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It’s time for Congress to lift the ban on Pell Grants for people in prison

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Education is transformative. Access to postsecondary education, in particular, equips students with the skills they need to succeed in life and contribute to their local communities. But too many people are barred from accessing postsecondary education – including many people in prisons who are eventually released, as 90 percent of incarcerated people are, and find themselves reentering communities without the competitive skills and qualifications necessary for good-paying jobs.

The end result? Too many formerly incarcerated people fall into dangerous cycles of poverty, crime and recidivism. When people struggle with reentry, the devastating impact is often felt far beyond their families: There’s a cost to taxpayers as the ripples are felt across our correctional, public safety and even child welfare services.

The good news is we can do something to stop this cycle. Congress can finally take action and lift a ban that prevents people in prison from accessing Pell Grants to advance their own education. This ban is a relic from the 1994 crime bill and the misguided “tough on crime” rhetoric of the ’90s. There are several pieces of legislation in Congress, such as the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, as well as reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), that could remove this unwise barrier and ensure that all people in prison can access life-changing education.

We know from firsthand experience the importance of increasing access to postsecondary education for the greatest number of people in prison as possible. As the secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections – a state that participates in the U.S. Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative so that more people in our prisons can attain education – and as a formerly incarcerated person whose life was transformed through access to education after prison, we understand the urgency behind this issue as well as the importance of lawmakers seizing this opportunity to expand access to Pell Grants.

Let’s talk numbers for a minute. More than 626,000 people were released from prison three years ago. According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics gathered by tracking formerly incarcerated people over about a decade, nearly 68 percent of people leaving prison were arrested again within three years. Nine years out, that figure rises to 83 percent.

Think about the impact of those numbers for a minute in human terms: That’s hundreds of thousands of families disrupted, prisons overcrowded and resources overburdened, and taxpayers paying ever-increasing amounts as more people are simply funneled back into prison. In fact, states are estimated to spend about $33,000 per incarcerated person per year – for a combined total of about $43 billion annually. We’re not only wasting money, we’re also writing off the futures of hundreds of thousands of people in prison.

This is the picture of a criminal justice system gone off the rails – a system where we don’t invest in preparing people in prison for future successes once they reenter our communities, but instead perpetuate an expensive cycle of reincarceration. However, access to postsecondary education changes everything.

According to research from the Vera Institute of Justice and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, 64 percent of people in federal and state prisons are eligible to enroll in postsecondary education. A study from RAND, first conducted in 2013 and updated in 2018, found that access to postsecondary education in prison can reduce recidivism by up to 48 percent.

And access to postsecondary education is just as important for those serving life sentences. These individuals are often seen as leaders and mentors, and they play a central role in setting the tone and shaping the futures of people who will return home to our communities. When these leaders participate in educational programming, others follow suit, which creates safer environments for both incarcerated people and corrections professionals.

Postsecondary education isn’t some “perk” for people in prison. It’s an extraordinarily necessary and powerful investment in the futures of our own communities. According to the Vera and Georgetown research, the employment rates of formerly incarcerated people who accessed postsecondary education are 10 percent higher than those who did not. That translates into an estimated $45.3 million increase in wages for formerly incarcerated people during their first year after release alone. Increased employment and increased revenue are good for our communities, and they contribute to reducing costly recidivism rates.

There’s a lot of noise in Washington right now, but this is a significant opportunity on which lawmakers should focus their attention. Our criminal justice system is broken, and we have numerous systemic barriers that promote cycles of recidivism. By restoring access to Pell Grants for people in prison, lawmakers have a chance to make a real investment in our futures – and send a powerful message that our nation is serious about reforming the criminal justice system.

John Wetzel is the Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. Dr. Stanley Andrisse, MBA, PhD, is an endocrinologist scientist at Johns Hopkins Medicine, a faculty member at Howard University, and the Executive Director of From Prison Cells to PhD.


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