JOHN KIRIAKOU: One Thing Trump Got Right

The former president pushed for passage of — and then signed into law — a measure that lifted a 26-year ban on giving prisoners federal education aid. 

President Donald Trump congratulates former inmates who have benefited from prison reform legislation, April 1, 2019. (White House, Joyce N. Boghosian)

By John Kiriakou
Special to Consortium News

As crazy as it sounds, Donald Trump’s enduring policy legacy could be one of true prison reform. His move came after years — decades even — of Democratic and Republican presidents and lawmakers all ignoring the educational and training needs of incarcerated Americans, which worsened their lives once they were released.

You’ll get no argument out of me about Trump’s four years as president being a disaster of historic proportions.  He wrecked our relationships with allies around the world, divided our country, instigated violence and covered for his friends and family members.  But even a broken clock is right twice a day. 

One thing that most Americans didn’t realize was that Trump pushed for passage of — and then signed into law — a measure that lifted a 26-year ban on giving prisoners federal education aid. 

Called the Second Chance Pell Grant, the new program funnels tuition assistance to about 12,000 prisoners through 134 colleges and universities.  In a momentary flash of brilliance, Trump had asked Congress in April 2020 to make the program permanent, that is, not subject to a congressional “sunset provision,” where a law automatically expires after a period of time.

The programs that prisoners apply for must meet three criteria for federal aid.  First, they must provide credentials needed for jobs that are in high demand and that are not closed to those with criminal records. Second, they must offer credits easily transferrable to another college or university so that the prisoner doesn’t hit a higher-education “dead end” if he or she is released before finishing a degree.  And third, they must include “reentry services” to help prisoners navigate housing, employment and other “treatment” upon release.

Graduates of a program aimed at helping former inmates re-enter society applaud a speech by President Donald Trump, Feb. 20, 2020, Las Vegas. (White House, Shealah Craighead)

So why give federal aid — taxpayers’ money — to prisoners?  Because it keeps them out of prison in the future, which, in the long run, actually saves the taxpayers millions of dollars, while improving employment opportunities, strengthening families and communities, and making all of us safer. 

Reduced Rates of Recidivism

Research recently published by the Rand Corporation showed that participation in prison education programs reduced recidivism rates by a whopping 43 percent, so that, “for every tax dollar spent on prison education, taxpayers saved five dollars in reincarceration costs.”  I’ll take that deal any day.

When I was in prison, from 2013 until 2015, after blowing the whistle on the CIA’s torture program, there were literally no educational opportunities in prison.  Having finished my PhD coursework in international affairs, I told me “counselor” when I arrived in prison that I was happy to teach a class, whether in the GED program or elsewhere.  My counselor’s response was, “If I wanted you to teach a fucking class, I’d ask you to teach a fucking class!”  I didn’t teach a class. 

Other prisoners did teach, though.  One pedophile taught a class on gardening, even if nobody could actually do gardening.  There were multiple classes in knitting and crochet.  There was a class in creative writing taught by a pedophile who had never been published.  There was a class called “The History of Western Film,” which was actually about Westerns that were not a part of the prison video collection.  And scam artists were allowed to teach classes on how they carried out their scams.  Seriously.  These classes contributed nothing. They improved the plight of no one. They prepared no one for life outside of prison.  It’s no wonder that recidivism is as high as it is. 

I look at this situation the way my grandparents viewed their own emigration to the United States.  You always want the next generation to do better than you did.  Prisoners last year were released at the end of their sentences with no marketable skills.  The next group will be released with college degrees, or at least they will have completed classes toward a degree.  Perhaps the generation after that won’t go to prison in the first place.

John Kiriakou is a former CIA counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act — a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s torture program.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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18 comments for “JOHN KIRIAKOU: One Thing Trump Got Right

  1. James Simpson
    February 25, 2021 at 03:38

    Hmmm. “He wrecked our relationships with allies around the world” suggests to me that Mr Kiriakou accepts the US/UK establishment view that the world is divided into allies of the good, capitalist West and its enemies. That’s Biden’s view, too, as we see from his continued attacks on the Iranian people and on China which is seen as somehow threatening to the USA.

