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Symposium addresses inmate reintegration

Performances and discussion focus on importance of restoring Pell Grants to prisoners

“Our beginnings have already been established, but our ends are nowhere in sight,” voiced performers from the College and Community Fellowship’s Theater for Social Change in a call for prison inmates to gain greater access to education at a symposium Tuesday.

Addressing the cycles of incarceration, poverty and lack of access to higher education faced by former prison inmates in the United States, the Restore the Pell Grant Symposium, held in MacMillan 117, focused on the role that Pell Grants play in enabling former inmates to reintegrate into society after incarceration.

Pell Grants are federal funds provided to college students who are unable to assume the full financial burden of their schooling. Since the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, individuals in prison have been unable to receive Pell Grant money.

The symposium was sponsored by the activist organization Education from the Inside Out Coalition, the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions, the Swearer Center for Public Service, the Center for Slavery and Justice and a number of student groups. Speakers offered a variety of perspectives on why they believed Pell Grants should be restored to ex-inmates and on how to broaden prison populations’ access to higher education.

The Theater for Social Change — which spotlights stories of female ex-inmates — began the program with a mixture of sketches and spoken-word performances from ex-inmates that explored their personal difficulties reintegrating into society and finding work after prison, despite their qualifications. The five performers each related scenes from their lives that demonstrated the problems of life after incarceration — job interviews cut short because of criminal records, deep-seated suspicion from their communities, and a constant, crippling sense of self-doubt and insecurity of their own credentials.

Following the performers’ opening, six speakers focused on the power of Pell Grants and higher education in general to free people — especially young men of color — from systems of structural inequality and poverty in America. Andy Horwitz, a law professor at Roger Williams University, moderated the discussion.

Dallas Pell, the daughter of the late U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I. — who sponsored the federal legislation creating Pell Grants — opened the panel by highlighting her father’s legacy in expanding educational opportunities for a wider range of Americans. She stressed her father’s despair at the exclusion of former convicts from the Pell Grant program.

Glenn Martin, a co-founder of the Education from the Inside Out Coalition, explored the problems of the criminal justice system in America and  spoke of Pell Grants’ potential to greatly reduce reincarceration through effective reintegration.

The United States contains roughly 25 percent of the world’s prison population, despite accounting for only 5 percent of its total population, Martin said. The explosion of criminal justice laws has hurt poor, minority populations disproportionately through arrests, while young black men are the greatest victims of violent crime in the United States, he added.

Noah Kilroy, a former inmate and the co-founder of the Transcending Through Education Foundation, a group that offers scholarships to people recently released from prison, offered an emotional examination of his own history in prison as a young man. He discussed his rehabilitation due to educational opportunities that no longer exist for former inmates.

“Education saved my life,” Kilroy said, citing the importance of connecting ex-prisoners with the learning resources they need to rehabilitate and gain a sense of accountability.

Robert Corrente, former U.S. attorney for Rhode Island, presented the importance of Pell Grants as a matter of community health and criminal justice.

“It’s a colossally stupid idea to be actively enforcing a policy that undercuts the success of reintegration,” Corrente said, criticizing inmates’ exclusion from receiving these federal funds. “We’re making it less likely for people to stop reoffending.”

Brenda Dann-Messier, a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education, and Vivian Nixon, executive director of the College and Community Fellowship, focused on convicts’ access to Pell Grants as both a way out of poverty and the cycle of incarceration. Dann-Messier and Nixon examined how prison education currently trains inmates for obsolete fields and needs to adjust to train skilled workers for high-wage and in-demand sectors.

All the panelists agreed that, based on the current political climate of Congress, reform seems unlikely for the short term. While President Obama would potentially sign reform legislation, a bill restoring ex-inmates’ access to Pell Grants would fall short of passing Congress, the speakers said.

But Nixon ended the discussion with a message of hope, comparing the prison reform movement to previous civil rights battles.

“You would never have a movement for change that didn’t include real voices from the people who it affects the most,” Nixon said, calling for ex-inmates to be more vocal in the debate. “And here, we need to make sure that those who have been impacted by the criminal justice system finally get the opportunity to speak.”


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