As of early April, imprisoned Americans stand to gain easier access to a higher education. Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Representatives Danny Davis (D-Illinois), Jim Banks (R-Indiana), and French Hill (R-Arkansas) introduced a bipartisan piece of legislation to restore Pell Grant access to the incarcerated. If the bill passes, 463,000 prisoners will become eligible for federal financial support toward earning a college degree, which experts argue could go a long way toward improving life after incarceration.
Established under the Higher Education Act of 1965, Pell Grants—named after Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell—offer undergraduates from low-income families financial assistance for various post-baccalaureate programs. At the law's outset, prisoners were eligible to apply. Then, spurred by Democrats hoping to appear tough on crime, Congress passed the 1994 Crime Act, which (among other measures) banned Pell Grant eligibility for the incarcerated. "Making life difficult for prisoners was the order of the day," said Kevin Ring, a congressional staffer at the time and now president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a non-profit advocacy group. "Whether the punitive measures made communities safer or not didn't seem to worry anyone."
Several studies have since underscored the cost of that indifference. A RAND meta-analysis of the literature published in 2018 found that "inmates participating in correctional education programs were 28% less likely to recidivate when compared with inmates who did not participate in correctional education programs." The United States Sentencing Commission similarly revealed that inmates with less than a high school diploma had recidivism rates of over 60 percent, while those with a college degree had a 19 percent recidivism rate.
The economic benefits of prisoner education have become equally clear. According to the RAND analysis, "Every dollar invested in correctional education saves nearly five in reincarceration costs over three years." Another study, published in 2019 by researchers at the Vera Institute of Justice and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, showed that restoring Pell Grant access to prisoners would increase their employment rate by 10 percent and their collective earnings by $45 million in the first year after release.
Efforts to renew prisoners' Pell access began in 2015, when the Obama administration launched the Second Chance Pell pilot program, designed to explore prison reform by bringing Pell Grants back to prisoners on a limited basis at 67 colleges and universities around the country. Rachel Frick Cardelle, vice president of lifelong learning and workforce development at Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner, Massachusetts, says that the Second Chance program at MWCC turned out to be "a tremendous opportunity" that provided students who were about to leave prison with "a sense of hope as well as the tools to make sure they stayed on the straight and narrow."
Instructors who experienced the Second Chance program note that prison provides an unusually effective place to work toward a college degree. Damian Zurro, who teaches writing and composition at the University of Notre Dame, has been working with prisoners through the Moreau College Initiative for many years. He says that, when teaching prisoners, you "literally have a captive audience that has nothing but time to undertake slow, deliberate thinking at its best." He adds that his students have "the first-hand experience with what human beings can go through," a quality that "affects how they learn."*
Narratives from prisoners have offered perhaps the most compelling testimony of Second Chance's effectiveness. When Shon Holman was incarcerated in a Tennessee prison he saw a number of prisoners attending a night class. He inquired about it and "the next day I found the director to said 'I want to be part of this.'" Holman dove in, taking 18 hours of credits over three semesters—including courses in ethics, English, psychology, and science—before moving on to finish his degree after his release at Nashville State Community College.
"I believe by being in an environment like that," he says about his time studying in prison, "I was able to put aside some of the things that traditional students have to deal with—you don't have to worry about paying rent or going grocery shopping." Today, Holman is in graduate school at East Tennessee State, where he's studying to become an academic adviser.
As success stories from the Second Chance program have accumulated (and as the program was renewed and expanded in June of 2016), long-standing opposition to federal spending on college courses for convicted criminals began to diminish. In 2014, New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo encountered a wave of anger—mostly coming from conservatives and college students—over his proposal to offer free college education to prisoners. But in 2017, armed with evidence generated in part from the Second Chance successes, Cuomo had little trouble getting $7.3 million approved for education in correctional facilities.
The Trump administration has also softened its position on prison reform. After brandishing "tough-on-crime" rhetoric early in his administration, the president now embraces the economic logic of preparing prisoners for life after incarceration.
In December of 2018, President Donald Trump endorsed the Senate's First Step Act, which promotes prison rehabilitation—but did not address the question of Pell access. Mark Inch, Trump's former director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, wrote the following in the bill's favor: "Retribution and incapacitation is just, and rehabilitation and restoration is an expression of mercy. I call on those who focus on the first, at the exclusion of the second, to search your heart for mercy. I call on those that focus on the second, to remember the cost of crime to society and victims, and temper your advocacy in light of these facts."
Rare though it is, all sides seems to agree that such a balanced a perspective will benefit every lower-income citizen, whether inside a prison or not, seeking to earn a college degree.
*Update—April 16th, 2019: This article has been updated with the correct spelling of Damian Zurro's name.