Lifting the Ban on Pell Grants; Making Education Accessible in Prison

By Felicia Dusha, Feature Editor

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In December 2020, Congress voted to restore Pell Grants for incarcerated students after a 26-year ban.[1] Beginning July 1, 2023, over 700,000 incarcerated adults will become Pell Grant eligible.[2] This will enable students who are enrolled in eligible prison educational programs to pursue federally funded college education for the first time since 1994.[3]

The “tough-on-crime” era of the 1990s led to the abolishment of Pell Grants for incarcerated people, which wiped out most college options behind bars.[4] The federal government began reintroducing Pell Grants in 2015 when it established the Second Chance Pell.[5] This was an experiment that made funding available for a select few colleges, such as Milwaukee Area Technical College, which used Second Chance Pell funding to offer online associate degrees in prisons.[6] Miami Dade College (MDC) also used Second Chance Pell funding to offer full course loads, including classes in philosophy, chemistry, and Spanish to incarcerated students. In 2022, MDC awarded eighteen incarcerated students associate degrees.[7] Sixteen of the graduates who are still incarcerated have begun working towards a bachelor’s degree.[8]

According to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice, which is a national nonprofit providing technical assistance to both educational institutions and corrections departments participating in the Second Chance Pell, the goal of the initiative was to determine “whether expanding access to college financial aid increases incarcerated adults’ participating in postsecondary educational opportunities.”[9] Data suggests that the answer is yes. As of April 2021, Second Chance Pell programs enrolled more than 22,000 participants over four financial aid years.[10] Of the participants, over 9,000 have earned a certificate or diploma.[11]

Furthermore, the Vera Institute found that incarcerated people who participate in postsecondary educational programs were 48% less likely to recidivate than those who did not.[12] The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) found similar statistics in its 2013 report. The BJA report found that there is a 43% reduction in recidivism rates for incarcerated persons who participate in prison educational programs.[13] In fact, the higher the degree, the lower the recidivism rate.[14] The data reflects that 14% who obtain an associate degree, 5.6% who obtain a bachelor’s degree, and 0% who obtain a master’s degree have recidivated.[15]

Proponents believe that the full restoration of access to Pell Grants will promote postsecondary education and new career opportunities, which will open doors for incarcerated people and their families while also improving communities.[16]However, questions remain on how to ensure incarcerated students receive access to postsecondary education, as prison-imposed restrictions may prevent the expansion of Pell from reaching its full potential.[17]       

According to Dr. Deborah Appleman of Carleton College, prison restrictions create barriers to education.[18] Appleman, who has taught in prisons for sixteen years, reports that in the prisons where she works, incarcerated people are limited to having no more than 10 books total.[19]

“They’re always having to make these heartbreaking choices about which books they’re going to get [and which] they’re going to give away,” Appleman said.[20]

There are also restrictions on what type of, and how many, educational materials faculty can bring into prisons, as discs for video instruction are prohibited in some prisons because “they could be used to smuggle in drugs.”[21] Technology, which in today’s world is an essential educational tool, is extremely limited in prisons. According to Appleman, “Computer access is really atrocious.”[22]

Demetrius James, program director of the Bard Microcollege for Just Community Leadership with the Bard Prison Initiative, knows firsthand how prison restrictions impact education. As an incarcerated student, he experienced just how limited computer access is in prisons. In his experience, “‘[i]nmates were not allowed to access the computer lab on days when they had class, even if class ended early or was cancelled. Once, when a fellow inmate wrote a personal letter on a computer that was supposed to be used only for schoolwork, all students were prevented from using computers for several months,’” which forced students to handwrite all their papers.[23]

Incarcerated students must frequently handwrite their papers due to limited or no computer access. The only other option available is for an incarcerated student to order a specially designed clear electronic typewriter for between $300 and $400.[24] While this might not seem like much for people on the outside, for incarcerated students, the cost is a tremendous obstacle to participating in educational programs.

The minimum wage for incarcerated workers in Pennsylvania is 23 cents per hour.[25] This is an increase from the minimum of 19 cents per hour, which until January 1, 2023, was the minimum wage of incarcerated workers for the past 30 years.[26] For people who may be making less than $10 a month, and also have to pay to make phone calls to loved ones, $300 to $400 plus $7.45 for every replacement typewriter ribbon[27] is simply not feasible.

In James’s case, he was ultimately able to get $300 from family members to buy a typewriter.[28] However, he encountered additional challenges when writing his senior project, a 60–80-page paper on the history of the urban novel.[29] Access to the novels he needed was restricted because they were deemed to contain violent or sexual content.[30]According to James, one administrator “would not allow material unless it was appropriate for a 12-year-old.”[31]

For the Pell expansion to be fully successful, prison-imposed restricts need to be reevaluated. 

Appleman urges that “[w]e need to use the reasonable person standard…Educational materials in and of themselves are not necessarily dangerous.”[32] James believes that “the more normal it is to have college in prison programs, the less restrictions that they may have on it.” The restoration of Pell Grants may bring this change.[33] But, Appleman cautions that “prison and education may always remain in tension,” as the mission of education and the mission of the carceral state are always at odds with each other. The project of incarceration is subjugation, and the project of education is to rewrite a narrative so that folks can feel like the intelligent and capable people that they can be.”[34]

What we know is that through education, people can achieve a better life. Lifting the ban on Pell Grants is certainly a step towards ensuring that incarcerated people receive the life-altering opportunities of higher education.

[1] Caylie Privitere, 700,000 incarcerated students will be Pell-eligible in 2023. Here’s what that could mean for your institution (November 30, 2022),first%20time%20since%20the%201990s

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Emily Files, With Pell grants soon available to incarcerated students, colleges look to expand in prisons (March 28, 2023)

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Jon, Edelman, Second Chance Pell Students Mark Progress for Prison Education (July 7, 2022)

[8] Id.

[9] Kelsie Chesnut and Allan Wachendorfer, Second Chance Pell: Four Years of Expanding Access to Education in Prison (April 2021)

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Lois M. Davis, Robert Bozick, Jennifer L. Steele, Jessica Saunders, Jeremy N. V. Miles, A Meta-Analysis of Programs That Provide Education to Incarcerated Adults ( 2013),recidivating%20of%2013%20percentage%20points. P. 19

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Caylie Privitere, 700,000 incarcerated students will be Pell-eligible in 2023. Here’s what that could mean for your institution (November 30, 2022),first%20time%20since%20the%201990s

[17] Jon, Edelman, Second Chance Pell Students Mark Progress for Prison Education (July 7, 2022)

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Jon Edelman, Supra. 

[24] 2410CCi Clear Cabinet Electronic Typewriter,

[25] JEFFREY SHOCKLEY, News: Pennsylvania Institutes Prison Pay Increase, A First in 30 Years

 (April 9, 2023)

[26] Id.

[27]SWS 1045,

[28]Jon Edelman, Second Chance Pell Students Mark Progress for Prison Education (July 7, 2022)

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Id.

[34] Jon Edelman, Supra

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