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Pell Grants for Prisoners: An Experiment or a Demonstration?

Every traditional school student inevitably encounters the chemistry "experiment" in the shape of a volcano -- pouring a little baking soda through the mouth of a papier-mache mountain into the vinegar (magma) chamber to cause "lava" to flow through its chimney and out its spout. It's fascinating to the uninitiated who have no clue what they are about to experience. But it's not really much of an "experiment" to most of us, per se, so much as a demonstration of proven reactions when combining two elements. We know what will happen.

The U.S. Department of Education has just begun an "experiment" mixing two elements: prisoners and education. According to the Department of Education's Experimental Sites Initiative, this experiment's objectives are: 1) "Examine how providing Pell Grants to incarcerated students influences their participation in educational opportunities as well as academic and life outcomes." And 2) "Examine any challenges or obstacles to an institution's administration of title IV HEA [financial aid] programs to incarcerated students." 

An 'experiment', as defined by The New Oxford American Dictionary, is "a course of action tentatively adopted without being sure of the eventual outcome." An experiment is administered to try out new concepts.

From an outside perspective, this is what the Department of Education is doing. They are testing to see what the outcome will be of allowing prisoners the opportunity to afford education through Pell Grant funding. Their experiment is being treated as a proper study. It has invited schools across the nation to partner with correctional facilities -- over 200 applied, of which roughly 70 schools in 27 states were allowed to participate. It is providing access to these funds for 1 percent of the incarcerated community who are within five years of release and who have no convictions for drug possession -- nearly 12,000 prisoners will now be fulltime students. It is slated to last from 3 to 5 years to give them ample measure to be able to study the impact of this program.

The reality of this experiment, though, is that it's really not an experiment at all, no more than the volcano 'experiment' anyway. The Department of Education, as well as anyone who has taken even a cursory glance at the history of prison education, already knows: Prisoner education works.

Providing education opportunities for prisoners is not a novel concept. Prison education has been an important aspect of the penal system since its infancy in America. The very first American prison was introduced by the Quakers in 1791. By 1798, they added a school for prisoners to gain an education as part of their plan to reform and restore offenders back to society. Over nearly the entirety of the next two centuries, education continued to be a vital prison program. This was so much the case, in fact, that when Congress passed Title IV of the Higher Education Act in 1965, they included prisoners as eligible participants in the government's Pell Grant financial aid program.

Yes, prisoners had access to Pell Grants for college education over 50 years ago. This wasn't just a pilot program either, not just an experiment. It was full-fledged government and prison-sanctioned program to allow prisoners the ability to gain a quality education despite their confines. Immediately, prisoner education skyrocketed. By the mid-1970s, there were over over 180 prison education programs. By the mid-80s, almost double that number.

For nearly 30 years, in terms of participation, the Pell Grant program for prisoners was an obvious and progressing success. On its 29th anniversary year, however, in 1994, participation was forced to a halt. Pell Grants for prisoners, and thus prisoner education, became a casualty of the tough-on-crime movement of the early 1990s. As part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, as well as the Higher Education Reauthorization Act, Congress completely withdrew federal support of Pell Grants for prisoners.

This effective ban on financial aid for prisoner education had nothing to do with ineffectiveness of educating prisoners. Rather, it was politics. Public perception at the time was that prisoners had it easy. The nation was too "soft" on crime. Along with that came a movement touting that education opportunities, Pell Grants in particular, were being stolen from the hands of law-abiding citizens by people who did not deserve them: prisoners. And with the stroke of a presidential pen, Pell Grants for prisoners were gone.

Twenty years later, however, the politics that ended this program are slowly reversing. The mistakes of the tough-on-crime era have become apparent, and with them, the miscalculation of underestimating the value of prisoner education.

For those who have paid attention, the value of mixing the two elements of education and prisoners has been obvious. Apart from the common sense aspect of it all, various studies have been done that make the results clearly evident.

In 2013, a study by the nonpartisan RAND Corporation proved the disparity between those who took part in prison education programs and those prisoners who did not. Those who went to school while in prison were reportedly 43 percent less likely to reoffend than those who did not. Further, it was also estimated that for every dollar invested in prisoner education programs, taxpayers and the government saved between $4 and $5.

Another result, this one a prison education program that has been hosted by Bard College throughout prison systems along the East Coast since 2001, showed a recidivism rate among its participating prisoner students of only 4 percent. The national average of prisoners who reoffend in the U.S.? 75 percent!

The benefits of educating prisoners are known. While 3 to 5 years worth of data collected during this pilot phase of the current Pell Grant program will present additional powerful proof of what they already know, the experiment is long over. Mixing education and prisoners works.

The only portion of this "experiment" that remains to be seen: Will Congress pay attention to this demonstration and reverse its mistaken ban on government aid for prisoners students, finally allowing the benefits of prisoner education to rise up?

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Prison Lives was established to bring positive opportunities, such as the Second Chance Pell Grant program, to prisoners so that they can make the most productive use of their time. Our Prison Lives Almanac: Prisoner Education Guide is now available as the most comprehensive resource for prisoners interested in exploring an education path. It includes all the latest Pell Grant information, as well as all of the most current correspondence education options available to them today.

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