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June 30, 2016

"The Power of Pell Grants for Prisoners"

The title of this post is the headline of this new New Yorker‎ commentary authored by Clint Smith. Here are excerpts:

Last Thursday, the Obama Administration selected sixty-seven colleges and universities across twenty-seven states to participate in the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program, which aims to “create a fairer, more effective criminal justice system, reduce recidivism, and combat the impact of mass incarceration on communities.”  The new initiative could make Pell Grants available to as many as twelve thousand people behind bars. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr., made sure to address the aforementioned concerns around funding head on, stating that the resources allotted to the pilot program make up less than 0.1 per cent of the thirty-billion-dollar Pell Grants program, and will in no way cut into funding for current or future Pell Grant recipients who are not incarcerated.

As advocates of prison education might note, twelve thousand is a small proportion of the 2.3 million people currently in prison. But the executive action by the Obama Administration is a progressive step forward on correctional education, especially given that legislation like the Restoring Education and Learning (real) Act — which would eliminate the provision in the crime bill barring prisoners in state or federal institutions from Pell Grant eligibility — remains stalled in Congress. Social scientists have known for some time that prison-education programs are a cost-effective and successful means of reducing recidivism.  A study by the rand Corporation in 2013 found that incarcerated individuals who participated in educational programs were forty-three per cent less likely to recidivate within three years than those who did not. It also found that correctional education increased the likelihood of obtaining employment once released, with those who participated in programming during their time behind bars thirteen per cent more likely to obtain a job than those who did not....

Being incarcerated does not mean being devoid of the capacity to learn, grow, and think, and it’s critical that prisons provide spaces where learning can be both cultivated and encouraged.

This is what makes the Obama Administration’s program so important.  Pell Grants provide resources that assist colleges in building their capacity in prisons, by covering the cost of books, tuition, and fees.  But, though certainly beneficial to those men and women who will receive the grants, there are limits to what the program offers.  For example, to qualify, a person must be eligible for release within five years of enrolling, which doesn’t address the educational needs of those serving long-term or life sentences.

The benefits of prison education go beyond lowering recidivism rates and increasing post-release employment. It can also rekindle a sense of purpose and confidence. For Jackson, participating in the Boston University prison-education program, and moving closer to obtaining a bachelor’s degree, has fundamentally changed his sense of self — and increased the likelihood that he’ll stay out of prison if the parole board approves his release.  The Second Chance Pell Pilot Program means that more people like Jackson will have an opportunity to take college-level classes, improving their chances of remaining out of prison and also of giving them back a sense of purpose that has otherwise been stripped away.  Or, as Jackson said about his work, it’s “like you’re doing something with your life.”

June 30, 2016 at 10:34 AM | Permalink


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