Prison art education and the long shadow of Bill Clinton

Photo courtesy Ryan Ancill on

Sam Houston State University Art professor Martha Willis teaches a variety of students with different backgrounds. In the past four years, Willis has expanded her roster of students she teaches to prisoners.

Willis and 25 other professors at Lee College Huntsville Center teach prisoners valuable skills that allowed them to succeed once released from prison.

“They do have an opportunity to express themselves and there are people that are just very talented and express themselves in a two-dimensional world that the rest of us just wish we could do,” Willis said.

According to Lee College’s website, about 1000 students are enrolled in the program every semester.

“Art can be transformative, these men are in there and it took them a lot to get there, the program is not easy to get into they had to jump through all kinds of fiery hoops,” Willis said.

Just like most colleges in America, the students do have to pay tuition and fees to attend these courses. For the prisoners who attend these classes this means having to repay all the costs of their education as a condition of their parole.

According to LCHC’s website, that cost can be as much as $457,726. This is just one of the many hoops these men will have to jump through.

The courses are not without their benefits though. Only 10% of the prisoners who complete a two-year program will end up back in prison, compared to the 60% who will end up back in prison without education, according to LCHC.

“That’s the part that makes me proud to do what I do because I believe these men are coming back out into our world and we want them to be as well educated as possible,” Willis said.

According to LHCH, such a drop in the recidivism rate saves the state government millions that it would have otherwise spent on housing. Yet despite the savings they create for the government, these students are saddled with student debt as well.

Additionally, if prison education does end up saving the federal and state government so much money, why is it not a more popular policy?

It was at one point, a very popular system. In 1990 there were 700 prison education programs in America, now there are only eight, according to WKIV.

Then in 1994, Bill Clinton, former president and associate of Jeffery Epstein, passed the 1994 Crime Bill which, among many other very controversial things, bans inmates from receiving federal Pell Grants, a major source of funding for any college. Despite all this, professors like Martha Willis press on.

“We want them to have confidence, we want them to enter the workforce and know what they’re talking about because they’ve studied.” Willis said.

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