Within days of his arrival at a maximum security prison in Illinois, Kilroy Watkins was given an exam book, a pencil, and one hour to complete a required test to assess new prisoners’ skills and abilities. When the results came back, the 20-year-old was very disappointed.

“It was embarrassing,” Watkins said, recalling his shock three decades ago, when his scores revealed he was reading at a fourth-grade level and doing math at a fifth-grade level. “I thought my test had been rigged.”

The scores were a barrier to his goal — getting a job in the prison law library where he hoped to research his case. Now, he would need to take adult basic education classes and earn a high school-equivalency diploma in order to enroll in the paralegal program and earn certification, the prerequisite for a law clerk assignment.

But tough-on-crime policies enacted two years into his 55-year sentence would threaten to stymie his efforts. In 1994, Congress passed the crime bill, legislation championed by then-Senator Joe Biden that lengthened maximum sentences and funded new prisons nationwide. It also banned incarcerated people from receiving Pell Grants, the federal funding many low-income students depend on to pursue a college degree.

Pell grants were the leading source of funding for academic programs in prisons, including the paralegal class. As a result of the ban, hundreds of academic and vocational programs for prisoners closed across the country.

Congress reversed the ban in March 2021 as part of the COVID-19 relief package. But experts say denying education grants to potentially hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people – a population that is disproportionately Black – not only made it harder for them to find jobs and more likely to return to prison, it also contributed to economic stagnation in the neighborhoods to which many return.

The Department of Education has until July 2023 to restore Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students. Some colleges already are collaborating with prison systems through an experimental Pell program that the Obama Administration began in 2015. But only about 200 degree-granting schools – or about 4% – offered credit coursework to the incarcerated as of 2018.

Despite plans to restore federal grants for prisoners, some states still restrict people in custody from receiving state aid. Illinois is among 16 states that explicitly bar incarcerated people from receiving funds from at least one state grant program, according to education policy analyst Bradley Custer. He said the tough-on-crime policies that have hindered access to educational grants in prison are discriminatory.

“The motivation to create those barriers is about punishment and outdated attitudes about people who are involved in the criminal justice system,” said Custer, who wrote about the policies in his 2019 dissertation. “The fact that, in 2022, states still block students from getting financial aid shows us that incredible injustice is still being perpetuated.”

Bill Clinton hugs Joe Biden during a signing ceremony for the crime bill in 1994.
President Bill Clinton (left) hugs Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., in September 1994 during a signing ceremony for the crime bill on the South Lawn of the White House. (Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images)

‘A missed opportunity’

Congress created “basic educational opportunity funds,” now known as Pell Grants, in 1972 to ease access to higher education among low-income families. The funds generally are available to all degree-seeking students who apply and demonstrate significant financial need.

The same year, the Illinois Department of Corrections established an accredited school district using federal Pell Grants, as well as state funds, to provide academic and vocational programs to people in its prisons, partnering with colleges and universities. The district was central to the prison system’s philosophy of rehabilitation.

The nation’s prison systems expanded rapidly in the following years, and Black Americans were particularly affected. By 1993, there were 1,471 Black inmates per 100,000 Black U.S. residents – seven times higher than the incarceration rate for white residents, according to U.S. Department of Justice data.

As Illinois added more facilities to house these new prisoners, the school district kept pace with the demand for programming. About half of those who entered state custody needed to raise their reading and math proficiency, according to prison data on the number of students required to take the mandatory adult basic education program.

“It's incredible how needy and how bad their prior experiences were with schools,” said Terry Gabel, who served as one of three superintendents of the Illinois prisons school district from 1996 to 2002. “If you could just focus on their weaknesses emotionally, and build them up, they would respond affirmatively.”

Gabel’s team developed a system to encourage students to participate in academic classes.

“It sounds absurd to say that [inmates] would be responsive to gold stars on a board for perfect attendance,” Gabel said. “But it made a difference. If they did that, we had a party and they got ice cream and cake. We never had an attendance problem again.”

Adding more incentive for inmates to participate in educational programs, in 1990, Illinois implemented an educational credit that allowed prisoners who met academic goals to shave time off their sentence. In 1994, students earned 266,507 days of credits – 730 years of reductions – saving an estimated $11.7 million, according to annual reports.

That year, incarcerated students in Illinois were awarded more than 2,000 GED certificates, more than 3,000 vocational or college vocational certificates, and more than 500 college degrees, according to those reports.

