Time has shown us that there were many mistakes made in the overzealous ‘tough on crime’ era, one notable mistake being the 1994 Crime Bill that included a provision banning students in prison from being eligible to apply to receive Pell Grants. However the currently incarcerated are one step closer to having the tools necessary to “break the cycle” after re-expanding the eligibility of Pell Grants to include the incarcerated, as congress recently did on December 21, 2020. Finally after a 26 year ban, this legislation once again allows the currently incarcerated admittance into the Pell Grant applicant pool.
For those who aren’t familiar, Pell Grants are a subsidy that the American federal government provides for students who need it to go to college. The Pell Grant is named after Rhode Island senator Claiborne Pell and offered only to students “who exhibit a great financial need” and have not yet earned their first bachelor's degree. Administered by the United States Department of Education, students awarded these grants are allowed to use them at any of the approximately 5,300 participating post-secondary education institutions across the U.S.
As the failures of America’s system of mass incarceration become more and more unignorable to the general public, many are beginning to ask, “What will break the cycle?” At least one of the answers to this important question is clear: Education. This recent development in Pell Grant accessibility means the currently incarcerated have access to a powerful tool proven to interrupt the cycles that led to them becoming incarcerated in the first place. The potential positive impact of this development on both the incarcerated community and beyond is limitless, with success stories abound from those who have participated in correctional education programs and their communities. For the nearly 2.3 million currently incarcerated citizens of this country, hope takes the form of financial aid.
Building a career that you can be proud of and support your family with is as American as apple pie, but to achieve this, a college degree is practically a requirement. But for the incarcerated access to this American dream of education is out of reach, more often than not. This promise of opportunity to “break the cycle” is so far out of reach in fact, that it is arguably counterproductive to one of the main philosophical goals of our criminal justice system; which is of course to eliminate (or at least reduce) recidivism with rehabilitation. Studies from organizations like the RAND Corporation(1) show that those who participate in any type of educational program while incarcerated are almost twice as likely to not recidivate compared to their counterparts who did not participate in any type of educational program while serving time. In addition to being far more cost-effective for the taxpayer, evidence from this study goes on to suggest correctional education programs increase a participants likelihood of gaining and maintaining employment after incarceration.
This recent development in Pell Grant accessibility is certainly exciting. But there is still more work to be done in expanding the ease of access to these programs as well as optimizing the success of students participating in them. For example, the same RAND Corporation study mentioned above asserts that students who benefitted from access to “computer-assisted instruction” experienced accelerated learning in more than one subject area- and what could possibly be the argument for not doing everything we can to help non-traditional students succeed?
An overwhelming number of currently incarcerated individuals will eventually be released. So that raises the question: How do we want them to return to our communities? The answer is educated. Providing meaningful programming that leads to jobs is statistically proven, impactful recidivism prevention and good for the economy.
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SOURCE: 1: Davis, Lois M., Robert Bozick, Jennifer L. Steele, Jessica Saunders, and Jeremy N. V. Miles, Evaluating the Effectiveness of Correctional Education: A Meta-Analysis of Programs That Provide Education to Incarcerated Adults, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, RR-266-BJA, 2013. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR266.html