Prison Education: Observing Pell Grants Through the Lens of Two Presidential Administrations

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According the FBI’s website, an estimated 12,196,959 arrests were made in the year 2012 [1]. For millions of these prisoners, the consequences of being incarcerated will have permanent effects that will impact almost every aspect of their lives. Spending time in federal or state prisons can make it hard to find a job or housing, but most importantly, it puts an immediate halt on a person’s education. Though education may not seem like a viable option, The Pell Grant program has assisted in providing inmates with an education. Originally founded in 1972 under the name “Basic Educational Opportunity Grant”, Pell grants are awarded to low-income undergraduates and can be used in over 6,000 higher-education institutions [2]. Those eligible for grants also include prisoners of federal and state prisons. The goal of these Pell grants is to promote prison education programs which, in return, will provide inmates with an education that will keep them out of prison in the future and consequently reduce recidivism rates.

Pell grants were awarded to qualified persons with a criminal history up until 1994, when Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, making it impossible for those with felonies to obtain the grants. Just over two decades later, during the Obama presidency, Congress lifted its ban, allowing Pell grants to be accessible by prisoners, consequently assisting the funding of education behind bars. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the ban was lifted for experimental reasons, “to test new models to allow incarcerated Americans to receive Pell Grants and pursue the postsecondary education with the goal of helping them get jobs, support their families, and turn their lives around” [3]. If education is so strongly emphasized in our society, why did the Clinton administration feel it was necessary to impose a ban on certain people’s access to Pell grants, knowing full well the grants could change lives and create opportunities for people?. Additionally, as of the summer of 2015, the Obama administration lifted the ban, allowing prisoners to apply for Pell grants as they did pre-1994. Why has the mood regarding prison education shifted over the past 20 years? I argue that it is ironic that the Clinton administration put a ban on Pell grants for prisoners- as a part of their crackdown on crime initiative- given that educated prisoners are far less likely to return to prison, cost less to imprison, and become for valuable members of society. I also argue that the aforementioned reasons are why the Obama administration felt it was necessary to lift the ban and fund prison education for inmates.

One of the most notable focuses of the 1990’s Clinton administration were crime and drug related problems. Labeled the “War on Drugs”, Bill Clinton and his staff made aggressive strides to limit the possession and distribution of illegal drugs, specifically in America’s inner-cities. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was arguably the most impactful pieces of legislation during the 90’s. The act effectively took away any opportunity for prisoners to receive or accept Pell grants. One advocator for this act, Democratic Representative Bart Gordon from Tennessee and his team claimed that, “100,000 prisoners received Pell Grants (the actual number was around 25,000)” [4].

Up until the 1994 ban, there was much debate regarding the legitimacy of the Pell grant program. Some, such as Rep. Bart Gordon- a Tennessee Democrat- was strongly against allowing federal prisoners access to Pell grants. In Gordon’s mind, spending money on educating prisoners should not be a priority of the United States government. Instead, Gordon was a strong advocator for (and perhaps rightly so) spending government money on “law-abiding citizens” [5]. Additionally, opposers of prisoners receiving Pell grants believe that if prisoners are awarded Pell grants, they are consequently taking away from non-felons who are looking for federal grants. Another opposer of prison education was Key Bailey Hutchison, a republican from Texas, who argued, “Pell grants were sold {to Congress} to help low- and middle-income families send their kids to college. They were not sold for prison rehabilitation” [6]. As of May of 1994, $2,300 was the maximum amount awarded via Pell grants to low-income students. Though inmates who receive grants do not take away from the amount of grants available to the public, “making grants to inmates does cut the total available, which slightly reduces the size of each award” [4]  .

Why would individuals during the Clinton administration want to limit prison education if it is linked to reduced recidivism rates? Several companies and prisons can actually benefit from a high inmate population. Companies such as IBM, Microsoft, and Motorola are able to contract prison labor and generate profits from such. In fact, “Just between 1980 and 1994, profits went up from $392 million to $1.31 billion” [7]. The rise in prison labor profit coincidentally corresponds with the ban imposed on Pell Grants. Essentially, the point where prison labor was generating the most money was when prison education was halted, consequently raising the recidivism rate, meaning company profits ultimately benefited. Additionally, prisons with a high population and therefore high potential for labor employment became replacements for Third World labor. In one instance, an assembly plant originally operating near the Mexico border was moved to the San Quentin State Prison in California in favor of cheaper labor. It is not unheard of for companies to fire employees in favor of cheaper prison labor.

