Expanding prison education benefits everybody
Although going to prison caused strains on their families, one student said his daughter, who had dropped out of high school, was inspired by his educational journey and decided to get her GED and enter nursing school. “It’s like my second chance is becoming her second chance!” he said.
The program these students accessed was funded by Pell Grants in a federal pilot program that provides grant aid for low-income students in approved prison-education programs. Five years into the pilot program, which was initiated by the Obama administration and continued by the Trump administration, Congress has failed to lift a 1994 law that banned access to Pell Grants for incarcerated adults in state and federal prisons.
As it stands, only those students in facilities that have been accepted into the Second Chance Pell pilot program are eligible for aid. Demand among incarcerated individuals looking to take advantage of the benefits offered by these programs still far outweighs the availability of seats for postsecondary learning across the country. The Department of Education’s own survey shows that while 70% of those in prisons want to enroll in an academic program, fewer than 1 in 4 actually are enrolled. The consequences are severe and highlight another piece of our broken criminal justice system that could be easily remedied.
Meanwhile, the rewards of effective prison education programs are substantial: Incarcerated students, the business community, and the public all benefit from increased access to postsecondary correctional education. Incarcerated students see gains in reading and math skills, which increase future employability. Additionally, data has shown reduced rates of recidivism among those who participated in education programs.
Furthermore, the culture inside a facility is impacted by the availability of programming. Indeed, safety within prisons improves when the facility offers programming. This culture shift affects not only the daily lives of all incarcerated people but also can help lower stress levels and career challenges for correctional officers and administrators.
These are just some of the benefits of these programs that demonstrate why Congress needs to act now, before the end of the year, to restore Pell Grant access to incarcerated individuals. Already, 94% of incarcerated adults will be released from prison, and 57% will be released within two years. It is critical to act now to ensure prisons are funded with effective rehabilitative programs to buffer the challenges of reentry. Without access to rehabilitative programs like college in prison, those who have been incarcerated are at a marked disadvantage at successfully rejoining the workforce.
Among both those close to reentry and those with longer sentences, more than half of the adults in prison are academically eligible to enroll in a college program. What’s more, the benefits of higher education accrue to all incarcerated students through an improved facility culture and individual gains in basic skills, regardless of the crime or sentence of the individual. Most adults with longer and indeterminate sentences are individuals of color, less likely to earn a college degree and more likely to face unemployment upon being released from prison. Higher education can help to level the playing field among those who need it most.
The good news is that the issue continues to attract bipartisan support inside and outside of Congress. Organizations on both the Right and the Left, as well as faith-based organizations, business groups, and the civil rights community, are aligned. President Trump’s administration has endorsed the proposal, as did President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign.
In Congress, the Senate education committee chairman, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, has expressed openness to the policy. Leading Democrats on the House and Senate education committees also support the Pell program for the incarcerated. Legislation on the issue has garnered bipartisan support in both chambers.
Yet, the most meaningful call to Congress comes from incarcerated students themselves, whose lives and families have seen the benefits that a prison education program can bring. Some students are enrolling in college for the first time after spending 25 years, their entire adult lives, in prison.
As one student explained, “I signed up because I have a son, and I don’t want him to grow up like me. I want him to get a college education, so I am getting one too.”