New Education secretary should prioritize implementation of Pell Grants for people in prison
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Newly confirmed Secretary of Education Miguel CardonaMiguel CardonaBiden administration extends universal free school lunch through 2022 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - All US adults can get vaccine; decision Friday on J&J vax Biden accompanies first lady to medical procedure MORE made some appealing promises during his confirmation hearing: Namely, that he would prioritize closing equity gaps and making education more attainable for all students. One of the most immediate ways he can accomplish this goal is by making sure that Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students is implemented as promptly as possible before the 2023 deadline. Students who are eager to make a better life for themselves and their families are relying on him to help put the ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated people in the past. Congress did its part by formally lifting the ban in late December, and it’s now up to Cardona and his staff to focus on implementation.

It’s important to understand how exactly the reversal of this 26-year-old ban will change lives. The Vera Institute of Justice, along with the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, found in a 2019 report that lifting the ban will increase employment among formerly incarcerated people by 10 percent, on average. Researchers also found that reduced recidivism rates will save states a combined $365.8 million a year as a result of fewer people returning to prison. At a time when many state and municipal budgets are squeezed due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s disastrous effect on the economy, these cost savings will be extremely critical.

The ban on Pell Grants for people in prison was one of several harmful policies left over from the punitive “tough on crime” era that has prevented many incarcerated people from furthering their education. For example: Black people make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but they comprise more than a third of people in the criminal justice system. Reinstating access to Pell Grants will help address and correct an unjust policy that is perpetuating racial inequities.


It is those who have been directly impacted by the Pell ban and who courageously stepped forward to share their personal stories with others who deserve to be celebrated as the real champions of this policy win. People like Boris Franklin, who spent 11 years incarcerated in the New Jersey prison system. Boris was fortunate to have access to the state-funded NJ-STEP program, which allowed him to pursue his degree in sociology from Rutgers University while behind bars and eventually obtain a job where he continues to push for criminal justice reform at the local, state and federal levels.

The power of education for incarcerated people and the potential it carries to disrupt the entire enterprise of mass incarceration cannot be overemphasized. Because our criminal legal system disproportionately harms Black and brown people, the restoration of access to Pell Grants for all incarcerated students will also be a means to overcome structural barriers that have trapped too many people of color in generational cycles of poverty and incarceration. These cycles are set to be broken as more people can now pursue college degrees behind bars.

It is now up to Cardona to follow through and get to work implementing long-overdue changes so that access to Pell Grants for incarcerated people, and therefore the promise of postsecondary education, becomes a reality. We’d like the secretary to task a high-level person to guide implementation of Pell reinstatement. The legislation also tasks corrections agencies with selecting the colleges that will be authorized to work in their facilities. The agencies will need guidance on how to select the programs that operate “in the best of interest of students,” as the legislation mandates. Cardona should provide actionable guidelines for these corrections agencies to reference in their selections, including safeguards to ensure that programs are high-quality and have a clear pathway to a Bachelor’s degree. The Office of Federal Student Aid should also have a point person designated to help people in prison navigate financial aid access challenges like addressing student loans in default.

Providing access to Pell Grants to incarcerated people may seem small in the grand scheme of the world we face today, but to the roughly half of all Americans who have had a family member put behind bars, it is a significant step. This bipartisan win at a time of deep division in our country should also give justice reform advocates everywhere the confidence to know that future reforms are possible. Families are depending on it.

Nick Turner is president and director of the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice in New York, which was created in 1961 to collaborate with government, civic leaders and communities impacted by the criminal legal and immigration systems to implement change. Follow him on Twitter @NickTurner718.