This Thanksgiving, you might be headed to the movie theaters to watch a biopic of America’s favorite neighbor—Mister Rogers—starring Tom Hanks. Also worth watching, though, is Fred Roger’s beautiful acceptance speech from around two decades ago, when he was awarded an Emmy lifetime achievement award.

In the gentle manner he adopted with children and adults alike, Rogers reminds us that, “all of us have special ones who have loved us into being,” and urges listeners to take “ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are.”

Perhaps a parent or relative might come to mind. But for most of us, the next person who loved us into being was likely an educator. Indeed, with Thanksgiving just around the corner, we might feel especially grateful for the teacher or professor that made us feel worthy and smart, and gave us courage to pursue our dreams.

We know that education is incredibly transformative—it can help break cycles of familial poverty, restore human dignity and lead to better paying employment. It can help us construct meaning in an often-chaotic world. So it’s a real shame that in this country, for the approximately 1.5 million people in prison, few have the opportunity to pursue higher education.

Since 1994, many prisons have lost their ability to provide education beyond a GED. In the midst of the tough-on-crime era, President Bill Clinton signed legislation that, among other things, prohibited incarcerated individuals from accessing the financial aid most rely upon to fund their educations—Pell Grants. Before the ban, prison education programs provided education funding for 23,000 individuals in prison from 1993 to 1994 alone, while after the ban, the number of programs shrunk to less than a dozen. While a few programs have been reinstated through the Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative, these offerings are few and far between.

For individuals in prison, education has special benefits. It provides people with new skills that improve their lives behind bars and upon release. It has public safety benefits, as a number of studies have linked prison education to lower levels of reoffending. And it has ‘trickle-down’ effects beyond the individuals directly engaged: Educated individuals serve as role models for their children and community. It is certainly money well spent: One study estimates that for every dollar spent on prison education, society saves four to five dollars on future incarceration costs.

Even for those serving life sentences, prison education is powerful. “Lifers” often serve as mentors and leaders behind bars, setting the tone for the prison environment. Education restores their dignity and gives them something positive to focus on. Additionally, it improves prison safety, as those who participate in educational programs tend to have better institutional disciplinary records than those who do not. Given these many benefits, restoring educational funding for lifers should be a key goal for policymakers.

Mister Rogers believed every person, no matter who they were or what they did, had value, and that we shouldn’t give up on anyone. This Thanksgiving, perhaps we can consider individuals in prison, most of whom will one day return to our neighborhoods. Because this session, Congress has the opportunity to reinstate Pell Grants for prisoners and make real differences for so many of our neighbors.

Image credit: Grand Communications/The Fred Rogers Company

Featured Publications