Skip to main content

Restoring Pell Grants for Prisoners: Reversing a 20-Year Ban

It’s been 20 years since federal Pell Grants were revoked from prisons during the tough-on-crime heyday of the 1990s, amid a bipartisan political fervor that helped transform U.S. prisons from a corrections system to a punishment business. Two decades later, mass incarceration is a runaway train, and America imprisons so many more people than any other country that it’s hard to even compare the thing in one chart.

, Goucher College

JESSUP, MD— “My professor, Miss Jamie Mullaney, she cried the last day of class. And it made me cry,” Terrell Johnson said, sitting across from Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch at Maryland Correctional Institute-Jessup on Friday morning.

“I’m in a place where it’s not good to cry,” said Johnson, who’s in the middle of a prison sentence for selling drugs. “But I didn’t care. I felt like this lady genuinely cares if I get this education. That made me wanna try even harder, because I don’t want to let her down.”

Mullaney, the head of Goucher College’s sociology department, wasn’t there to hear Johnson recount how his coursework in the Goucher Prison Education Partnership (GPEP) has changed him. But Duncan, Lynch, a half-dozen members of Congress, and multiple Obama administration representatives were. The unusual assemblage of guards, inmates, and upper-crust officialdom had gathered to mark the announcement of a White House pilot program to restore federal resources for higher education in select prisons.

“I’m starting to become a better person,” said Alphonso Coates, another of the three inmates that prison officials had permitted to speak with reporters who had been invited to the event. “I believe in myself. The Goucher College program, they let me know that they believe in me also.”

When Duncan asked what the government could do better for people like him, Coates had a concise answer: “Try to invest in the people that’s investing in themselves.”

The Goucher program these men participate in is funded entirely through money the school has raised itself. No state or federal education dollars provide GPEP books, teachers, tutors, and work materials. The program’s costs — about $5,000 per student per year, a sliver of what it costs to incarcerate an adult for 12 months at Jessup — have come entirely from private sources who believe in what professors like Mullaney and renowned historian Jean Harvey Baker and their 70 uniformed, caged students are doing here and at a neighboring women’s facility.

But under the pilot program Lynch and Duncan unveiled Friday, partnerships like GPEP will be able to apply for Pell Grant funding. “The cost-benefit of this doesn’t take a math genius to figure out,” Duncan said. “We lock folks up here, $35,000, $40,000 every single year. A Pell Grant is less than $6,000 each year.”

It’s been 20 years since federal Pell Grants were revoked from prisons during the tough-on-crime heyday of the 1990s, amid a bipartisan political fervor that helped transform U.S. prisons from a corrections system to a punishment business. Two decades later, mass incarceration is a runaway train, and America imprisons so many more people than any other country that it’s hard to even compare the thing in one chart.

Holding so many people behind bars means that American society has to grapple with a commensurately huge volume of released inmates — human beings who have ostensibly repaid their societal debt, but often leave prison with even worse economic prospects for supporting their families legally than they had before they went in. There are 700,000 people released from state and federal penitentiaries each year, Lynch said.

“We talk about that number a lot, and it’s easy to talk about numbers,” the first black woman to occupy America’s top law enforcement job said. “But behind every one of those numbers is a person, and connected to every one of those people is a family.”

The 1994 decision to take Pell Grants away from prisoners has made programs like GPEP a rarity. Inmates who aspire to learn during their time are subject to sometimes cruel whims of a system that manages to simultaneously be very expensive for taxpayers overall but underfunded for actual rehabilitation services.

Vivian Nixon knows the vicissitudes of prison education better than most. She now leads College and Community Fellowship, an advocacy organization for incarcerated education. But years ago, she could have been sitting where Coates did Friday.

“I flunked out of college, and that was a real point of pain and shame to myself and my parents. It just sent me down the wrong road, and I did eventually end up in prison,” Nixon told the group. When she was placed in a prison with a higher-ed program for inmates, she was “overjoyed.”

Three days later she was relocated, this time to a prison with no ability to help her finish her abandoned degree. “I spent 3 years at Albion without access to education, with no access to do the thing that I knew really would heal me, because my core wound was flunking out of college,” she said.

The Higher Education Act gives the Department of Education the power to conduct education experiments like this without seeking specific authorization or money from Congress. Restoring Pell Grants throughout the American prison system will require lawmakers to act. The system unveiled Friday is just one initial step toward making stories like Nixon’s a relic, and journeys like Kenard Johnson’s the standard.

