, New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, allotted almost $7.5 million from the state’s criminal-forfeiture funds for college classes in prison. Private funders matched the amount. While New York’s prisons are again starting to thrive when it comes to higher education, most incarcerated people serving time across America aren’t as fortunate as I’ve been.
A 2019 report by the Vera Institute of Justice and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality said a full repeal of the Pell Grant provision of the 1994 crime bill could make hundreds of thousands of prisoners eligible for higher education. Recidivism rates would likely decline, too, according to the report, saving states a combined $365.8 million per year. With an education, formerly incarcerated people will likely find better-paying jobs, resulting in a $45.3 million increase in combined earnings during the first year after leaving prison.
It’s impossible to understand the potential impact of reinstating Pell Grants without seeing how much was lost after they were taken away. Many prisoners will soon be returning to society, as they reach the end of their sentences. Because I have benefited from a few rare opportunities and learned my craft, I know that I will be all right when I get out. I don’t know if Twist will.
This article is part of our project “The Presence of Justice,” which is supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge.