WASHINGTON — Prison inmates around the U.S. are getting the chance to do something that was almost unheard of a generation ago: pursue a college degree while behind bars and with financial support from the federal government.
Inmates in 42 states and Washington, D.C., can now get federal grants to work with colleges and universities to earn trade certifications, associate’s degrees and even bachelor’s degrees.
And the programs are expected to become even more popular, thanks to a bipartisan effort to let prisoners use federal Pell Grants to help pay for higher education classes while incarcerated. A grant expansion announced by the Biden administration—following another by the Trump administration—will bring the number of participating colleges and universities up to 200.
Todd Butler, the dean of arts and sciences at Jackson College in Michigan, says many prison officials, from wardens to guards, were skeptical when he first started teaching prisoners in 2012.
“Corrections departments are set up for one thing, and that’s safety. That’s what they’re designed to do. [College classes] are not what they’re designed to do,” he says. “But the longer you work at a facility, the staff starts to see a change in the inmates.”
“Once you start a higher education program in a prison, the students in that program become scholars. They begin behaving differently. They see a future for themselves that they’ve never imagined before. It changes things,” Butler says. “We watch folks slowly become believers in the system.”
Pell Grants are awarded to college students on the basis of need and, unlike loans, do not have to be repaid. The maximum award for Pell Grants for all college students is $6,495 for the 2021-2022 award year.
Shift in crime policy
That Second Chance Pell grants are now growing under President Joe Biden is a remarkable turnaround, considering that in 1994 it was Biden’s signature crime bill that blocked prisoners from getting Pell Grants in the first place.
But it reflects a major shift in criminal justice policy over the last decade, as both liberals and conservatives have questioned get-tough policies on crime and have instead pushed measures to help inmates get ready for productive lives once they leave prison.
The issue resonates with policymakers from all political backgrounds, says Margaret diZerega, the director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute, which is providing technical assistance to help with the rollout of Second Chance Pell programs.
“Access to post-secondary education in prison reduces recidivism rates, and people who participate in these programs are 48 percent less likely to return to prison,” she says.
“Most jobs require post-secondary education. Given that 95 percent of people are going to be returning to our community from prison, these kinds of programs set them up to be able to pursue employment and be able to provide for themselves and their families,” diZerega adds.
More than 22,000 inmates have participated in Second Chance Pell programs since 2016, and some 7,000 of them have earned a professional certificate or academic degree. It’s not known how many of the participants continued their studies after they left prison.
“It’s hard to imagine a more beneficial way for people to spend time in prison than advancing their education,” Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel told Colorlines, a news site focused on race issues, in a 2020 interview. “Incarcerated students who are working toward a better future become positive role models within our facilities and return to their communities with new opportunities open to them.”
“Once we have the pandemic under control, it will be even more essential for returning citizens to be ready to join the workforce and contribute to the economy,” Wetzel added.