    I’m quite disgusted by the author’s disdain for the other people he met or heard about in prison. “One pedophile taught a class on gardening… a class in creative writing taught by a pedophile…” No-one, even in the USA, is in prison for being a paedophile. Perhaps the men were convicted of sexual assault; either way, how does Mr Kiriakou know the intimate details of their sexualities? And what does that have to do with their teaching a class on gardening or writing? The US prison system is a foul mess of classism/racism and deeply-entrenched injustices of all kinds. But I don’t think the author has much idea of what needs to change, apart from his respect for education which, in a society filled with stigma attached to ex-prisoners, is not really of much help after release.

    That’s true here in the UK, too. In my time in prison I wasn’t permitted to teach despite my professional background; the education tutors in unguarded moments freely admitted that no amount of training or education could do much against the tsunami of bigotry, fear, discrimination and hate that ex-prisoners have to deal with. Creative writing is taught in British prisons by qualified tutors who, so far as I know, don’t have to be published.

  2. anthony
    February 25, 2021 at 02:10

    Pell Grants for 12,000 prisoners? There are 2.3 million people incarcerated in US prisons throughout the United States. A measly 12,000? Why even bother. This is no great achievement by Donald Trump, but rather a feeble, token attempt to make it look like he was doing prison reform. Not. And by the way, the tax payer pays for none of it. The US is a monetarily sovereign country and, contrary to popular belief, congress does not need tax revenue to pay for anything. Why not make 1,000 Pell Grants available? Or for that matter, why not 2.3 million?

  3. Paora
    February 24, 2021 at 23:36

    “[T]hey must provide credentials needed for jobs that are in high demand..”

    I guess that rules out Philosophy, Sociology, History, Journalism and any other vehicle for political education. What a shame. Prisoners in the US are locked up for such excessive sentences they have plenty of time to gain ‘marketable skills’ and do a few papers in subjects that might help upskill a few Organic Intellectuals.

  4. Lori Ann
    February 24, 2021 at 19:17

    I would like to think that all inmates would be going to school. Crime is directly in proportion to poverty, which is in proportion to education. Amazing that Trump did one right thing. Education is so important! I am going back to college starting the summer semester at age 65. I never made enough money to save for my retirement and I can’t live off of social security and even though I owned an art gallery for 18 years and was a licensed nurse in the 70s where I got paid $3.57 an hour, I can’t get a decent job now! You even need a college degree to manage a Petco that only pays $40K annually. To make enough money to live AND save, one needs $50K to $70K annually depending on the cost of housing where you live. Great story

  5. February 24, 2021 at 17:28

    You are so smart. Except that my book ANGRY LOUD AND CLEAR TRUTH exposed the university system as a tool of the establishment to program people to repeat what they are told, not question authority, to do as told to. It does not promote analytical thinking, good ethics, or creative thought. If this bill covered vocational training such as electronic engineering, computer tech, auto repair, etc.. it would be helpful. I would include other easier subjects such as training in hair management, but excons are not allowed to be barbers. Illegal. Tell the inmates to go to the library if they want to learn, and make real books available- nonfiction hood books by authors such as Zinn, Chomsky, Ventura, Hedges, Kahn, and the like; and give them the education of removing materialism from their propagandized minds (all people are subject to propaganda in the establishment media-which I have proved in the mentioned book is dominated by the CIA)- prison hardship prepares them to deal with poverty and oppression- which they most likely have already experienced, and will upon release.

  6. rosemerry
    February 24, 2021 at 16:13

    The few times Trump tried to do something good (talks with Russia, North Korea) were the times he was most demonized. The present régime within such a short time has shown its evil intent, so we won’t have many good times, to look forward to, judging by the actions and persons already made known to us.
    This action , not publicised as far as I know, shows a tiny spark of good for the future of the USA.

  7. Philip Reed
    February 24, 2021 at 14:15

    A great news story John. But why did you feel the need to preface your” atta boy Donald “ message with the usual MSM talking points that do nothing but denigrate Trump with hyperbolic negativity regarding the rest of his Presidency.
    He didn’t alienate allies. He merely asked them to pay their fair share towards a NATO commitment. Too bad if they didn’t take kindly to that message. As for dividing the country ,do you not think four years of a bogus Russiagate and faux impeachments by the Democrats assisted greatly in that divide. Quite apart from the constant harping and twisting misinformation disseminated by MSM on a regular basis. They gave him credit for nothing. Not even the accolade you referenced. As for instigating violence that’s highly debatable ,compared to the cheerleading from the Democrats during the past “ summer of love” that blistered through dozens of cities for four months.
    Too bad nobody got to hear about this program until well after the last election. Except those of us who actually sought out those types of facts by reading and viewing other than lame stream media propaganda.

