Pell Grant for inmates' education can make society safer by keeping re-offense rate under check
Recidivism, the tendency of a convicted criminal to re-offend, is 14% for those who obtain an associate degree, 5.6% for those with a bachelor’s degree, and 0% for those who secure a master’s degree.
Leslie Vass was wrongfully convicted of armed robbery in 1975. He was a 17-year-old basketball player at his high school in Baltimore. He was sent away for two decades - he had no criminal record - but he also never could finish high school. Many years later, Vass not only got his GED (high school equivalency), he also took a paralegal course. He eventually got himself out and exonerated. He is just one of the thousands of success stories that stand testimony to the difference education makes in the correctional system.
Students in the Northwestern Prison Education Program (NPEP) will be able to achieve an Associate of General Studies from Oakton Community College. They're also working to expand so that their students are able to earn a B.A. from Northwestern’s School of Professional Studies. Bard Prison Initiative enrolls over 300 incarcerated students full-time in programs that culminate in degrees from Bard College. Yale Prison Education Prison Initiative offers Yale credited courses to incarcerated students. Periodically, they say, they also offer some not-for-credit courses, seminar series, workshops, and guest lectures.
The general courses range from basic literacy programs, secondary school equivalency programs, vocational education, and tertiary education among other things. So, why is the Pell Grant still getting in the way, ask those who work to make education accessible and better in correctional facilities.
What is the Pell Grant?
In 1965, President Johnson and his administration passed the Higher Education Act. Federal Pell Grants came in as a result.
It is usually awarded only to undergraduate students who display exceptional financial need and have not earned a bachelor's, graduate, or professional degree. Until about two decades ago, it was also granted to prisoners and inmates if they wished to study while behind bars. However, it soon went out of the window as part of Bill Clinton's hard-on-crime policies of 1994. Today, according to information on Federal Student Aid, incarcerated people do not receive the grant. In 2015, the Obama administration put out a Second Chance Pell pilot but it still requires legislation from Congress to make it permanent.
A bill to make it permanent was last considered in April 2019, when a new bipartisan bill was introduced that would allow incarcerated people to use federal Pell Grants. Sponsored by U.S. Senator Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, it would be known as the Restoring Education and Learning Act, known as the REAL Act.
Department of Education data states that the pilot initiative has involved more than 10,000 inmates across 64 institutions but as goes with pilots, their shelf life is generally up to 5 years.
Educating inmates doesn't just make for a safer community
Education aids in reducing recidivism numbers, research says. Inmates who participate in correctional education programs have a 43 percent lower chance of recidivating than those who did not. "Providing education is probably the most important single thing we can do to ensure that incarcerated people succeed after their release and don’t return to prison," said David C. Fathi, Director, ACLU National Prison Project.
"Education has been shown over and over again to be one of the most effective ways of positively intervening in the criminal justice system. We don’t need more prisons; we need more — and better — classrooms," said Jennifer Lackey, Director of Northwestern Prison Education Program to MEA World Wide. The higher the degree, the lower the recidivism rate, she says. "The recidivism rate is 14% for those who obtain an associate degree, 5.6% for those who earn a bachelor’s degree, and 0% for those who achieve a master’s degree," she says.
It is a way to prevent crime from happening with a cheaper alternative. According to the Department of Policy Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, “a $1 million investment in incarceration will prevent about 350 crimes, while that same investment in [prison] education will prevent more than 600 crimes. [Prison] education is almost twice as cost-effective as incarceration.” Another study found that for every $1 invested in prison education, taxpayers save $4-$5 in re-incarceration costs during the first three years post-release.
"Finally, post-secondary educational opportunities in prisons enhance employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated persons, leading to smoother and more successful reentry prospects," she adds.
Additionally, it is also cost-effective and ends up being a huge boost to the economy of the country. "A more educated person is a more productive, employable person. That’s as true for prisoners as for anybody else," noted Fathi.
Inmates are many, funds few
One of the greatest challenges with keeping these programs alive is funds, which not only hinders current ongoing programs but also puts a dent in the efforts for expansion. "Programs such as ours rely entirely on private funds and donations, so the lack of state and federal funds for postsecondary educational opportunities in prisons limits the number of students who are able to pursue an education while they are incarcerated," said Lackey.
Most incarcerated people having zero access to education beyond GED programs too, said Fathi and since there is no legal obligation to provide education to prisoners most prison systems don’t.
There are also technological challenges. With no access to computers or the internet, student inmates face significant challenges with the students conducting their own research. "They are not allowed to take calculators back to their cell houses, so they are able to do math work that requires a calculator only during class time in the education building," she says. Some technology, like access to the internet, may pose security concerns, if unlimited but these are minor hiccups that can be easily overcome says Fathi.
However, the problem can largely be resolved if the ban on the Pell grant is lifted. "When we as a society decide that something is important, we pass laws requiring that it be done and we allocate funding to pay for it. That’s what we need to do with education for incarcerated people," he said.