Today, educational programs are available in most state correctional facilities. Studies have revealed that participation in education programs while incarcerated have resulted in a 43 percent lower recidivism rate. Despite these positive results, very few prisons offer postsecondary courses. Historically, the availability of such courses used to be much greater. In 1965, President Johnson's administration sought to expand postsecondary education through the Higher Education Act. The financial aid provided through this act was extended to individuals in prison, and by 1990 there were 772 prison college programs in more than 1,000 correctional facilities. These programs were funded primarily through federal Pell Grants, awards for college made on the basis of financial need. Even at this time, incarcerated students received less than one percent of the total spending for Pell Grants.
An amendment to the Higher Education Act in 1992 prohibited incarcerated people serving a life sentence and those on death row from accessing Pell Grants. Just two years later all individuals in prison were barred from accessing federal financial aid through the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. The passage of that legislation caused the number of postsecondary programs in prison to drop to less than ten programs across the entire nation. All of the programs that remained open were funded through private grants, and today that still holds true for many programs.
Today, some federal funding is available at specific locations. In 2016, the Obama administration established Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative. More than 200 colleges and universities applied and 67 colleges were chosen. Using 30 million dollars for the pilot program set aside from discretionary spending within the previously approved Higher Education Act, these sites are providing college courses to 12, 000 individuals in prison across 28 states. Within the first full year of the program, the percentage of students enrolled increased by more than 200 percent, and as of 2018 there were 65 sites remaining in 27 states. In February 2019, the Department of Education announced that it would be renewing initiative for another year.
Prison Fellowship believes that scripture calls us to a restorative approach to justice. Rather than warehouse people, prison should afford opportunities to make amends and earn back the public’s trust, fostering a constructive prison culture and success upon release. This includes making a variety of programming available, including higher education. Making such opportunities available is a matter of both human dignity for those who are incarcerated and public safety of all communities to which former prisoners return.
Prison Fellowship is a subject-matter expert in programming that brings about life transformation. For over four decades, we have been a faith-based service provider in hundreds of prisons across America, providing classes and holistic programming to incarcerated people. Our most intensive program is the Academy, which specifically targets criminal thinking and behavior, life skills, addictions, victim impact, and prosocial culture change. In addition, Prison Fellowship affords a seminary-level degree in some prisons through The Urban Ministry Institute (TUMI).
We know first-hand the impact that positive programming can make in order to foster constructive prison culture and promote good citizenship during incarceration and upon release. In addition to programs like Prison Fellowship's Academy, we support access to a variety of other programs and higher education. Further, we recognize that education is a critical means to unlock opportunity for marginalized communities.
Access to higher education in prison requires intentional investment by federal and state government. This should include the restoration of access to Pell grants for incarcerated students in state and federal facilities. We believe that there should be oversight to ensure that prison education programs are high quality and reflect the equivalent of higher education in the community as much as possible. Additionally, eligibility for Pell Grants should apply to students behind bars in the same manner as students in the community, regardless of the type of offense that brought them to prison. Lifting the Pell ban will not change anyone’s date of release, however, it can dramatically change the person who is returning home. As the research shows, higher education directly contributes to the success of people after release.
Prison Fellowship is advancing a federal campaign to lift the ban on Pell grants for incarcerated students. Restoring access to higher education behind bars will create safer prisons and communities. Prison education programs are shown to reduce prison violence and recidivism, reducing future victims and strengthening families that otherwise would have been fractured by more crime and incarceration. By providing greater access to higher education in prison, we can tap into the God-given potential of men and women who, despite their choices in the past, can make significant future contributions to their families and communities.
Second Chance Pell Grant Sites
Map and information that show where Second Chance Pell sites are located.
Pell Grant for Incarcerated Students
Mythbusters: Pell Grant Eligibility for Incarcerated Students