Twenty-five years ago, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 banned incarcerated students from accessing Pell Grants and essentially gutted higher education opportunities in prison. The federal Pell Grant program provides need-based grants to low-income undergraduate students in order to promote access to postsecondary education; anyone who qualifies for the program based on financial need and academic standing can receive a grant. Prior to 1994, Pell Grants formed the backbone of in-prison postsecondary education funding. Since most students in state and federal prison qualify as low-income, they were usually eligible for the program, and unlike in other college settings, the sole costs for incarcerated students are tuition and books.
Last week, Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, a bill that would restore Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated individuals. Companion legislation is being led by Reps. Danny Davis (D-IL), Jim Banks (R-IN), Barbara Lee (D-CA), and French Hill (R-AK) in the U.S. House of Representatives. Congress should not waste this opportunity for vital reform.
Opposition to Pell Grants for incarcerated students
In the early 1990s, elected officials were eager to get ahead in the competition to be tough on crime. During this time, the term “superpredator” was coined, new crimes were established, more prisons were built, and opportunities were stripped from incarcerated individuals. In 1993, then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) took to the Senate floor and announced, “Some convicts have figured out that Pell Grants are a great scam: rob a store, go to jail, and get your degree.” This speech was followed later that day by something far more damaging: The Senate passed an amendment to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act that would ban Pell Grants for incarcerated students. The amendment passed overwhelmingly, despite ample evidence that it would do more harm than good.
Sen. Hutchison was not alone in her advocacy for the amendment. She was joined by other members of Congress who wanted to show that they had zero tolerance for those convicted of crimes. Lawmakers gave little justification for the proposed gutting of postsecondary education programs in prison. As described by sociologist Joshua Page, they instead produced a “legislative penal drama” that pitted white working- and middle-class voters against real and imagined “black and brown street criminals.” In other words, lawmakers like Sen. Hutchison helped fuel anger toward those who had been convicted of crimes and then used that anger to pass punitive laws that did as much to hurt general society as they did to hurt the people who were targeted. As CAP has previously noted, many of the harms caused by the crime bill persist even today.
The benefits of in-prison postsecondary education programs
At the end of 2016, there were nearly 1.5 million people incarcerated in U.S. state and federal prisons—approximately a half-million increase since 1994. Of those 1.5 million people, more than 95 percent will one day be released from prison and return home to their communities. Research suggests that society benefits when these people return home to rebuild their lives and are able to avoid the behavior that led to their original incarceration, obtain gainful employment, and pay taxes. Integrating these individuals back into society would have positive implications for families, communities, and local economies that have been severely harmed by the United States’ reliance on mass incarceration.
The harms of mass incarceration have not been distributed evenly. One in 12 black working-age men is behind bars, compared with 1 in 87 white working-age men. As a result, 1 in 9 black children have a parent behind bars. Research shows that incarceration significantly impedes economic mobility for both parents and families, with family incomes dropping more than 20 percent during the years that a father is incarcerated—and remaining lower even after release. Given the concentration of incarceration, these economic implications can hurt entire local economies.
Postsecondary education is the most effective and reliable in-prison intervention for producing positive outcomes, as it has led to a nearly 50 percent decrease in likelihood of recidivism. Prior to 1994, Pell Grants were the primary funding source for in-prison postsecondary education programs. As a result, following the ban, the number of in-prison postsecondary education programs fell dramatically—from 350 in 1994 to just 12 by 2005. Since then, private colleges, funders, and the Obama administration’s Second Chance Pell initiative have helped to fill this void, but there are still far fewer postsecondary education programs in prison than before Pell Grants were banned.
The benefits of postsecondary education are not limited to post-release; benefits are experienced during incarceration as well. Nearly every organization of corrections professionals—including the North American Association of Wardens and Superintendents (NAAWS) and the American Correctional Association—came out against the Pell Grant ban in 1994 because postsecondary education improves the environment and culture within prisons, reducing the likelihood of violence and violations. People with life sentences in particular help to determine the culture within a facility, and engaging these lifers in postsecondary education helps them serve as mentors for younger people in prison and create an environment that is conducive to the transformational power of education.
For all of these benefits, providing Pell Grants to incarcerated students is remarkably cost-effective. In 1994, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of total Pell Grant spending went to incarcerated students. Moreover, after factoring in the costs of reincarceration, prison education saves an estimated $5 for every dollar spent, yielding a 400 percent return on investment. Additionally, despite some of the tough-on-crime rhetoric of the early 1990s, nobody was ever denied a Pell Grant because an incarcerated student received one. Put simply, postsecondary education in prison is a cost-effective and evidence-based intervention that produces hugely successful outcomes.
A lot has changed in the 25 years since the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was passed. For many elected officials, it is now politically advantageous to be seen as a criminal justice reformer rather than a supporter of mass incarceration. Even President Donald Trump claims to be a reformer—regardless of whether his policies and attorneys general nominations actually reflect this. Yet one thing remains constant: Education, especially higher education, continues to be the most effective intervention for those in prison. All people who are incarcerated in state and federal prisons—regardless of why or for how long they are in prison—should once again be able to access Pell Grants, so that they can better the lives of themselves and their families.
There may be no place in America where opportunity and transformation are more important than in state and federal prisons. Education has the unique ability to offer a person both. That is why Congress should take advantage of this rare opportunity to pass a bipartisan bill—as a standalone bill or as part of Higher Education Act reauthorization—that would immediately have a positive impact on people’s lives and on society at large. It is long past due for the curtain to close on this legislative penal drama.
Brent J. Cohen is the executive director of Generation Progress and the vice president for Youth Engagement at the Center for American Progress.