Lots of members of the Clinton administration were extremely unhappy at the prospect of using federal money to fund prisoner education. One of the many problems that people pointed to were that there were millions of prospective college students who could not afford to pay for college, yet many more federal prisoners who were receiving an education in prison at no cost to them. Republican governor William Weld, who was nominated by Bill Clinton to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, once said to a CBS anchor, “‘you tell them [middle class families] that, if their son or daughter committed a violent felony, they would be eligible for a free education, their eyes fall out of their heads” [8]. Furthermore, former republican senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina said in an address to Congress that,”Congress has already, as part of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, denied Pell Grants and numerous other Federal benefits to individuals who are convicted of possessing or trafficking drugs … I see no reason why other criminals, including murderers, should be treated any better” [9]. The pushback extended further than from just those in governmental positions. Even students during the Clinton administration voiced their displeasure at the thought of prisoners receiving a free education. NBC aired a showed titled “Society’s Debt?” in April of 1994 where several students discussed their unhappiness regarding the allocation of Pell grants that allowed prisoners to receive a free education. One student’s testimony:

“I believe I’ve had five days off since the first of the year, but I don’t have a choice. I’ve got to work all those hours in order to make ends meet and pay my bills. The prisoners, they have their cable TV, they have their weight rooms. What do I have? I have school, I have a job, and I have a bed I see for four to five hours a night, and that’s it.” [10]

Officials from the Clinton administration were listening to these testimonies and took note. Later in that same year of 1994, the Clinton administration would official enforce The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act that would see an end to Pell grants for prisoners.

Opposite from the pushback from the Clinton administration, there are some serious reasons for why the Obama administration has lifted the ban of Pell grants. Conventional rehabilitation methods usually entail creating harsh and undesirable environments for prisoners, with expectations relying on the experience in incarceration being will be so miserable, they will not risk going back. However, with the installment of Pell grants, prisoner recidivism goes down dramatically. A study conducted in various Maryland prisons showed that, “three years after their release, 22 percent of the prisoners who had taken classes returned to prison” [11]. Additionally, contrary to many GOP opinions, the cost to supply an inmate with a Pell grant does not cost much at all. In fact, before the 1994, Drew Leder of the Washington Post wrote that, “less than one percent of Pell grant funds go to inmates” while raising the question, “The price of not educating them? Consider the cost in blood and tears when they hit the streets, then the $30,000 per year for jailing repeat offenders.” [12]

Another reason the Obama administration reinstated Pell grants for prisoners is because it decreases recidivism rates. It’s simple, education, as a means to rehabilitate, is a much more promising endeavor that attempts to instill critical thinking and accumulates knowledge that inmates can use in their lives outside of incarceration. Additionally, education can create a sense of belonging for many, another vital part of rehabilitating. Prison education also provides prisoners with a learning experience beyond the books they read or the papers they write. One prisoner documents, “Prison-based college programs provide guys like myself with a way to understand the consequences of crime – that it perpetuates the socio-economic destruction of our own society.” This sort of understanding is behind why the national recidivism rate is 60 percent, yet, “only 30 percent of college- educated inmates return to prison” [13]. These statistics are exactly the reasons why Pell grants were allocated towards prison education (as well as why the Obama administration has given the program another “test-run”), to directly reduce the recidivism rate.

Another reason why the Obama administration wanted to re-evaluate Pell grants to prisoners is because they allow inmates a second chance at becoming productive members of society. During his final State of the Union address, Barack Obama mentioned, “We agree that real opportunity requires every American to get the education and training they need to land a good-paying job” [14]. With that being said, Pell grants offer inmates a perfect opportunity the learn the skills and training needed to employ themselves after life in prison. Data conducted by the RAND corporation, a nonprofit global policy think tank, found that, “The odds of obtaining employment after being released among inmates who participated in correctional education were 13 percent higher than the odds for those who did not”. Prisoners who obtain employment would actually benefit government spending as that same study found that, “Correctional education is a cost effective initiative; every dollar spent on prison education could save up to five dollars on three-year re-incarceration costs” [15].

