According to many, the best way to make sure prisoners don’t return to prison is education. In fact, a Rand Corporation study found that inmates who participated in correctional education programs decreased their chances of returning after release by 43 percent. Once freed, participating inmates were also 13 percent more likely to find a job. Why, then, can’t prisoners receive Pell Grants?
There are a handful of colleges that provide post-secondary education to prisoners, including Bard College, Goucher College, and Grinnell College, among others. Bard’s Prison Initiative offers 165 courses to 300 students. Most of their students were first arrested as children and very few had completed high school. After earning their GEDs, students enroll in Bard classes as ambitious and intense as any undergraduate experience. Upon release, less than three percent of these college students return to prison. They have careers and pay taxes. They contribute.
Though there is wide consensus that education builds better outcomes for convicts, one entity that is not on board is the federal government. Pell Grants are given to students with financial need, providing opportunity for those who would not otherwise be able to attend. But the federal government does not allow prisoners to receive Pell Grants.
This lapse lags behind recent prison reforms. President Trump recently announced support for a bipartisan bill, the FIRST Step Act. It eliminates “stacking” provisions that stack consecutive sentences for crimes with firearms. Additionally, the bill reduces life imprisonment for convicted “three strikes” felons to a minimum of 25 years. Further, it opens the “drug safety valve,” releasing prisoners serving mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.
The Ban Remains
Still, the prohibition on Pell Grants for prisoners remains. An experimental program, Second Chance, began by the Obama administration in 2015, has provided student aid for about 10,000 prisoners. Though this program remains a helpful workaround for the Pell Grant ban, the U.S. incarcerates more than 2.2 million individuals.
Senators Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., are working on further bipartisan legislation that would end the ban. The proposal overhauls current regulations, allowing Pell Grants to include prisoners, undocumented students, and some drug offenders. Secretary of the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, supports the legislation, viewing it as “a very good and interesting possibility.” Further, even key conservative leaders see the social and economic benefits of the policy shift.
As the economy continues to shift away from manufacturing, businesses need workers with excellent written and verbal skills. These skills are best acquired in a post-secondary liberal-arts education. There are only a handful of colleges willing to work with prisoners since there is no funding available. The $5,920 per year available through Pell Grants would go a long way toward funding a prisoner’s education.
Not all agree that on how we should treat convicted criminals. But, nearly all agree that social damage caused by those returning to criminal activities after being released can be devastating. Also, the cost of warehousing re-offenders is incredibly high. Even for those who do not believe that we should pay for the redemption of felons, the cost of not educating them might turn out to be higher.