In his three years in prison, Robert Elliott has made the most of his time.
He boasts a 4.0 grade point average for a series of courses he’s taken through a local college in Jackson.
Eligible for parole in 2021 on a pair of Kent County drug dealing convictions, Elliott, 35, expects to be close to a bachelor’s degree through the federally funded college program when he gets out. He’s got his eye on a possible job in construction management.
Michigan inmate Robert Elliott, serving time for drugs, says that the college coursework he’s taking has him eying a job in construction management.
“I really want people to know that this college thing is huge to the people in here,” he told Bridge Magazine in a phone interview. “It’s not being abused. We are all looking forward to a future because of this. It can really change lives.”
The evidence says Elliott is right.
A 2016 study by the RAND Corporation found that inmates who participated in education programs had 43 percent lower odds of re-entering prison after release than inmates who did not. Largely as a result, the study found, prison education saves five dollars for every dollar spent.
That’s not surprising, given that education remains the greatest predictor among adults in general of future employment and earnings. And with an average annual cost of incarcerating Michigan inmates at about $36,000, the potential savings to state taxpayers from prison education seems considerable. Michigan has just under 40,000 state prisoners.
But as of now, the state puts no money toward college prison education. And the federal program that allows some Michigan inmates, like Elliott, to take college classes is slated to run dry in 2019. It’s anybody’s guess if it will be renewed.
Even with the current funding, state prisons enroll just over 600 inmates ‒ less than half the nearly 1,500 college slots authorized by the federal grant for educating Michigan prisoners.
“Without the ability to pay for it, I don’t know how it would be sustained,” said Bobby Beauchamp, who directs the state’s largest prison education program from nearby Jackson College. It’s funded through the federal Second Chance Pell pilot initiative, which extends college courses to inmates at seven Michigan prisons and a federal prison in Milan.
Based on the federal program, it would cost the state roughly $9 million a year to replace the Pell program’s authorized Michigan slots. That’s less than 1 percent of the total state prison budget of about $2 billion ‒ an investment that one state prison reform advocate says Lansing would be wise to make.
“The economic reasons for doing this are as important as the moral reasons,” said former Holland GOP Rep. Joe Haveman, who is running for the state Senate seat vacated by outgoing Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof.
Asked if he would push for the state to fund prison college programs if federal money fell through, Haveman said: “I can only speak for myself. But 95 percent (of inmates) will come out one day. Why wouldn’t we want to give them all the tools they need to succeed the second time around?
“It’s that ounce of prevention and pound of cure. Prison is the pound of cure. Why would we want to do that pound of cure a second time?”
Related Michigan college eduation stories:
- College funding cuts in Michigan have led to fewer students, greater debt
- Michigan business climate improves, but educated workforce is shrinking
- Snyder’s Michigan: Fewer prisoners, less prison spending
- Demand for Michigan workers is very high, but many have given up looking
- Michigan income growth hindered by lack of college graduates
- $1B of Michigan’s welfare money went to college students who weren't poor
One clue to its future resides in the office of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a long-time Michigan Republican activist. Her department has authority over the federal Pell program and has renewed it until the summer of 2019.
In a February conference call, DeVos said extending Pell grants to prisoners was "a very good and interesting possibility,” while adding that "obviously the department is not real involved with criminal justice reform issues."
Her brother-in-law, Doug DeVos, wrote a guest column in Bridge in March voicing support for state prison reform measures, pointing out, like Haveman, that most prisoners will eventually be released: “We should help them find confidence and meaningful work to support themselves and their families, rebuild lives, and contribute to the well being of our community.”
The issue of inmate education is coming under scrutiny for federal prisons as well.
In May, the U.S. House overwhelmingly approved rehabilitation measures – including education and job training – for inmates so they are less likely to commit crimes after their release. Backed by senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, the so-called First Step Act would earmark $50 million a year for five years to expand those opportunities. But that would apply only to a small share of 184,000 federal inmates – which are in turn a fraction of nearly 2 million prisoners in state prisons or jail. Some reform advocates say it falls short of broader reform measures announced in 2016 by the U.S. Department of Justice that has since been tabled by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Until the 1990s, Congress funded college for more than 20,000 U.S. inmates through Pell grants, part of the same program that helps low-income students across the nation afford an undergraduate degree. The prison program offered through Jackson College grew to be the largest in the nation.