But some argued that students in custody were taking funds away from those outside of the prison system. When Illinois lawmakers in 1989 learned that the Illinois prison school district received a half-million dollars in state scholarship money — less than one percent of the approximately $170 million in need-based grants distributed that academic year — they passed a bill that excluded academic programs for incarcerated students from receiving state grants.

“[During these debates], you didn't hear any discussion of evidence, even though by 1989, there was certainly at least anecdote that there were good outcomes from prison education programs,” Custer said.

Federal lawmakers were having the same debate. However, the 23,000 students in prison who received funding during the 1993-1994 academic year amounted to less than 1% of the 4 million grant recipients that year. And out of the $6 billion the Pell program disbursed, incarcerated students received $35 million. Grants covering tuition for incarcerated students that year averaged $1,500, the same amount awarded to non-incarcerated students.

There were an estimated 772 college-in-prison programs in 1,287 correctional facilities across the country by the early 1990s, according to a report by the American Enterprise Institute. Without Pell Grants, postsecondary education opportunities for people in custody dwindled: By 1997, only about eight programs remained.

“It would be hard to say how many programs would have existed and how many people would have taken them up – you'd have to make some assumptions,” said Cara Brumfield, a policy analyst for the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. “But I think you can absolutely say there was a missed opportunity here.”

When Illinois prisons lost another $3.8 million because of the federal ban, it began to phase out the academic programming. While they continued to offer adult basic education and GED coursework, vocational training became available only in some medium- and minimum-security facilities, but not in maximum-security facilities. Over the decades, a handful of college-in-prison programs have offered non-degree academic coursework by means of volunteer instructors and private donations.

By the time David Todd arrived at an Illinois maximum security prison in 1999 at age 19 to begin serving a 40-year sentence, the option to pursue academic programming was limited for people sentenced to a lengthy stay.

“You had to get on the waiting list. Then you had to meet a certain criteria of how many years you had remaining or how many years you’ve been incarcerated,” said Todd. “That was crazy because it wasn’t the guys that had the short sentences that wanted to go to school — it was mostly all the guys that had the longer sentences.”

It was only after Todd requested and was granted a transfer to a minimum-security facility a few years into his sentence that he was able to enroll in vocational coursework, through which he earned an associate degree in one of the prison system’s remaining programs.

Houses line a residential street in Chicago’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood
Houses line a residential street in Chicago’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood, a community on the Far Southwest Side. Auburn Gresham is one of seven communities in Chicago that receive more than half of the state’s male prisoners upon their release. All seven are disproportionately Black. (Getty Images)

Rebuilding pathways for learning

Research has shown that incarceration has broad economic impacts beyond prison walls. People who were imprisoned early in their lives earn half as much annually as those with similar socioeconomic statuses but no involvement in the criminal justice system, according to a 2020 Brennan Center for Justice report.

The report estimates the aggregate annual earnings loss for the roughly 7.7 million formerly imprisoned Americans at $55 billion. Each of the 2.7 million formerly imprisoned African Americans experience an average lifetime earnings loss of $358,900.

“As a perpetual drag on the earnings potential of tens of millions of Americans, these costs are not only borne by individuals, their families, and their communities, they are also systemwide drivers of inequality and are so large as to have macroeconomic consequences,” the Brennan Center wrote.

Some communities are more affected than any others, according to a 2005 Urban Institute report. About half of the people released from Illinois prisons each year return to seven of the 77 neighborhoods in Chicago – all of them disproportionately Black.

“High rates of incarceration of residents in a neighborhood coupled with high concentration of former prisoners may weaken the ability of the community to perform traditional social functions,” the report says, concluding that these neighborhoods would benefit from community development assistance.

One of the seven communities cited by the Urban Institute report is Auburn Gresham, a neighborhood on the city’s south side where about 95 percent of residents are Black. In a 2016 Quality of Life plan, the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corp. cited the need for more educational opportunities to support the neighborhood’s vulnerable populations, including people returning from a period of custody.

“We will support the ex-offender population with assistance for reestablishing their identities, enrolling in postsecondary education, and supporting their family life,” the report stated. “We want to help them bring resources into the home to create stability and make them feel like productive members of society.”

Access to Pell Grants could have alleviated some of these challenges in Illinois communities and other states, a report by the Georgetown University Center on Poverty and Inequality suggests. The authors estimated that if half of the country's Pell-eligible prisoners had access to academic and vocational programs in 2016, state employment rates would have increased by nearly 10% for formerly incarcerated workers. That would have resulted in an estimated $45 million additional earnings for all formerly incarcerated workers in the first year of freedom – $2.1 million in Illinois.

