A change in financial aid will benefit incarcerated students seeking degrees Kenny Butler and Daniel Duron worked toward their degrees while in prison. Their journey could become more common with Pell grants becoming available to incarcerated people.

Getting a bachelor's degree in prison is rare. That's about to change

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On the first day of his senior year last fall, Kenny Butler woke up at 4 a.m.

KENNY BUTLER: Get in the early morning bike riding.

CHANG: He took a bike ride through the campus of Pitzer College, past the dining hall, the pool, the lecture hall where his first college class on campus would be held several hours later.


FUGEES: (Singing) Ready or not, here I come.

CHANG: He posted a video on Facebook captioned first day of the fall semester, up and ready. Butler was recently released from prison. Now that he's out, he bikes nearly every morning. It's part of his internal clock left over from his 15 years inside. And it was inside a medium facility prison in Norco, Calif., where he and seven other students started their bachelor's degrees.

BUTLER: I just been pushing, taking six and seven classes a semester and changed my whole mind frame about life in general. A lot of guys see me walking around, know me from my past life. And they see me with all these books all the time. I'm like a walking dictionary around here.

CHANG: Getting a degree behind bars is a really rare opportunity. But that is about to change. Starting next year, the federal government will open up Pell Grants to people in prison. Hundreds of thousands of people may get the opportunity that Kenny got if Kenny Butler and others like him succeed. Their stories could influence the future of college in prison and the value of a degree. NPR's Elissa Nadworny brings us Kenny's extraordinary story.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: The story of how this 48-year-old got from prison to this bike ride through campus actually starts with another bicycle.

BUTLER: My first time going to juvenile hall, I was maybe 11 years old. A bike - I had taken a bike. I had rode off on someone's bike. And they didn't catch me with the bike. Someone told on me. And then after that, once I got on their radar, it was, you know, any little thing happened.

NADWORNY: Butler grew up in public housing in the Watts neighborhood of LA, about an hour and a world away from Pitzer's lush campus in Claremont.

BUTLER: I grew up in a gang culture. My family is part of the group that started the Crips. So I was raised in that environment.

NADWORNY: Being in and out of the criminal justice system through his teens meant school was never a focus.

BUTLER: You know, one semester I just missed totally.

NADWORNY: He spent his 20s selling drugs and rising to become a leader in the Crips.

BUTLER: Life would push me into that underworld with, you know, income, trying to generate income.

NADWORNY: It wasn't until a felony charge at age 32 for a crime he says he didn't do but took a plea deal for landed him 15 years that he finally turned to books.

BUTLER: I started reading just, you know, break up the time - you know, had to have something to do.

NADWORNY: But the books in the prison library were often hard to digest. So many words were unknown to Kenny. And then he found a book that opened up his world.

BUTLER: I was in a cell with a guy, and he was going to throw the book away. Yeah, he was saying to me, like, hey, man, you want this? I don't want this book. And I looked at it. Wait a minute. It's the dictionary. I kept it. And I've been having it ever since.

NADWORNY: The two-inch-thick Webster's dictionary became Kenny's companion over the next 12 years, helping him understand himself and the world.

BUTLER: It's all highlighted and - yeah, this is my research kit. This is Google right here.

NADWORNY: The cover fell off from overuse, so he had to fashion a new one.

BUTLER: You see it's all dog-eared. And that might be coffee or something down there. I don't - yeah. Here it is, Castile, and it has a map.

NADWORNY: The beloved dictionary, the frequent visits to the prison library, perhaps that's where Kenny's intellectual journey may have ended, but, instead, an incredible and rare opportunity set him off on a different path. Pitzer College became one of the few colleges in the country to offer college classes for a bachelor's degree in prison. And Kenny was one of the men chosen.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hi, guys. How are y'all?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hi, everyone. Welcome. Welcome.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I see smiling, happy faces, which you can't always see on Zoom calls, so...

NADWORNY: That's where producer Lauren Migaki and I first met Kenny Butler, in the fall of 2020 over Zoom at the California Rehabilitation Center, a medium-security prison in Norco, Calif.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I'm going to give you all a pop quiz now. So...

NADWORNY: Students on the outside on Pitzer's campus were in the classes, too. It's called an Inside-Out program.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: How did the mythology frame, you know, the institution of slavery - Kenny?

BUTLER: The glamorizing of the plantation in that...

NADWORNY: There are very few college programs like this in prison because for the last quarter-century, there's been a ban on using federal money to pay for it. Congress recently lifted that ban, which will give hundreds of thousands of people like Kenny the opportunity for higher education.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Take out understanding patriarchy. I'm going to share...

NADWORNY: Inside, Kenny took classes in feminism for men, African American poetry, he learned how his own experience in prison had applications for the real world. The plan was to get a degree in organizational studies from inside prison. But last spring, a surprising thing happened. Kenny Butler got an early release. All those classes inside had shortened his sentence. On an early February morning, he shed his blue prison uniform and boarded a bus. As it drove away, Kenny leaned against the window, watching the prison complex disappear, with its guard towers receding.

So you were watching those towers.

BUTLER: I'm looking back at the tower, all those towers around us. I said, it's been most of my life, that's what I've been staring at. Like, that was like the proverbial knee on my neck being closed in these gates. And I was thinking this will be the last time I see one of these.

NADWORNY: On the bus with him, he packed his companions from those years inside - a handful of books and his beloved dictionary.

BUTLER: I have a stack of books. I'm going to send you guys some pictures of my little - the beginning of my library.

