Politics & Policy

Reinstate Pell Grants for Prisoners

(Stephen Lam/Reuters)
It’s not the ideal solution, but it’s a step in the right direction.

This session, Congress has an opportunity to dramatically expand access to post-secondary education behind bars by reinstating eligibility for Pell Grants (need-based federal tuition grants to undergraduate students) for people in prison. Though conservatives are often wary of federal involvement in higher education, they should consider the advantages that offering post-secondary education to prisoners can bring to both individuals and society.

When prisoners lack the means to acquire an education, everyone suffers. Those behind bars remain idle and, according to research, may be more likely to act out — sometimes violently — toward other incarcerated individuals and prison staff. Children of people in prison also suffer while their parents are imprisoned, having relied on them not only as a source of income but also as a positive role model in the home. And once these individuals are released, they often have trouble finding employment. This begets a reliance on public safety nets and sometimes even a return to criminal activity.

Offering correctional post-secondary-education programs can mitigate these problems. For men and women behind bars, enrolling in college courses makes the time they spend in prison more meaningful and productive. These programs provide incarcerated students with a positive goal to work toward. And by pursuing an education, people in prison can refine their critical-thinking skills and acquire new aptitudes sought by employers on the outside. Indeed, research suggests that obtaining a post-secondary education while in prison is associated with improved employment outcomes upon release.

A post-secondary education can also produce myriad benefits for society. Children and families of prisoners benefit when parents receive a post-secondary education — it sets new expectations and opens up new possibilities for educational achievement. Communities also benefit when the formerly incarcerated secure jobs, contribute demanded skills to the economy, pay taxes, and depend less heavily on social-service agencies.

Moreover, individuals who receive post-secondary education while in prison are less likely to recidivate and return to prison than those who do not, which benefits us all. One study found that obtaining a post-secondary degree while incarcerated lowers a person’s odds of returning to prison due to a new offense by 24 percent. Reduced crime and imprisonment not only means avoiding harm to persons and property, it also means saved taxpayer dollars. State and federal taxpayers often spend tens of thousands of dollars per year incarcerating just one individual. When fewer people return to prison, these taxpayer dollars can be invested in other priorities.

Given these benefits, increasing access to post-secondary education behind bars is a worthwhile investment. The question then becomes whether Pell Grants are the best way to achieve this.

The truth is that there really are no better alternatives. When prisoners were stripped of their Pell Grant eligibility in 1994, opportunities to pursue post-secondary education behind bars plummeted. During the early 1990s, over 700 correctional education programs existed. By 1997, the number of post-secondary programs in prisons dropped to just eight. In contrast, a recent report by the Vera Institute for Justice and Georgetown University Law Center estimates that 463,000 individuals would have new financial means to receive post-secondary education if Pell Grant eligibility for prisoners were reinstated.

In an ideal world, states would not need to depend on federal dollars to support these programs. And in fact, some states have been able to offer limited educational programming in prisons. But in reality, most state correctional agencies are strapped for cash. As the Department of Justice’s recent report on Alabama prisons shows, in some instances, simply keeping individuals safe and facilities fully staffed is a difficult task. If we wait for states to act, we might never see these programs funded, missing the opportunity to improve both the lives of incarcerated individuals and the fiscal health of society.

The whole purpose of the Pell Grant program is to give those individuals facing the greatest financial adversity access to one of the most proven paths to prosperity: education. Even if those of us on the right disagree with various aspects of federal higher-education policy, we cannot ignore the fact that, for the most part, people behind bars are some of the most financially disadvantaged in society — and the most capable of transforming educational opportunities into individual and societal benefits. As long as we have Pell Grant funding, it should be available to those it can help the most.

Post-secondary education is not a panacea to solve all our criminal-justice challenges, but it is a big step in the right direction. Given time and the appropriate resources, it can transform individuals, our communities, and our society. And in the meantime, it can save us millions — possibly hundreds of millions — of dollars. By reinstating Pell Grant access for prisoners, we can ensure that this transformation will happen sooner rather than later.

Emily Mooney (@emilymmooney) is a criminal justice fellow at the R Street Institute. Shon Hopwood (@shonhopwood) is an appellate attorney and an associate professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center.


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