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the pilot program that the Obama administration introduced has a goal of, “[increasing] access to high-quality educational opportunities and help these individuals successfully transition out of prison and back into the classroom or the workforce” [16]. Furthermore, the pilot program was created to build on top of the previous Pell grant program pre-1994 ban. This means new procedures have been implemented such as introducing and improving education in juvenile correctional facilities referred to as the, “Correctional Education Guidance Package”. So, to answer the question of why the Obama administration has decided to retract the ban on Pell grants on prisoners and fund prison education- lower recidivism rates, saving government dollars, and increasing the chance of an inmate re-assimilating into society in a productive manner.

Though the Obama administration has only recently lifted the ban on Pell grants for prisoners, there are already some promising signs. The United States has one of the largest prison populations in the world, housing around 22% of the world’s prison population [17]. The thought of reducing the recidivism in the United States could only decrease the over-crowding problem that plagues so many U.S. prisons. Additionally, the average U.S. resident spend around $260 a year on corrections, while the government spends around $80 million [18]. Cutting the cost of incarcerating prisoners could allow the government to allocate money to other places such as education and environmental services. Only time will tell if the initiative is successful, but if it is, the United States should benefit tremendously.


Works Cited:

[1] FBI. “Persons Arrested.” FBI. FBI, 16 May 2013. Web. 08 Apr. 2017.

[2] The Pell Institute. “The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education — Pell Grants.” The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education — Pell Grants. The Pell Institute, n.d. Web. 06 Apr. 2017.

[3] U.S. Department of Education. “U.S. Department of Education Launches Second Chance Pell Pilot Program for Incarcerated Individuals.” U.S. Department of Education Launches Second Chance Pell Pilot Program for Incarcerated Individuals | U.S. Department of Education. U.S. Department of Education, 31 July 2015. Web. 08 Apr. 2017.

[4] Jilani, Zaid. “How Congress Killed One of the Few Lifelines for Former Prisoners — And Why It’s Time to Bring It Back.” AlterNet, June 3, 2015.

[5] Waldron, Thomas W. “Federal Aid to Inmates for College Tuition Imperiled in Congress: [FINAL Edition].” The Sun; Baltimore, Md. May 22, 1994, sec. METRO.

[6] Clymer, Adam. “EDUCATION GRANTS GOP Gives up Proposed Aid Ban Immigrants Would Have Lost Pell Funding: [Final Edition].” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; Milwaukee, Wis. November 26, 1995, sec. News.

[7] Palaez, Vicky. “The Prison Industry in the United States: Big Business or a New Form of Slavery? | Global Research – Centre for Research on Globalization.” Accessed April 17, 2017.

[8] Page, J. “Eliminating the Enemy: The Import of Denying Prisoners Access to Higher Education in Clinton's America.” Punishment & Society 6 (n.d.): 357–78.

[9] Ibid

[10] Jilani, Zaid. “How Congress Killed One of the Few Lifelines for Former Prisoners — And Why It’s Time to Bring It Back.” AlterNet, June 3, 2015.

[11] Lewin, Tamar. “Inmate Education Is Found To Lower Risk of New Arrest.” The New York Times, November 16, 2001.

[12] Leder, Drew. “Why Deny Prisoners an Education?: [FINAL Edition].” The Washington Post (Pre-1997 Fulltext); Washington, D.C. June 1, 1994, sec. OP/ED.

[13] “It Would Be a Crime to Cancel Learning Time for Prisoners Pell Grants Lower the Recidivism Rate and Save Tax Dollars: [All 05/31/94 Edition].” The Christian Science Monitor (Pre-1997 Fulltext); Boston, Mass. May 31, 1994, sec. OPINION/ESSAYS.

[14] Camera, Lauren. “Pell Grant Changes Aimed at Allowing Poor Students to Graduate Faster.” US News & World Report. Accessed April 23, 2017.

[15] “The Effects of Prison Education Programs: Research Findings.” Journalist’s Resource, June 3, 2014.

[16] “U.S. Department of Education Launches Second Chance Pell Pilot Program for Incarcerated Individuals | U.S. Department of Education.” Accessed April 8, 2017.

[17] “Incarceration in the United States.” Wikipedia, April 13, 2017.

[18] 8, Aimee Picchi MoneyWatch May, 2014, and 5:53 Am. “The High Price of Incarceration in America.” Accessed April 23, 2017.