NADWORNY: Because Kenny had the opportunity to enroll in the degree program inside prison...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Come on in. Come on in.

NADWORNY: ...Pitzer set him up to finish his degree on the outside.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Class is on the board. Political studies class POST 020 - American Politics in Black and White.

NADWORNY: The college secured tuition from an anonymous donor and housing on campus.


BUTLER: Hi, people. How are you doing, Kira and Elise (ph)?

NADWORNY: Kenny, a tall man in his late 40s, would stroll through campus in his signature Pitzer hoodie.

KIRA BLOOMENTHAL: Well, let's do lunch sometime soon, yeah?


BLOOMENTHAL: I've been talking - we were talking...

NADWORNY: It felt good to be a student here, but Kenny also stood out, and he felt it.

BUTLER: A lot of times, when we walk around here, we don't get acknowledged by certain people.

NADWORNY: Sometimes other students would cross the street to avoid Kenny. And in the first couple of months, it happened in class, too.

BUTLER: When they broke off into groups, only one person came to my table.

NADWORNY: It caught him off guard. He thought a liberal arts campus would be different.

BUTLER: We're supposed to be a melting pot, and everybody's trying to be progressive and coming together. But we're like stepchildren in the family. No one wants to be around us (laughter) yeah.

NADWORNY: Plus, there were other everyday challenges in the transition from living in a prison to living on the outside.

BUTLER: There was a lot of distraction. I fell behind on my summer classes. I had to get an extension on my microeconomics. So I couldn't actually concentrate.

NADWORNY: Inside, he could just focus on class. Outside, there was the internet, social media, where Kenny posts almost constantly with the hashtag #ButlerStrong; and in the background, his family and friends and a global pandemic.

BUTLER: I had actually, like, seven deaths in my family since leaving. Yeah, I lost my son's mother. I lost an auntie and my uncle and my grandmother recently. And then my little brother just got arrested the other day. It was - it's been a rollercoaster. But all I can do is take it in stride, you know.

NADWORNY: What is school in that world? Where does school fit for you in that world?

BUTLER: School is a priority. Yeah, school is a priority with me. My family understands that.

NADWORNY: And school was a priority. He got great grades. His professors looked to him as a leader. And getting that bachelor's degree, it would be a major accomplishment on its own. But Kenny was focused on what came next - a career, where he'd be able to help people in prison. One issue, though...

BUTLER: I have no actual work history at all.

NADWORNY: Being a leader in a gang, being a leader inside a prison, it's hard to put that on a resume.

BUTLER: I can't place kitchen worker on there and, you know, so just trying to build up the resume.

NADWORNY: To work around this predicament, Kenny focused on fellowships designed for recent college grads. They put more value on personal story and academic experience. He applied to several, including a research Fulbright in Uganda studying the prison system there and a Napier fellowship, which awards $20,000 towards a project supporting social change. Kenny Butler won both of them.

BUTLER: You know, I actually cried and I had to pull over, yeah, because I was overwhelmed with joy.

NADWORNY: In addition to the fellowships, Kenny's been accepted to graduate school at Cal Poly for a master's program in public administration.

BUTLER: You know, when it rains, it pours. You know, you work hard to get to a certain point. And when you get acknowledged in that way, now you have to work harder to make people know that they picked the right person.


BUTLER: When he thinks about the odds of his life to go to college, to graduate, to win a Fulbright, it's pretty overwhelming. His whole life, the odds were always stacked against him.



NADWORNY: The idea that education paved the way for his future and will for the incarcerated students who follow in his footsteps, that brings him purpose.

CHANG: Wow, Elissa, this is an amazing story. So as we said at the beginning, starting next year, there could be a whole lot more people like Kenny who can access college classes in prison, which seems like a no-brainer, right? Like, why couldn't this happen before?

NADWORNY: Yeah. You know, for the last quarter-century, people in prison have been banned from using federal money to pay for college. It's part of the 1994 crime bill, which stripped people who were in prison from using Pell Grants. That's free money. Essentially overnight, most higher ed programs in prison disappeared because they didn't have the federal money to support it. Ruth Delaney is with the Vera Institute, and she studies this. Here's what she had to say.

RUTH DELANEY: After that bill passed, we went from having upwards of 300 college programs that shrunk down to about 12 in the decade that followed.

NADWORNY: And so those handful of programs that remain, they were largely funded by private money, like Pitzer's program.

CHANG: Well, why is all of this changing at this moment, like, right now?

NADWORNY: Well, a lot of this stems from a change made under the Obama administration. It was a pilot program called Second Chance Pell, and it opened it up to about 75 colleges. In the last four years, it's reached about 30,000 people in prison. So that was the first step. Research shows that this impacts recidivism, which impacts the bottom line. And so people on both sides of the aisle pushed to have this ban lifted. And the Trump administration signed the bill that's putting this in place. So it's really a bipartisan issue.

CHANG: And how exactly will this legislation work?

NADWORNY: So most prison population is low income. So they're going to be able to access Pell Grants. The Pell Grant covers about $7,000 in tuition. Basically, colleges are going to stand up programs so that they can tap into this federal money. And opening up Pell Grants to people in prison is a huge step. But it's worth noting that money isn't everything. There's going to be a lot of challenges going forward. Kenny, he's exceptional. But a bachelor's degree doesn't erase or make up for a criminal record. And so a lot of these folks have a long road ahead of them.

CHANG: Yeah. That is NPR's Elissa Nadworny. Thank you so much, Elissa.

NADWORNY: Thank you.

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