Congress should restore Pell Grant eligibility to incarcerated individuals
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In March 2001, I walked out of New York State’s Albion Correctional Facility with the clothes on my back, $40.00 and a bus ticket. I left prison filled with fear of the future. Back then, I didn’t imagine my life’s work would include undoing policies and practices that nearly guaranteed my 3.5-to-7-year sentence would result in a lifetime of dead-ends.

Flash forward to this month, when I was honored by the invitation to speak at the Vera Institute’s convening to evaluate the Second Chance Pell pilot program, also attended by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosCollege should profit students and taxpayers — even at for-profit schools On The Money: Trump, in reversal, says he's not looking at tax cuts | Trump calls himself 'chosen one' to fight China on trade | CBO finds spending deal to add .7T to deficit Trump orders elimination of student loan debt for thousands of disabled veterans MORE.

Recent presidential debates have shed light on the destructive impact of the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill. One of its most devastating provisions banned Pell grants (student aid for low-income students) to incarcerated people, thereby denying educational opportunities to millions of Americans.

Justice advocates, educators and incarcerated learners swiftly resisted the Pell Grant ban and found funding for a skeletal number of programs. In 2009, I co-founded the Education from the Inside Out Coalition (EIO) — a national collaborative working to remove justice system-related barriers to higher education. Collectively, we committed to elevating the need to remove all barriers to education for incarcerated students and students with criminal convictions. As we persisted more stakeholders began to commit for the long haul.

In 2013, The Department of Education (DOE) sent out solicitations for creative ways to reduce education costs. College and Community Fellowship, as a founding member of the EIO Coalition, responded with suggestions for how the restoration of Pell funding for incarcerated students would help individuals, families and communities, while also addressing the mounting human and economic costs of America’s mass incarceration system.

After careful consideration from the DOE and Department of Justice, the Second Chance Pell (SCP) pilot program was announced in 2015 and with it, a committee to select participating sites. The application process for the selection committee did not come without fear or consequence. Even in this exciting moment, my criminal history was nothing more than dead weight threatening to undermine any potential success. Thankfully, for me, that was not the case. Our committee went on to select 67 post-secondary institutions in 27 states that served 12,000 incarcerated students in 141 correctional facilities.

Since February of 2016, The Office of Justice Programs has funded the SCP program. The fact that funding will be continued across both Democratic and Republican-controlled administrations is proof that SCP has successfully demonstrated the connections between access to education, facility safety and recidivism reduction rates.

While the recent reauthorization of Second Chance Pell continues to prove a useful stop-gap, the time for experimental programs has passed.

Congress must reverse the policies that harmed generations of lives with excessive punishment and incarceration by passing a full restoration of Pell Grants for currently incarcerated students - regardless of sentence length or conviction type. Now more than ever, we must capitalize on the groundswell of bipartisan support to restore Pell for everyone.

I was encouraged to hear Secretary DeVos’ desire to see formerly incarcerated people succeed and welcome her call for action to Congress “to extend this opportunity in a very sustainable and predictable way.” As the secretary noted, a wide range of community and government stakeholders are supportive of restoring Pell Grant access.

The roughly 2.3 million people in prison, 95 percent of whom will be released, should be given access to the tools required to build a life post-incarceration. More importantly, they must be allowed the dignity that comes with the pursuit of opportunities to self-improve and grow and learn — a right which our founding documents suggest all humans deserve.

Succeeding after prison or a conviction is multifaceted and complex. Access to education and training has repeatedly proven to be one of the most effective ways to help people reinvent themselves. This saves lives, heals families, and builds communities.

Vivian Nixon is the executive director of College & Community Fellowship, a nonprofit that partners with women with criminal convictions to help them earn their college degrees so that they, their families and their communities can thrive. You can follow her on Twitter @Vivian_Nixon_WW