TRACY, Calif. — A few miles east of this San Joaquin Valley town, a pale gray prison compound rises from a flat expanse of land. Here, separated from society by a perimeter of two chain-link fences topped with coils of razor wire, convicted felons Raymond Walker, Arnold Trevino and Melvin Yu once found a way to make themselves free.
Murder brought them together. Walker killed a woman after she insulted him during sex; he beat her and she bled to death. Trevino got drunk at a party and stabbed a guy in a fight. Yu blew away five people in one of California's bloodiest gang slayings, the 1977 massacre at San Francisco's Golden Dragon restaurant.
Yet several evenings a week, these men contradicted their history as killers. Dressed in their prison-issue denims, they left their cellblocks, filed one by one through a steel door, past a guard and into Classroom 103 of the Education Wing of the Deuel Vocational Institution, where they are all serving life sentences.
There, seated in neat rows of wooden student desks facing a green chalkboard, Walker, Trevino and Yu entered the realm of educated men, immersing themselves in literature, philosophy and mathematics--at taxpayer expense.
"I took every class I could get my hands on," said Walker, an articulate 37-year-old who breezes through a dozen books a week. His favorite was a course in critical thinking. "They taught me how to order my thoughts, how to put everything in perspective, how to assess what I've been reading."
That was in 1993, before the politicians in Washington got up in arms. Today, Classroom 103 is mostly silent at night, save for an occasional meeting of Narcotics Anonymous. Last year, Congress cut off the federal grant money that Walker, Trevino and Yu--and 27,000 inmates across America--had used to go to college.
The ban on prisoners' use of Pell grants--which are intended to help indigent students--was adopted quietly, as an amendment to 1994's anti-crime legislation. It provoked little debate. "The bottom line is that the honest and hard-working are being elbowed out of the way by criminals," declared the senator who sponsored the measure, Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.
Few argued with her--not even officials of the federal Department of Education, which administers the grants and took the official position that they served the worthy goal of rehabilitating offenders. "You just have to pick your battles," said David Longanecker, the assistant secretary for post-secondary education. "Nobody was a champion of Pell grants for prisoners. But there clearly were champions for the alternative point of view."
The Pendulum Swings
That even educators were not champions for prison education says a great deal about the way America regards its inmates in 1995. In Alabama and Arizona, chain gangs are back. In Texas, weightlifting in prison has been banned; California is considering a similar action. In Mississippi, convicts will soon wear striped uniforms.
In the long-running debate over whether the purpose of prisons is to rehabilitate or to punish, the pendulum has swung clearly in the direction of punishment.
Ever since the turn of the century, prison officials have aspired to rehabilitate offenders--through recreation, counseling, education and other programs. But that goal has long been at odds with the public sentiment that criminals should not be coddled. As Hutchison said: "Prisons exist for the protection of society, not the comfort and convenience of criminals."
But in ending the education grants, critics say, Congress has lost sight of a simple but important fact: Most of the nation's 1 million inmates will be released. Only half of those in state prisons are serving longer than four years, according to the Justice Department. In federal prison, the median time is two years.
Meanwhile, research has repeatedly shown that education--and in particular, higher education--helps keep former inmates out of trouble. While national recidivism rates hover around 60%, a Texas study found that only 13.7% of inmates who earned an associate of arts degree returned to prison; the figure was 5.6% for those who earned a bachelor's degree. In New York, 45% of offenders without college degrees returned, compared to 26% of those who got diplomas in prison.
"This is sound-bite politics," said Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a nonprofit research group, of the Pell grants. "When you eliminate these programs, you are increasing the odds that criminals will re-offend. These policies are really self-destructive. They are self-inflicted wounds."
An Inmate's View
Melvin Yu knows all about sound-bite politics. He is well aware that it is not politically popular to ask taxpayers to help murderers get a college degree.