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How Biden Killed Educational Opportunity in Prisons

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In the years that followed, prison schoolhouses emptied and prison yards filled. Gang activity and violence within the prisons increased. TV watching proliferated, enervating prisoners and their creative development. In effect, the crime bill achieved one of the traditional goals of incarceration: to incapacitate prisoners.

In 2001, I was a gun-toting thug—a wannabe, really. At the age of 24, I shot and killed a 25-year-old man in Brooklyn. In 2004, after almost three years on Rikers Island, I arrived at Clinton Correctional Facility, near the Canadian border, with a sentence of 28 years to life, for murder and selling drugs. I had a ninth-grade education. By then, higher-education programs, which ran on private funds, operated in only a few New York prisons; I was not fortunate enough to be serving in one of them. So I politicked in the yard, watched a lot of TV, did a lot of drugs, and was sent to solitary confinement. (In 2006, I spent six months in Upstate Correctional Facility, a new, clean, and horrible prison devoted largely to solitary confinement—one of several such facilities built across New York with cash from the crime bill.)

The turn for me came after I was transferred to Attica, New York’s most notorious prison, best known as the site of the 1971 deadly uprising that left 43 dead. One of the prisoners’ demands had been access to better education programs. In the decades after the uprising, prison programs began spreading widely—up until the passage of the 1994 crime bill. When I first arrived at Attica, in 2007, there were no higher-education programs. A few years later, I got involved with the writing workshop, and then the pilot college program. Because those programs were available to very few of us, Twist didn’t even bother to apply. He figured that his disciplinary record would make him an unattractive candidate—and he was probably right.

In 2015, U.S. Department of Education administrators, realizing the harm caused to prisoners by the removal of Pell Grants, created a new program called the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative, a three- to five-year pilot program offering some prisoners an education. Now, 67 educational institutions serve 12,000 incarcerated students in state and federal prisons annually. The program has recently been expanded by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

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.

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