Education matters. Help prisoners find restoration.
Education unleashes our innate capacity to grow to our full potential—something our justice system used to recognize by making Pell Grants available to prisoners. There was a time when America generally accepted that granting prisoners access to higher education allowed men and women to develop into productive citizens so they could change the culture inside and outside of prisons, resulting in stronger families and safer communities.
But today, all but a few incarcerated people are barred from accessing Pell Grants—a key source of financing for those who can't afford college.
PELL GRANTS MAKE A DIFFERENCE
The Pell Grants established with the Higher Education Act of 1965 provided support for low-income students, including incarcerated ones, in need of financial help to attend a college or university. As a result, higher education programs expanded throughout the prison system, and by 1990, there were college programs in more than 1,000 correctional facilities.
But in 1994, prisoners' Pell Grant eligibility was taken away. Today, through the limited Second Chance Pell Pilot program, there are only 64 in-prison higher education programs. These exist because the Obama and Trump administrations used their executive power, respectively, to establish and continue them. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has opened up applications for more Second Chance Pell sites. Such sites typically last three to five years. The Second Chance Pell experiment is authorized to continue for the 2019-2020 award year, but Congress must act if it wants to make these opportunities permanent.
Matt received a Pell Grant while incarcerated not long before most prisoners lost access to the funds. "I was able to begin work on my bachelor's, and I was able to finish an associate degree—two-year degree—with the Pell Grant," he says.
Matt went on to finish his undergraduate studies and go on to receive a master's degree while behind bars. Today he operates the software that runs his employer's digital printers. A "Pell Grant is what got me started, and … really what made the difference," he says. Regarding his education and professors, Matt adds, "It was an honor. It was a privilege. It was something I took very seriously because of their time commitment."
Matt, like many other incarcerated men and women who received Pell Grants in the past, discovered that education helped him to flourish—something Hans Stoffregen learned as well.
WHY PRISON EDUCATION MATTERS
Hans was incarcerated in a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, in the late '80s. A friend of his inside the prison told him about a technical college that was offering HVAC training. Hans was interested but didn't have the money to pay for the classes, a common issue for the incarcerated. Most prisoners would qualify for postsecondary education but don't receive the necessary financial support.
But then, he says, "I found out that there was a Pell Grant available that would pay it. I thought, Oh, that's just great." Hans applied for and received a Pell Grant for the classes.
Once released, Hans parlayed his HVAC skills into work as an electrician. "To this day, I'm an electrician. That's what I do," he says. "I studied it real well. I was a good student. And it's been a lifesaver for me, because number one: I have a skill that's in demand. I can go anywhere in the United States. … I don't have to steal, I don't have to sell dope, I don't have to be a crook. I've got an occupation."
But the education Hans received through the Pell Grant meant more than just employment. "You know, I can put a dollar value on the money I've earned," he says, but "I can't put a dollar value on my self-esteem and what it did for me to help me be a productive member of society."
Hans hasn't been back to prison since his release in 2003. Prisoners who participate in education programs are 43 times less likely to return to prison than those who don’t. They're also 21% more likely to gain employment upon release. Prison education programs also foster constructive prison culture and promote good citizenship, leading to fewer victims and stronger families.
A WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY
These benefits are why Prison Fellowship® is urging lawmakers to lift the ban on Pell Grants for all students behind bars—in state and federal prisons—regardless of the type of offense that brought them to prison.
And there is a window of opportunity. Policymakers, including those in the White House, are now reconsidering the ban on Pell Grants for prisoners. We are hopeful that lawmakers will support the inclusion of such language in the Higher Education Act, which is currently being reauthorized. The issue of restoring prisoners' access to Pell Grants already has bipartisan support, as evidenced by the introduction of the REAL Act.
The issue also has support from corrections officials. In 1994, corrections officers and wardens defended Pell Grant access for prisoners, and they are now advocating for its restoration in 2019. Their logic is clear: Correctional education is a crucial tool for improving prison culture and preparing incarcerated men and women for reentry.
HELP PRISONERS ACCESS HIGHER EDUCATION
By restoring investment in education behind bars through Pell Grants, we can tap into the God-given potential of people who, despite their choices in the past, can make significant contributions to their families, communities, and future employers.
Access to Pell Grants can't change a person's release date, but it can dramatically change the outcomes for the person and for society.
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