  8. Paul
    February 24, 2021 at 11:47

    This is indeed an excellent program established by our former president. And it comes just in time for he, family ,and friends to directly benefit.

  9. Jean Maria
    February 24, 2021 at 11:08

    Response to “One Thing Trump Got Right”

    John, This news, and your compelling first-person presentation of it, brought the first encouragement to me when I sigh over my file drawer of about 300 letters to me in the 1970s from inmates of Greenhaven maximum security prison in Stormville, NY. Now all I need is a time machine that will take the Second Chance Pell Grant back to the 1970s to give those prisoners a real chance. The best chance then was, say, learning to use the equipment in the prison print shop, equipment commercial print shops on the outside hadn’t used for years. But, as you say, their grandchildren may get a real chance.

  10. David Scheidt
    February 24, 2021 at 10:06

    Thank you, Always good to hear positive news.

  11. Vera Gottlieb
    February 24, 2021 at 09:54

    At least one good point for Trump.

  12. Dfnslblty
    February 24, 2021 at 09:51

    Author John, fails to include expotus45’s great misunderstanding of education.
    expotus45 pardoned the worst of the morally degenerate prisoners, and left the Pell Grants as a placebo.
    expotus45 has not earned and does not deserve a legacy.
    expotus45 is a clock without hands/morals and cannot be correct on any day!

    Keep writing, J.K. – your insights are mostly correct and always consequential.

    • Philip Reed
      February 24, 2021 at 14:23

      I assume you must be thoroughly over the moon to have Joe Biden represent this great nation with his 48 years of dedicated public service that never served his family’s best interests in any way shape or form. Completely devoid of corruption and unethical conduct. A man who never ever told a lie. Good luck.

      • Anne
        February 25, 2021 at 11:48

        Quite – JB – like so many others in Congress and in other layers of government (DHS etc) are ALL sucking off the taxpayers tit and have been doing so for decades (together with enjoying both nice vacation time and a very nice medical insurance coverage, ta muchly). And not paid for by those multi-millionaires/billionaires, but us down closer, much closer to the bottom. (I seriously doubt that such as JB et al would dream of such “employment” were THEY to have to subsist on the Fed Minimum Wage and seek some sort of Medical Insurance…..(ho ho)…

    • James Simpson
      February 25, 2021 at 03:43

      “… and left the Pell Grants as a placebo.” I think you misunderstand the meaning of ‘placebo’ which is meant to have no effect. Do the grants have no reality? Can they not be used by prisoners? If they are real and useful, then they’re certainly no placebo.

  13. February 24, 2021 at 09:08


    I enjoyed this article. Many people forget that there is a point where incarcerated people need to end their punishment.
    To prepare them to “not come back” is the responsible thing and helps end their punishment.
    Beyond further tax spending, it is a thing we could do to do better for humanity.

    Thank you for your work!

  14. grayslady
    February 24, 2021 at 08:58

    I didn’t know this. The program sounds intelligently structured. I hope work is being done to create liaisons with companies willing to take a chance on these graduates. A two-year partial salary subsidy would be a nice addition to this program.

  15. Piotr Berman
    February 24, 2021 at 06:17

    “It’s no wonder that recidivism is as high as it is. ”

    The author is perhaps a prime example, after serving a term for blowing a whistle he may do it again. We can only imagine that were he allowed to complete his Ph.D. under tutors directing him toward employment opportunities — which he was not — he could join the ranks of titled alumni of intelligence agencies who teach Cold War doctrines in universities and help continuing dead end policies in administrations.

    More seriously, Trump had practical ideas from time to time that contrasted with opportunistic bipartisan consensus within the Establishment. Amazingly, this good idea was actually implemented, not actually typical for his tenure as the President.

Comments are closed.