More than 20 years ago, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 made incarcerated individuals ineligible for Pell Grants, the funds awarded to students seeking a college degree who demonstrate exceptional financial need. This policy led to dramatic decreases in higher-education offerings for those serving time in prison.
Today, lawmakers are considering the Restoring Education and Learning Act , a federal bill that would reinstate Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated individuals. Contrary to the “tough on crime” rhetoric that spurred the 1994 act, postsecondary education programs in prisons are well worth the investment.
One study found that earning a postsecondary degree while incarcerated can reduce an individual’s chances of being rearrested by 14% and their chances of returning to prison for committing a new offense by 24%. When these programs are accessible to everyone in a given prison, participation rates increase further, translating to better outcomes for those who will one day leave prison and reenter our society.
Unfortunately, since the introduction of the REAL Act, some lawmakers have been hesitant to include eligibility for those who have been sentenced to serve life sentences, or even longer-than-average sentences. This is a mistake.
Postsecondary education promotes a positive, safer community behind bars. Without adequate programming to keep prisoners mentally active and socially connected, they can experience depression  as well as an increased tendency to seek out new sources of stimulation, which includes engaging in disruptive or violent outbursts. This puts other inmates, as well as prison staff, at risk.
Yet those who receive postsecondary education while incarcerated are less likely  to participate in these sorts of outbursts or other forms of misconduct. Postsecondary education within prison creates space for those incarcerated to expend energy and can therefore help correctional officers maintain a safe environment that is conducive to self-improvement.
Relationship dynamics among those incarcerated play an important role in the functionality and safety of prisons. If veteran prisoners — i.e., those serving lengthy sentences — are effectively barred from accessing higher education programs, the likelihood that other inmates will view these programs as positive opportunities decreases.
Excluding people with longer sentences from correctional education could also create tensions between those eligible for the programs and those who are ineligible, which might increase disruptive behavior among factions of incarcerated people.
Many opposing Pell Grant reinstatement for those serving longer sentences believe the purpose of correctional education is only to reduce recidivism rates or to increase employment opportunities for prisoners upon their release. However, this view is far too narrow.
When evaluating the need for increased access to postsecondary correctional education, lawmakers should view the measure as sound public policy appropriate to all human beings, rather than simply as a tool that asserts value through its presumed social utility.
But even if they refuse to see it this way, as long as we focus on building intellectual communities within prisons that are truly focused on rehabilitation, the benefits our society will reap — in terms of saved money, increased safety, and greater social cohesion — will be invaluable.
Nothing brings the adage “idle hands are the devil’s playthings” into sharper focus than how we treat those who are incarcerated. We know that robust educational programs are key to reducing crime both inside  and outside  of our prisons.
Those who think certain categories of individuals should be excluded from Pell Grant eligibility should look to the goals they hope to achieve through this measure. If they truly want to promote inmate and officer safety, improve public safety, save taxpayer dollars, and protect the human dignity of all Americans, then they should be seeking to reinstate Pell Grant eligibility for all.
Image credit: LightField Studios 
- “Restoring Education and Learning Act”: https://www.schatz.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/REAL%20Act,%20116th.pdf
- “depression”: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0734016813494764
- “less likely”: https://www.urban.org/research/publication/effects-postsecondary-correctional-education/view/full_report
- “inside”: https://www.vera.org/publications/postsecondary-education-in-prison-fact-sheet-for-correction-leaders
- “outside”: https://www.rand.org/blog/rand-review/2016/01/course-correction-the-case-for-correctional-education.html
- “LightField Studios”: https://www.shutterstock.com/g/lightfield+studios