But in 1994 – amid fear over rising crime rates – Congress killed the prison portion of Pell funding as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. As one congressman put it at the time: “Law-abiding students have every right to be outraged when a Pell grant for a policeman’s child is cut but a criminal that the officer sends to prison can still get a big check.”
According to the Washington Post, funding for inmates comprised less than 1 percent of $5.3 billion in overall Pell funding in 1994.
President Obama reversed that ban in 2015 with an executive order authorizing grants for up to 12,000 inmates nationally through 67 approved colleges and universities. That included Jackson College, Delta College near Bay city and Mott Community College in Flint. With authorization for 1,475 inmates, Michigan was behind only Texas at 5,544 inmates.
Qualifying inmates must be within five years of their earliest release date and with no disciplinary record within the past six months. The maximum individual yearly grant is $5,920.
In addition, in 2012 the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson established a self-funded program of college courses for inmates who could pay tuition fees. It enrolls another 75 inmates.
Yet another college program, a privately-funded collaboration between Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, pays for enrollment for 20 inmates a year at a prison in Ionia. (link to Calvin sidebar)
Of course, college course work is not the only road to success after prison.
In 2016, the Michigan Department of Corrections opened a skilled trades program called Vocational Village at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia. It offers training in trades such as auto repair, plumbing and carpentry for about 180 inmates chosen from prisons around the state. It opened a similar training program in 2017 at a prison in Jackson. Prisoners qualify if they are within two years of their earliest release date and free of misconduct citations.
Prison officials say many of these skilled trade inmates walk out of prison and into a job.
Bobby Beauchamp, the Pell program director at Jackson College, also teaches in the prison program, which offers an Associate of Arts, an Associate in General Studies and a Business Administration Associate in Applied Science.
“I can testify firsthand how serious they are about getting the top grades they can get,” he told Bridge. “At one point, we had 80 percent on the dean’s list.”
But with about 575 students in the Jackson prison program, Beauchamp said it is filling less than half of the state’s 1,305 authorized Pell slots for a variety of bureaucratic reasons.
Pell grants generally require that recipients register with Selective Service for a potential military draft, Beauchamp said. That trips up inmates who never did so before they were incarcerated.
“They can appeal that. But it’s a lengthy process,” he said. “It may take anywhere from three to eight months. It’s frustrating.”
Beauchamp said other prisoners have problems because they have no Social Security card or don’t know their number or entered prison under an alias. Still others incurred student debt before they entered prison. Pell regulations require that they arrange a payment plan before they can be accepted into the program – which can lead to further delays.
Still, as Jackson College works through these issues, Beauchamp said he expects to push enrollment to more than 1,100 inmates by early next year.
“Now that we’ve ironed out the wrinkles, we’re expecting to grow,” he said.
Former inmate Kristi Fraga said prison education has given her a second chance at life.
Fraga, 42, was imprisoned at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti in 2011. She had been convicted of assault, stealing property and fleeing police, stemming from an incident that year in the Upper Peninsula that Fraga said was tied to persistent drug use. She was paroled last year.
While in prison, Fraga took a series of college courses that she said transformed how she viewed herself.
“I didn’t think I was that smart,” she said.
“I was getting A’s in all the classes. I was kind of surprised.”
Fraga completed her associate degree at Jackson College earlier this spring, and is now working part-time as a tutor in microeconomics and macroeconomics for its Hillsdale campus, as well as a waitress. She hopes to transfer this fall to the University of Michigan-Dearborn in a program that offers financial assistance and support for nontraditional adult learners. Eventually, she said, she’d like to work in the field of criminal justice reform.
“Something clicked in my mind when I was taking those classes,” she said. “It’s changed my life.”