Since 2015, the Mellon Foundation has granted more than $26 million to prison education and criminal justice-related efforts at approximately 30 institutions.  In the early 1980s, the prison population was below 400,000 nationwide.  Since then, rates of incarceration have quadrupled, largely as a consequence of policy changes in policing practices regarding drug laws, mandatory sentencing, racial profiling, and cash bail.  The United States holds the world’s largest prison population—approximately 2.3 million people.  African American and Latinx populations represent 70 percent of the federal prison population and the majority of those incarcerated in state prisons.  Mass incarceration is, of course, inextricably linked to mass undereducation.  Among federal and state inmates, 34 percent do not have a high school diploma or GED equivalency (compared to 19 percent in the general population), and just 12 percent of the prison population has attained some form or postsecondary education (compared to 48 percent of the general population).

Acknowledging the human costs and large-scale social impact of criminal justice policies, the Foundation has prioritized grantmaking in this area.  As we have strengthened and expanded degree-granting programs for current and formerly incarcerated students, we have learned that:  

  • Genuine equity and inclusion is greatly enhanced when universities accept all their students as members of one academic community.
  • Prison education is part of a much larger rethinking of the role of incarceration in American society. While prisons are sites of systemic inequities and injustices, meaningful action can be taken within their walls to mitigate those inequities.  
  • Community colleges play a vital role as educational providers, degree-granters, and supporters who encourage students to continue their studies.
  • Even the most successful college programs serve relatively small numbers of students, and there is a substantial shortage of quality undergraduate degree programs with deep humanities content. 
  • College-in-prison should be viewed as a critical first step that must be followed by post-release educational opportunities and services that include academic advising and reentry counseling to facilitate access to public housing, part-time employment opportunities, and a return to full citizenship.
  • Scale comes through robust public-private partnerships and multi-foundation collaborations. An example is the Opportunity Institute’s Renewing Communities initiative, a five-year corrections-to-college program in California that has received public and private support. In New York a similar initiative led by a consortium of private and public research universities, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, and third-party community-based organizations is in its early stages.  Mellon is also cooperating with national, regional, and family foundations in supporting efforts by the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison to gather data and share research about best practices for teaching incarcerated students.  As educational programs for the incarcerated continue to expand, the Alliance will play an increasingly important role in addressing infrastructure needs, program quality, and other challenges.

It is widely known that such programs reduce violence inside prisons, improve incarcerated students’ ties with family and community in advance of parole, and reduce rates and costs of incarceration.  But providing higher education to incarcerated men and women is about much more than reducing recidivism and saving taxpayer dollars.  These initiatives disrupt the cycle of inequality and intergenerational poverty; restore the humanity and dignity of incarcerated people; and above all, advance the belief that society needs to stop judging people by the worst things they’ve done in their lives.