The Battle to Bring Back Pell Grants for Prisoners

Recently there’s been a more visible push to bring back federal funding for college classes in prison. Here's why you would sleep better if that happened.

Critics have long said that college classes behind bars coddle criminals. But here’s a no-brainer: Would you prefer living next door to a released prisoner who is or is not college-educated?

Research shows that the more education a person has, the less likely that person is to return to crime. Not only have college classes for prisoners consistently reduced recidivism, they’ve helped the formerly incarcerated get jobs upon release and lessened disciplinary issues and racial barriers behind bars—all of which means that when an educated prisoner returns to the streets, we all benefit.

But not everyone realizes this reality. That’s why a recent conference at Rutgers University called for the reinstating of Pell Grants nationwide to prisoners in federal and state facilities. College education in prison was mostly supported by Pell Grants until a little-known provision in a major crime control law passed through Congress in 1994 and devastated prison education across the country. The amendment grew out of the misrepresentation that Pell Grants for prisoners ripped opportunity out of the hands of non-criminals who needed to educate their children. The truth is that, nationwide, 25,000 prisoner-students received grants of the 4.7 million Pells dispersed—which means that less than 1 percent were given to the incarcerated.

Since then, one-by-one, prison education programs across the country dried up. Survey respondents in a 2005 study said that “… a lack of funding is the key barrier that prevents prison systems from enrolling more incarcerated students in college courses.”

Amherst College and Boston University have stepped up to the plate as other prison college programs and most community colleges in the state watched classes disappear. B.U.’s Prison Education website says that, between 1972 and 2008, they offered 600 courses in prisons such as Norfolk and Framingham. Today, prisoners in a B.U. program can take three to five classes a semester and B.U. offers them a Bachelors in Liberal Studies. Professor Kristin Bumiller, trained by the Inside Out Program, is supported fully by Amherst College to take students into Hampshire County Jail. She is able to offer both inside and outside students credit for her college courses. It’s still a far cry from the heydey in Massachusetts when prison education programs thrived with community colleges doing the heavy lifting, supported by Pells.

Vivian Nixon, director of the College and Community Fellowship and cofounder of Education from the Inside Out (EIO), said in an interview that this is the year they hope to pass a bill to turn back the repeal of Pells for prisoners. EIO’s position is that forces such as the economy, prison overcrowding, and the need to keep people from returning to prison insist we demand education for all. Big powerhouses—Warren Buffett, George Soros, the Gates and Ford Foundations, to name a few—are providing funds to help Nixon get the word out and to ultimately ask Congress to reverse the law that most people don’t know exists. “But changing federal legislation is a slow, painful process,” Nixon said. “First we’ve had to build a national coalition.” (Editor’s clarification: Donors are not giving directly to EIO, but foundations are pooling money for a project at the Vera Institute to allow certain states to explore increasing access to higher education.)

It’s not hard to see how this could add up: At the end of 2012, the maximum Pell Grant cost $5,500. The Mass DOC says it costs an average of $46,000 to keep a prisoner behind bars for a year. Plus, with Pell Grants, prisoners can continue their education after incarceration. If they earn an associates degree behind bars, they can go for a bachelor’s or even a master’s, once released. That ultimately helps to keep people out of crime. Isn’t that deal worth it?