In April, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation announced another big move in an area where few other major funders have yet to tread, with a $1.5 million, three-year grant to post-secondary education programs for incarcerated people in Connecticut.

As Inside Philanthropy reported in 2019, Mellon is a leading national funder in this space. Other funders in this arena include the Laura and John Arnold, MacArthur, and Ford foundations, but data available shows giving at much lower levels than Mellon, which has been active in this area for roughly 16 years. Since its first $1 million grant in 2015 to Columbia University’s Justice in Education Initiative, institutions such as Cornell, Rutgers, Mount Tamalpais College and the University of Puget Sound have been among the institutions that have collectively received more than $36 million to date from Mellon to provide traditional college classes to incarcerated individuals.

Looking beyond secular funders, the controversial National Christian Charitable Foundation channeled $9.5 million over five years. Much of that money, though, went to faith-based programs like Prison Fellowship Ministries, which is focused on helping incarcerated people “lead lives of purpose and productivity inside and outside of prison,” according to its website.

While religion-based programs may have great value to believers, they don’t qualify toward academic credentials. Meanwhile, an academic education—specifically, one centered in the traditional humanities—is Mellon’s core focus.

The funder’s April announcement is a case in point. The grant will allow the University of New Haven and the Yale Prison Education Initiative at Dwight Hall (YPEI) to create a two-year associate’s degree program to serve men and women incarcerated in Connecticut.

Mellon’s focus on a humanities-based liberal arts education—as opposed to life skills classes, religious programming or vocational education—is no accident. It also isn’t a surprise coming from the country’s largest overall funder of the arts, culture and humanities.

“While this commitment means that we cannot fund some exceptional programs in the prison higher learning space, it does help us focus our resources,” Mellon President Elizabeth Alexander told Inside Philanthropy in an email interview.

This, and Mellon’s other grants toward higher education for incarcerated people, is also one of the institution’s ways of answering the question of what role the arts and humanities should play in the fight for social justice.

Arts and humanities as agents of social change

Mellon’s role in funding social change through the arts and humanities is reaching far beyond its work in our country’s prisons. In September, Mike Scutari reported on Mellon’s stepped-up efforts on this front, including a September 2020 grant to the new Literary Arts Emergency Fund supporting working writers—many if not most of whom rely on the kinds of service jobs that disappeared during the pandemic. Two of the first three recipients of grants from the new fund serve underrepresented writers: Undocupoets, an initiative that awards fellowships to currently or formerly undocumented poets, and Arte Publico Press, the oldest publisher of contemporary and recovered literature by U.S. Hispanic authors.

In a more financially dramatic move, last fall, Mellon announced it would spend a quarter-billion dollars over five years to fund the foundation’s Monuments Project. The goal of the project, as reported by Philip Rojc in December, is to ensure “that future generations inherit a monument landscape that venerates and reflects the vast, rich complexity of the American story.” In other words, Mellon wants to move money to organizations that will assess the country’s monuments, erect monuments to people previously overlooked in American history, and either relocate or provide context to existing monuments.

(These and other moves are among the reasons that Alexander won the 2020 IPPY Foundation President of the Year Award.)

50 states, 1,000 prisons, 500 books each

Inside the nation’s prisons, Mellon isn’t just focused on putting textbooks in students’ hands; instead, the funder aims to put a wide range of books in the hands of potentially more than 1 million readers. In a collaboration with Yale Law School’s Justice Collaboratory, Mellon plans to fund the distribution of a curated, 500-book collection to 1,000 medium and maximum security prisons across all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. That’s a significant proportion of the estimated total of 1,833 state and 110 federal prisons in the country, which, in 2020, imprisoned more than 1.5 million people.

“Just last year,” Alexander told me, “we announced a $5.25 million grant to support the project that aims to transform the role of literature and libraries in the lives of people in prison. The project is going well, and will have some exciting developments being announced later this year.”

A new vision, and prioritizing social justice

Mellon’s commitment to higher education in prisons can itself be seen as a social justice stance. As the foundation has pointed out, Mellon as an institution believes that “the beauty, transcendence and freedom found in education must be made available equitably.”

Last year, Mellon made a social justice focus front and center in announcing its new “major strategic evolution” to prioritize social justice in all of its grantmaking. While announced just a month after the murder of George Floyd, this “strategic reorientation,” as Alexander called it during our interview, had been in process since she took the helm at Mellon in 2018.

In the June statement announcing the shift, Alexander wrote, “At Mellon, we believe in the power of the humanities and the arts to facilitate a deeper understanding of the richness of human experience. Now, we urgently ask the question ‘What does it mean to pursue social justice through the humanities and the arts?’”

When it comes to higher learning in prisons, Alexander told Inside Philanthropy, the new direction has led Mellon to expand its grantmaking and “also to think critically about the other ways in which Mellon’s core commitments to the arts and humanities might intersect with mass incarceration and its related systems and processes.”

Mellon had already taken steps to support higher education for a wider community of underserved people, including those who have been formerly incarcerated. In 2017, Mellon funding launched “Bard at BPL,” a collaboration between Bard College and the Brooklyn Public Library to provide a tuition-free liberal arts degree at the library. This program, an outgrowth of Bard’s Prison Initiative, received an additional $850,000 grant from Mellon in 2019.

In addition to the Million Book Project, Alexander said that Mellon has an overall deep commitment “to ensur[e] expansive and meaningful access to books and information for incarcerated people in all 50 states plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.”

That commitment, she said, is exemplified by Mellon’s 2018 $600,000 grant to the nonprofit Ithaka Harbors, Inc. to provide JSTOR access to incarcerated people and “our general ongoing work to expand prison libraries throughout the United States—the country that has the highest number of incarcerated people on Earth.”