Congress restores college funding for inmates
Prison reform advocates celebrate the change
Congress’ most recent coronavirus stimulus legislation accomplished one of criminal justice reform advocates’ major goals: restoring Pell Grants to prisoners.
The 1965 Higher Education Act allowed incarcerated students to qualify for the grants, which the government provides to low-income college attendees. By 1990, the United States had 772 college programs operating in nearly 1,290 prisons. Opponents said funding inmate education wasted taxpayer dollars that could support law-abiding students instead. The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act disqualified all prisoners from receiving Pell Grants. Three years later, only about eight higher education programs operated in prisons.
In 2015, President Barack Obama launched the Second Chance Pell pilot program, giving a few colleges a chance to become experimental prison education sites. In the first year, 67 schools worked with more than 100 prisons. Last April, former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos expanded the list to include 130 schools. The Department of Education released a report on the program in August acknowledging it was too early to judge long-term outcomes but recipients of the grants successfully completed a high percentage of the credits they attempted, and schools and prisons saw unexpected benefits.
Studies have shown that education in prison reduces recidivism. It prepares inmates to find jobs and contribute to society after release while also providing a purposeful, productive use of time in prison.
“Our prisons can be bootcamps of criminality … or they can be centers of restoration,” said James Ackerman, president and CEO of Prison Fellowship.
In 2019, Sens. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, introduced legislation to fully restore prisoners’ Pell Grants. Despite bipartisan support, the bill stalled as Congress focused elsewhere. Supporters managed to attach the provisions to the spending bill Congress passed in December. The change will take effect no later than July 1, 2023, though the secretary of education can choose to implement it sooner.
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