In 2015, the Obama Administration’s Department of Education offered federal funding to select colleges that proposed a degree program for people who were within five years of their exit date via its Second Chance Pell program. Subsequent administrations have extended the program, enrolling more than 22,000 students in a degree-granting program across 30 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The Education Department green lit two Illinois schools that proposed programs leading to a Bachelor of Arts degree in organizational leadership, but the programs weren’t implemented in subsequent academic years. To many, Illinois prisons still seemed bent on blocking access to upper-level programming to its population, which stood at 38,259 prisoners in 2019, with a 42% recidivism rate over three years.

Around that time, Illinois prison administrators allegedly banned a volunteer from offering a debate class at its facilities, according to that volunteer's lawsuit, and removed books from a non-degree prisoners at a minimum security facility. But with new leadership, restoration of federal education grants and renewed interest from colleges and universities, Illinois’s prison system is preparing to rebuild its educational programming, said Alyssa Williams, chief of programs and support services.

“College programming has waxed and waned over the years. Now we are at a very fortunate point where many outside universities, particularly private universities, want to come in and provide service to the individuals in custody, which is just a wonderful opportunity for the department and those we serve,” Williams said.

In 2019, Northwestern University in collaboration with Oakton Community college began offering a degree-granting liberal arts program to students at a maximum security prison for men. It expanded in 2021 to a women’s facility about 170 miles southwest of downtown Chicago. The program currently serves 59 students.

“Not only can we provide those degrees to men, we can also provide them to women in more of an equitable fashion,” said Williams, who also has served as a warden at a women’s prison.

The program is now in its third academic year, and organizers say the benefits have extended to the students’ families and into the community.

“We have students who have rebuilt relationships with estranged family members, parents, children, siblings, because of their participation in the program,” said Jennifer Lackey, director of the Northwestern Prison Education Program. “Some of our students — their children — are now applying to colleges. Many of our students say, ‘How can I ask my son or my daughter to value education without setting an example myself.’”

Erika Ray, one of 20 students selected for the first cohort, said she sees the program as an opportunity for self-improvement.

“Being a part of NPEP feels like incarcerated women are finally being seen as valuable enough for an investment,” said Ray. Taken into custody at 25 years old in 2007, Ray still is fighting a 42-year sentence.

“I am able to have a bigger and bolder vision for my future. I am most excited about learning new things and getting to step outside of prison through these classes.”

Stateville Correctional Center
Stateville Correctional Center is a men’s maximum-security prison in Joliet, Ill. Prisoners there can take college-level courses through the Northwestern Prison Education Program. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

Breaking barriers behind bars

Expelled from high school his sophomore year, Watkins didn’t realize he had an aptitude for academics until he was incarcerated. The overcrowded maximum security prison was on lockdown for more than 100 days during his first year inside – the result of fights between prisoners and assaults on staff. When lockdowns canceled classes, he still found a way to make progress.

After one class, Watkins took an armful of discarded workbooks to his cell to study, and he got help from an instructor who dropped off material when prisoners were confined to their cells.

“By the time I came off lockdown, I had elevated myself to the level where I was ready to take the test and move on,” Watkins said.

Instead of taking years to reach his initial goal, Watkins obtained paralegal certification before the funding loss eliminated the program. Then he began setting new academic goals.

“I didn’t know what a master’s degree was, but it sounded intriguing,” Watkins said. Prisoners on that academic track encouraged him to go for it, working in the law library during the day and attending college courses at night.

“That way, your day is so busy you don't have time to be caught up in the yard and prison riots or in the middle of shootings in a cell house,” Watkins said, who noted that he earned more than 100 credit hours before the academic programs ended.

Initially motivated to study the legal system to try to get his conviction overturned, Watkins ultimately used his paralegal skills to help fellow prisoners file paperwork for their cases and on family matters. His in-prison education also led him into community activism and social justice work while in prison and after returning from custody to Chicago in 2019.

“It was like an unintended consequence because I had to go through school and these classes to get to my objective. But some of it was sticking,” Watkins said. “It was waking me up about politics – the country I lived in – the world I lived in.”

Watkins is on track to earn his bachelor’s degree in spring 2022.

Cassie M. Chew is a D.C.-based policy reporter. This story received support from the Education Writers Association and the Center on Media, Crime & Justice at John Jay College. Jamaal Abdul-Alim contributed editorial assistance and Lam Thuy Vo contributed data assistance to this project.