Johnson, who will turn 50 this fall, first took a remedial math course through GPEP. Now, he’s juggling “Black History from 1667 to Reconstruction,” a short-fiction writing class, and either Algebra II or Pre-Calculus depending how the schedule shakes out. (“We never change Goucher’s standards,” GPEP head Amy Roza explained, “out of respect for Goucher but also out of respect for the potential of our students.” Everyone who has enrolled in one of GPEP’s college prep courses has gone on to join the full degree program.)

Johnson wanted to be one of the public faces of Friday’s announcement because “it gives us an opportunity to show them who we are, how hard we’re working, the obstacles we face trying to get an education in a prison setting,” he said. “If society as a whole get to see us for who we are, then it would open up the doors for more prisoners to take college courses.”

Popular attitudes toward the imprisoned and the newly released may be a sort of last frontier for advocates of carceral education as a driver of true personal change. Desire to reform America’s broken criminal justice and incarceration systems is on the rise with many public officials. The statistics on education’s ability to reduce recidivism are staggering. One 1990s study found people who took part in schooling behind bars were 29 percent less likely to return to prison within three years after being released. A more recent review of data by the RAND Corporation reported that prison classes reduced lifetime recidivism by 13 percent, and saved government agencies $5 in incarceration costs for every dollar invested in classes.

But boosting education opportunities alone can’t solve the sometimes insurmountable prejudice former inmates face when they return to society. An estimated 60 to 75 percent of people released from prison struggle to find employment in the first year back in their communities. Even if a job-seeker has been able to achieve a degree while incarcerated, prospective employers frequentlywrite off applicants with criminal backgrounds before they even assess their qualifications. Obama is currently under pressure from activists to issue an executive order that would ban federal employers from asking about criminal records on initial application forms.

Re-entry programs that help formerly incarcerated individuals set up businesses and pursue their own economic dignity “will go a long way towards helping the rest of society see the value that people still retain when they come out of an institution,” Lynch said.

Greater awareness of the basic humanity of people who have left prison may start to develop organically, too, Lynch said. “There are also numbers that say at some point in time, over half of people in general may have had some brush with the law themselves. And I think as that happens, people will become more open to understanding that all of us are more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Lynch is taking that axiom to heart in her own office. The Department of Justice has just hired its first “Second Chance Fellow,” a man named Daryl Atkinson who completed a bachelor’s degree and a law degree after serving over three years in prison. Even after release, the system haunted Atkinson. He lost his driver’s license — creating a huge impediment to accessing all manner of other services — and was cut off from both the financial aid system and his voting rights. Now a barred attorney, Atkinson will serve as part of the department’s working council on former prisoner re-entry issues.

A couple of conservative lawmakers have already introduced splashy legislation aimed not just at maintaining the prohibition on Pell behind bars, but even seeking to prevent Duncan and Obama from using their existing powers to test out pilot program ideas. But the lawmakers present Friday were confident that most of their Republican colleagues support the principle underlying the prison Pell Grant system and are persuaded by the budget math.

“We have a policy that everybody knows will reduce crime and save money,” said Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA). “The alternative view is that there is a better message. Although it increases expenditures, costs money, and increases crime, it is a better message. And so we have a choice: reduce crime and save money, or we can increase crime and waste money.”

Many pointed out that this isn’t and never has been a partisan matter. “We hope to be able to do something evidence-based that will help Congress to reverse what they did 20 years ago. And to be clear, that was reversed by Democrats and Republicans,” Duncan said. “I just hope we’re smarter and wiser. And I keep coming back to 700,000 people coming out of our prisons back into our communities and streets every single year. What do we want them to look like?”

Terrell Johnson thinks he will look a lot different coming out of Jessup than he did prior to his college coursework. “I analyze situations, I don’t just jump into them blindly. It’s definitely given me patience,” he said.

The oldest of Johnson’s three children is in middle school. When he heard his father was cracking textbooks open too, “he told me ‘Daddy you’re too old for school!’ I had to tell him, you’re never too old for school,” Johnson said.

“And I explained this to him too: Daddy didn’t do the right things to get a proper education. So I’m trying now so I can make up for it. I tell him, you can always make up for it.”