Education

How Congress Killed One of the Few Lifelines for Former Prisoners -- And Why It's Time to Bring It Back

Congress members are pushing to restore Pell Grants to help prisoners pay for their college education.

In 1965, Congress passed Title IV of the Higher Education Act, allowing prison inmates for the first time to apply for Pell Grants to finance their college educations. For decades, tens of thousands of prisoners took advantage of this benefit, using it to finance a path into opportunities after they served their sentences.

But in 1994, this came to an end. Amid hysteria that led to that year's Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (known as the “crime bill”), Congress voted to end this long-time lifeline for prisoners, with the approval of President Bill Clinton.

Today, a small group in Congress is pushing to restore the Pell Grants for prisoners program, arguing it should be part of other criminal justice reforms. But unlike the other bipartisan reforms being discussed, this change has so far drawn little support.

The Impact Of Educating Prisoners

By 1982, there were college-in-prison programs serving 27,000 prisoners in 350 prisons. These programs were financed largely by Pell Grants. Altogether, this composed around 9 percent of the 300,000 people in prison at the time.

There were various attempts to evaluate the impacts of allowing prison inmates to seek a college education. In 1993, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice reported that the re-incarceration rate of inmates in general was 60 percent; for those who studied and graduated in prison, the rates were much lower: 13.7 percent for associate degrees, 5.6 percent for bachelor's degrees, and 0 percent for those who received aster's degrees. A 2001 study in a Bedford Hills, New York maximum security prison estimated that the lower re-incarceration rates for in-prison graduates resulted in $900,000 of savings from just 100 prisoners over two years.

One reason why educating inmates makes such a difference is because a lot of the people who go to prison in the first place have little education. Around a fifth of adult inmates are estimated to be illiterate, and 60 percent are functionally illiterate.

In 1997, the Correctional Education Association studied three states, Maryland, Minnesota and Ohio, and concluded that “simply attending school behind bars reduces the likelihood of reincarceration by 29%. Translated into savings, every dollar spent on education returned more than two dollars to the citizens in reduced prison costs.”

With such obvious benefits for both the prisoners and the taxpayers who finance their education, why was the program rolled back?

Hysteria Makes Policy

In 1994, the political energy of the country was around reducing street crime, with politicians hyping up hysteria about drugs and violence, particularly in American inner cities. This resulted in the landmark crime bill, which President Bill Clinton signed into law that year. A little-known provision of that law was eliminating the Pell Grant program for prisoners. 

How did a program that actually reduced crime end up on the crime bill's hit list? The fight actually began two years earlier. A Democratic congressman, Rep. Bart Gordon (TN) made it his cause to ban Pell access for the incarcerated. Gordon and his allies made wild claims, including that 100,000 prisoners received Pell Grants (the actual number was around 25,000). Nonetheless his amendment to issue the ban passed the House of Representatives by a 351 to 39 vote.

Groups all over the country mobilized to defeat the amendment. Some were outside nonprofits, such as the Texas-founded Citizens United for the Rehabiliation of Errants, and others were within the prisons themselves. Many inmates organized forums to educate fellow prisoners about the impact of the legislation, and started letter-writing campaigns to their representatives in Congress. These groups successfully beat back the push to ban Pell Grants, an amazing victory on behalf of one of society's most marginalized groups.

The victory was short-lived. The right wing turned the issue into a political football, with Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) serving as Gordon's point man in the Senate. In April 1994, the popular NBC news show "Dateline" aired a show called “Society's Debt?” which featured the stories of college students struggling to pay their tuition alongside testimonies from crime survivors who were angered that the criminals who had wronged them were being subsidized with Pell Grants. Here's how one student described his resentments:

I believe I’ve had five days off since the first of the year, but I don’t have a choice. I’ve got to work all those hours in order to make ends meet and pay my bills. The prisoners, they have their cable TV, they have their weight rooms. What do I have? I have school, I have a job, and I have a bed I see for four to five hours a night, and that’s it."

“Law-abiding students have every right to be outraged when a Pell Grant for a policeman's child is cut but a criminal that the officer sends to prison can get a big check,” said Gordon that month as the crime bill was being debated.

Alongside the hysteria in the media, Senator Harris Wofford (D-PA), who originally opposed a measure to cut Pell Grants for prisoners but later relented under right-wing attack, asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate the program and explain its parameters. The GAO report serves as a historic testimony of how wrong-headed the popular debate over the program was. It noted that “inmate participation is a small part of the total Pell grant program...Only 23,000 of the approximately 4 million Pell recipients for the 1993-94 award year, were incarcerated. This represents less than 1 percent, that is, 1 out of every 500 Pell recipients.”

It described the logical error behind claims that Pell Grant spending on prisoners was denying spending for other students:

According to Department officials, grants to inmates do not affect the eligibility or size of grants to other students. If incarcerated students received no Pell grants, no student currently denied a Pell award would have received one and no award amount would been increased. The Department operates the Pell program as an entitlement program in that every eligible student demonstrating a need, as defined by the program, is awarded a grant, up to a maximum award. To meet the needs of current students, the program borrows from future appropriations. This makes it unlikely that the $35 million that was awarded to incarcerated students could have been used to increase the award for other Pell recipients. According to Department officials, the money gained by reducing current expenditures by $35 million, less than 1 percent, would have been used to reduce the amount borrowed from future years' appropriations. In addition, Department officials estimated, if the money had been distributed among other recipients, individual awards would have increased by about $3, at most.

One area where the report did not offer a whole lot of insight was the re-incarceration effect. It simply noted there was quite a bit of research on the topic and it was difficult to draw conclusions. Nonetheless, the report laid out more than enough data to conceivably put the breaks on Congress' crusade against the program. But politicians were motivated by hysteria ginned up by the media and the right, not by the facts.

Following the 1994 elimination of the Pell Grant benefit for prisoners, the results were predictable. By 1997, only eight college-in-prison programs still operated (down from 350 such programs).

AlterNet asked Gordon, who today works for the K Street firm K&L Gates, to ask if he regrets pushing for the elimination of the Pell benefit for prisoners. He did not reply.

Movement To Restore Pell In Prisons

Late last month, Reps. Donna Edwards (D-MD), Danny Davis (D-IL), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Bobby Scott (D-VA), Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), and Cedric Richmond (D-LA) introduced legislation that would reinstate the Pell Grant for the incarcerated. Their bill is titled the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act.

Although these lawmakers have only just begun to recruit support, it's possible they already have a powerful ally: the Obama administration The Department of Education is reportedly preparing to allow for a limited exemption to the federal ban to allow the Pell Grant to be used at certain prisons on an experimental basis. "The idea is under consideration," a spokesperson told Inside Higher Ed.

This leads to an obvious question: Will the next president support such efforts? So far, despite all the talk of criminal justice reform on both sides of the aisle, few members of either party and no presidential candidates have talked up the idea of restoring Pell Grants while on the trail. There is, however, one declared candidate who was one of only 39 members of the House of Representatives who voted against the Gordon proposal to ban the program: then-freshman Congressman Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

Zaid Jilani is an AlterNet staff writer. Follow @zaidjilani on Twitter.

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