In 2001, I was released from prison after serving three-and-a-half years in various facilities in New York State. I was a college dropout with limited prospects. While incarcerated, I had tried to continue my education, and was even accepted into a privately funded college program, but I was transferred to a facility without educational opportunities before taking a single class. I was depressed, had low self-esteem, and was ashamed of my situation. 

My experience is just one example of the devastating effect the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill has had on tens of thousands of incarcerated students. By making it unlawful to award Pell Grants to incarcerated people, funding for in-prison education was taken away from 25,000 students and programs became dependent on private donations. Incarcerated students who were eager to learn and turn their lives around could find the resources they needed for their education cut short at any moment. 


Now, twenty years later, this wrong has been temporarily corrected thanks to the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice’s Experimental Sites Initiative, which will provisionally restore Pell Grant eligibility to incarcerated students. The ESI will provide grant funding to college programs that help increase access to in-prison education for students, who will undoubtedly benefit from tuition assistance and a second chance to transform their lives. 

Federal Pell Grants have provided higher education for more than 60 million students across the country since 1972. At its height, Pell Grants awarded to incarcerated students made up only one-tenth of 1% of total grants awarded – making this program more cost-effective than re-incarceration. However, the 1994 Crime Bill reduced the number of in-prison education programs nationwide from 111 to just 11. Each year, only a small fraction of potential students receive these few, highly competitive seats funded by private organizations, while thousands are left without an education. 

When I was released from prison, the first call I made was to my parole officer. The second was to the College and Community Fellowship, a nonprofit organization that helped me get a college education and get started on the right track. I went on to earn a bachelors degree, began my graduate studies, and eventually became the Executive Director of the same organization that turned my life around. 

Sadly, my story is far from the norm, and most incarcerated people do not receive the same support I had. Often lacking education, more than two-thirds of incarcerated people are re-arrested for a new offense within three years of their release. This is bad for incarcerated people, bad for public safety, and bad for the families and communities who could use the economic contribution of hardworking members of society. 

That is why JustLeadershipUSA President Glenn Martin and I co-founded the Education from the Inside Out coalition, which works to expand access to Pell Grants and other educational opportunities for incarcerated individuals. Access to education is not a privilege, but a human right. Taking Pell Grants from incarcerated students deprives an already vulnerable population the chance to develop critical thinking skills and improve their lives.    

Luckily, support for sensible criminal justice reform grows each day.  The Obama Administration’s ESIs will not only help track what effects education will have on incarcerated students following their release, but will inevitably prove what those of us who work with incarcerated people have always known – that postsecondary  education in prison is the most successful and cost-effective method to prevent crime and increase public safety. 

This move is one step of many that needs to be taken to secure lasting Pell Grant funding for incarcerated students in our country. In May, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) introduced the Restoring Education And Learning (REAL) Act to Congress, which would permanently repeal the ban on Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students. While the EIO is an important first step, passing the REAL Act will provide the long-lasting change our justice system needs. 

The late Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), for whom Pell Grants are named, once said, “The strength of the US is not the gold in Ft. Knox or the weapons of mass destruction that we have, but the sum total of education and the character of people.” While the passage of the Omnibus Crime Bill weakened our criminal justice system, today we are beginning to build strength. Let’s live up to Senator Pell’s vision and ensure that incarcerated students have the resources they need to help themselves and become part of a more powerful America. 

Nixon is executive director of College and Community Fellowship (CCF), an organization committed to removing individual and structural barriers to higher education for women with criminal record histories and their families.