WASHINGTON — On July 31, the Obama administration is expected to announce the restoration of federal Pell grant eligibility to prison inmates. While the move will expand educational opportunities to incarcerated individuals for an expected trial period of three to five years, it could also help decrease recidivism and alleviate prison crowding across the country.
Pell grants are generally reserved for undergraduates who have not already earned a bachelor’s or professional degree, and were designed to serve low-income students. Language on the U.S. Department of Education’s federal student aid website currently still states that those incarcerated in a federal or state penal institution are not eligible. A provision in the Higher Education Act, however, would allow the Education Department to suspend certain existing rules temporarily in order to study their effectiveness, paving the way for Pell grant reinstatement to inmates. Under this new plan, federal Pell grants would cover up to $5,775 per inmate annually for tuition, books, fees and related expenses.
As with all Pell grants, funds would be directed to the institution and not to the individual student. Pell grants are currently available to students in juvenile justice facilities.
Adult inmates received approximately $34 million in Pell grants in 1993, according to the Wall Street Journal, but Congress moved to make incarcerated persons ineligible for the benefit the following year. While private foundations have helped support prison education programs, the funding loss resulted in a marked decrease in institutional college programs and preceded the prison population spike that began in the mid 1990s. The prison population doubled to approximately 1.6 million inmates by 2013, of which many were repeat offenders, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Studies have shown that providing inmates opportunities for education can help decrease the odds of recidivism, and the impending move to restore educational funding for inmates has received support from several Democratic congress members. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo this year proposed a similar education funding plan for inmates in that state, and California Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed legislation that included funding for college classes in state prisons.
Opponents, however, argue that supporting inmate education is an improper use of funds, and that education money should be directed to traditional students and working families struggling to pay rising tuition costs.
Education is also playing into the larger conversation about prison crowding in facilities across the country. A study conducted in 2013 by the Rand Corp. included several key findings that support the use of education as a recidivism-fighting tool. The study found that inmates who participate in correctional education programs had 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than those who did not, and that participation in education programs improved an inmate’s chances of finding employment post-release by 13 percent.
“Correctional education programs provide incarcerated individuals with the skills and knowledge essential to their futures,” said Secretary of Education Duncan in a statement. “Investing in these education programs helps released prisoners get back on their feet—and stay on their feet—when they return to communities across the country.”
The study also concluded that providing correctional education could be cost-effective when it comes to reducing recidivism. Direct costs for education inmates ranged from $1,400 to $1,744, but the study also pointed out that each state dollar spent on education inmates saved approximately five dollars in incarceration costs.
Researchers recommended further study and funding of the issue.