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Senate Leaders Reconsider Ban on Pell Grants for Prisoners

Part of the Sing Sing Correctional Facility complex in Ossining, N.Y. Credit Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

The Senate’s top education leaders will consider reinstating Pell grants for incarcerated students, a move that would restore a federal lifeline to the nation’s cash-strapped prison education system.

Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee and the chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said the committee would consider reinstating the federal financial aid grants in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act currently underway.

The move would reverse a decades-old decision to strike the benefit from the higher education law and signal a shift toward recognizing education as a centerpiece in efforts to overhaul criminal justice law. The federal student aid could be used to cover the cost of college courses taught in prisons, online or both.

Mr. Alexander said that he was open to re-examining Pell grants for prisoners, which were banned in the 1994 crime bill passed under President Bill Clinton. In 2015, President Barack Obama’s Education Department piloted an experimental program that allowed 12,000 incarcerated students to be eligible for the financial aid. If reinstated, millions of dollars would be made available to eligible students in the United States’ prison population of 1.5 million.

“Most prisoners, sooner or later, are released from prison, and no one is helped when they do not have the skills to find a job,” Mr. Alexander said in a statement. “Making Pell grants available to them in the right circumstances is a good idea.”

 Mr. Alexander will find an ally in his committee’s ranking Democrat, Senator Patty Murray of Washington, with whom he has partnered to broker deals, including reauthorizing the country’s elementary and secondary education law and preserving insurance subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

Ms. Murray introduced Pell grant legislation last year that would expand the financial aid — which currently supplies about eight million low-income students with up to $5,920 yearly — to include inmates, undocumented immigrants and students with drug offenses. She also supported the Obama-era pilot program.

“I’ve long believed education can open doors otherwise closed, and that is absolutely also the case for incarcerated individuals,” Ms. Murray said in a statement on Wednesday night. “Repealing the ban on Pell grants for prisoners will give those who have paid their debts to society a meaningful second chance, and the ability to get their lives back on track and support themselves and their families once released.”

Key conservative leaders who see rehabilitating prisoners as good social and economic policy are also likely to back it.

Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, who visited a prison education program in the months after she took office, called reinstating Pell grants for inmates “a very good and interesting possibility.”

In his State of the Union address, President Trump cited overhauling the United States’ prisons to “help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance.”

Charles G. and David H. Koch, the billionaire conservative activist brothers, have poured millions of dollars into a new partnership with the Texas Public Policy Foundation to start the Safe Streets and Second Chances program, which aims to rehabilitate the nearly 700,000 prisoners estimated to be released this year.

The political convergence is a significant shift away from the punitive response to soaring crime rates that led a Democratic Congress to strip the benefit when it passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.


Senators Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, and Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, will work on reinstating Pell grants for prisoners. Credit J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

There is “a good-faith interest in this kind of work,” said Max Kenner, the executive director of Bard Prison Initiative, which was started in 1999 by Bard College, a 150-year-old liberal arts institution.

“There’s no more effective thing, no more symbolic thing that can be done than the reinstatement of college in America’s prisons,” Mr. Kenner said.

The initiative is in six prisons in New York State, educating about 300 full-time students. The program has awarded 500 degrees since its founding. Its formerly incarcerated students have gone on to obtain graduate degrees from universities like Yale and Columbia. The program has a 2 percent recidivism rate.

Gerard Robinson, the executive director of the Center for Advancing Opportunity, said the face of the United States’ prison population has changed since the 1990s. Most notably, in 2016, there were twice as many white females as black females in the sentenced prison population.

When African-Americans were caught in the crack epidemic, Congress sent them to prison and ended their educational opportunities, said Mr. Robinson, a Republican who served on the Trump transition team. Now that white people are being swept up in the system, especially with opioids, “the response is mental health care and social support.”

Lawmakers from both major parties supported revoking Pell grants. They argued that convicts should not take the financial aid resources from cash-strapped college students.

The 300 or so prison-education programs that had sprouted in the two decades after the Higher Education Act was enacted in 1965 collapsed to a handful that managed to get private funding after 1994.

“I still remember when the hammer fell, and colleges literally came in the next day and started packing up their boxes, all the books,” said Sean Pica, who was serving time for manslaughter when Pell grants were revoked.

“We couldn’t believe it,” he said. “For most of us, it was the only thing that represented a second chance.”

Mr. Pica entered the prison system at 16, with a ninth-grade education. After traveling to nine institutions, he had accumulated 119 college credits in prison-education programs, but was left with no path to a degree.

At his last institution, Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York, an organization called Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison had come in to revive the program.

After serving 16 years of a 24-year sentence, Mr. Pica was released from prison in 2002 with three college degrees, including a master’s. Now, he is the executive director of the nonprofit organization that helped him complete his college education.

A RAND Corporation study, commissioned by the Department of Justice, found that incarcerated students who had access to education were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years than those who did not. The study also found that for every dollar invested in prison-education programs, at least $4 is saved on incarceration costs. The amount of Pell money going to prisons was less than 1 percent of all of the program’s funding.

The pilot program started in the Obama era continues to operate.

“We called it Second-Chance Pell, but for these folks who are incarcerated, they never had a first chance,” said John B. King Jr., an education secretary in the Obama administration. “They went to under-resourced schools that were struggling in a variety of ways, and didn’t have access to opportunities.”

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The mission of OREGON CURE is to reduce crime by advocating for effective criminal justice policies, procedures and programs.


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