THE BLOG
01/16/2015 04:17 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2015

Restore Pell Grants for Prisoners

Spencer Grant via Getty Images

Last month the Department of Education clarified the eligibility rules for Federal Pell Grant funding. Although Congress barred Pell Grants in 1994 for those confined in "Federal or State Penal institutions," according to the clarification, these are distinct from "juvenile justice facilities" and "local and county jails, penitentiaries, and correctional facilities." Although, this ruling will effectively increase the number of incarcerated individuals applying for and receiving Pell funding, the vast majority remain ineligible.

Prisoners first became eligible for federal funding in 1972, when federal legislation directly allowed for imprisoned individuals to apply for Pell Grants. The push to include prisoners for Pell eligibility was consistent with the grant's design to assist economically challenged Americans work toward post-secondary study and training. For over two decades, prisoners were treated as a part of the economic underclass in America.

Times would drastically change as a result of the new law. Figures show that in the few years prior to the 1994 legislation, there were several hundred college programs in prison, almost all of which would disappear overnight. Today, the situation is in survival mode with only about two dozen programs offering in-person instruction.

The decimated infrastructure led to a crisis in post-secondary education in prison. The blow worked against already low levels of education behind bars, such that 41 percent of prison and jail inmates in 2003 had not completed high school and more recent data suggesting that over 70 percent of all inmates in U.S. prisons and jails cannot read above the fourth-grade level, with 60 percent of all inmates being functionally illiterate.

Unlike the devastating effects on prison education, the law's penal outcomes are less certain. There is little doubt that high recidivism rates across the country continue to impact public safety negatively with new offenses and new social harms. Moreover, despite being touted as a cost-saving measure, it is not clear if barring Pell funding is cost effective. With nearly 52 billion spent annually on corrections nationwide, a chunk of which goes to processing, housing, and releasing recidivist offenders, the cost is not small. On the contrary, education appears a more savvy investment, with one government study showing that for every dollar spent on education, there was a return of more than two dollars in reduced prison costs.

Restoring Pell funding brings the added bonus of enhancing religious programming, study, and training. The expansion is a windfall for prisons since involvement in religion is associated with positive outcomes for prisoners, including improved self-esteem, discipline, and helping individuals exit gang life.

By extension, more formal religious study provides opportunities for better prison management. For example, over the last decade there has been a shortage of Muslim chaplains at both state and federal levels. The lack of religious leadership has had undesirable consequences, including unorthodox leadership and practices, and increased prisoner radicalization. With Pell funding, divinity and seminary schools could develop prison curricula to fill some of the gaps in chaplaincy. As formal religious education has been likened to an antidote for extremism, it functions as a form of risk management.

Restoring Pell funding will also advance racial justice. As African American and Latinos are disproportionately represented in prison, the elimination of Pell funding means greater loss for these specific groups. This point was not lost on the NAACP in 2009 when it urged Congress to restore prisoner eligibility.

Restoring funding for prisoners would bring the grant program closer to the original intent of Senator Pell himself, who championed the cause of educational opportunity for all. Pell's daughter, Dallas Pell, has also urged Congress to honor her father's legacy by restoring funding to all prisoners, which she writes, "strengthens underserved communities as formerly incarcerated people are most often released into communities that lack the capacity to provide them with employment or reentry assistance."

With 700,000 individuals exiting prison each year, Pell funding is needed now more than ever for the greatest challenge for anyone released from prison--finding gainful employment. Toward this end, education and vocational training helps inmates enhance their marketability, with degrees, certificates, and skills. Congress must re-harness education's power in prison by restoring Pell funding to all who qualify under existing need-based criteria. More education in prison will advance both penal and public interests, and more importantly, will help prevent further crime and victimization.