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For incarcerated people who get their college degrees, including those at Folsom State Prison who got grants during an experimental period that started in 2016, it can be the difference between walking free with a life ahead and ending up back behind bars. Finding a job is difficult with a criminal conviction, and a college degree is an advantage formerly incarcerated people desperately need.
Gerald Massey, one of 11 Folsom students graduating with a degree from the California State University at Sacramento, has served nine years of a 15-to-life sentence for a drunken driving incident that killed his close friend.
The last day I talked to him, he was telling me, I should go back to college, Mr. Massey said. So when I came into prison and I saw an opportunity to go to college, I took it.
High return on investment
Consider this: It costs roughly $106,000 per year to incarcerate one adult in California.
It costs about $20,000 to educate an incarcerated person with a bachelors degree program through the Transforming Outcomes Project at Sacramento State, or TOPSS.
If an incarcerated person paroles with a degree, never reoffends, gets a job earning a good salary, and pays taxes, then the expansion of prison education shouldnt be a hard sell, said David Zuckerman, the projects interim director.
I would say that return on investment is better than anything Ive ever invested in, Mr. Zuckerman said.
That doesnt mean its always popular. Using taxpayer money to give college aid to people whove broken the law can be controversial. When the Obama administration offered a limited number of Pell Grants to incarcerated people through executive action in 2015, some prominent Republicans opposed it, arguing in favor of improving the existing federal job training and re-entry programs instead.
The 1990s saw imprisonment rates for Black and Hispanic Americans triple between 1970 and 2000. The rate doubled for white Americans in the same time span.
The ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated people caused the hundreds of college-in-prison programs that existed in the 1970s and 1980s to go almost entirely extinct by the late 90s.
Congress voted to lift the ban in 2020, and since then about 200 Pell-eligible college programs in 48 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico have been running, like the one at Folsom. Now, the floodgates will open, allowing any college that wants to utilize Pell Grant funding to serve incarcerated students to apply and, if approved, launch their program.
President Joe Biden has strongly supported giving Pell Grants to incarcerated people in recent years. Its a turnaround the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, championed by the former Delaware senator, was what barred incarcerated people from getting Pell Grants in the first place. Mr. Biden has since said he didnt agree with that part of the compromise legislation.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had 200 students enrolled in bachelors degree programs this spring, and has partnered with eight universities across the state. The goal, says CDCR press secretary Terri Hardy: transforming incarcerated peoples lives through education.
Belonging in the classroom
Classes inside Folsom Prison look and feel like any college class. Instructors give students the same assignments as the pupils on campus.
The students in the Folsom Prison classes come from many different backgrounds. They are Black, white, Hispanic, young, middle-aged, and senior. Mr. Massey, who got his communications degree, is of South Asian heritage.
Born in San Francisco to parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan, Mr. Massey recalls growing up feeling like an outsider. Although most people of his background are Muslim, his family members belonged to a small Christian community in Karachi.
In primary school, he was a target for bullies. As a teen, he remembered seeking acceptance from the wrong people. When he completed high school, Mr. Massey joined the Air Force.
After 9/11, I went in and some people thought I was a terrorist trying to infiltrate, he said. It really bothered me. So when I got out of the military, I didnt want anything to do with them.
Mr. Massey enrolled in college after one year in the military but dropped out. Later, he became a certified nursing assistant and held the job for 10 years. He married and had two children.
His addiction to alcohol and marijuana habit knocked him off course.
I was living like a little kid and I had my own little kids, Mr. Massey said. And I thought if I do the bare minimum, thats OK.
Prison forced him to take responsibility for his actions. He got focused, sought rehabilitation for alcoholism, and restarted his pursuit of education. He also took up prison barbering to make money.
In between haircuts for correctional officers and other prison staff, Mr. Massey took advantage of his access to wifi connection to study, take tests, and work on assignments. Internet service doesnt reach housing units inside the prison.
On commencement day, Mr. Massey was the last of his classmates to put on his cap and gown. He was a member of the ceremonys honor guard his prison uniform was decorated with a white aiguillette, the ornamental braided cord denoting his military service.
Its a big accomplishment, Mr. Massey said. I feel, honestly, that God opened the doors and I just walked through them.
Mr. Massey found his mom, wife, and daughter for a long-awaited celebratory embrace. He reserved the longest and tightest embrace for his 9-year-old daughter, Grace. Her small frame collapsed into his outstretched arms, as his wife Jacqlene Massey looked on.
Theres so many different facets and things that can happen when youre incarcerated, but this kept him focused on his goals, Ms. Massey said. Having the resources and the ability to participate in programs like that really helped him, but it actually helps us, too.
Theres the domino effect its good for our kids to see that. Its good for me to see that, she said.
In addition to his communications degree, Mr. Massey earned degrees in theology and biblical studies. His post-release options began to materialize ahead of graduation. State commissioners have deemed him fit for parole, and he expects to be released any day now. A nonprofit group that assists incarcerated military veterans met with him in May to set up transitional housing, food, clothing, and health care insurance for his eventual re-entry.
Theres a radio station I listen to, a Christian radio station, that Ive been thinking one day I would like to work for, Mr. Massey said. They are always talking about redemption stories. So I would like to share my redemption story, one day.
Closing racial gaps
College-in-prison programs arent perfect. Many prisons barely have enough room to accommodate the few educational and rehabilitation programs that already exist. Prisons will have to figure out how to make space and ge