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Restore Pell Grant eligibility to people in prison

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How to play bridge. Current events. Crochet for beginners. These were some of the continuing “education” classes available to me and others at Cumberland Federal Prison Camp in Maryland, where I served a year and a half. High school graduates looking for more meaningful educational opportunities had few options, thanks in part to a 25-year-old ban on people in prison being eligible for Pell Grants. A bipartisan bill being introduced today would remove that ban and open the door to rehabilitation, dignity and safety for those in federal and state prisons around the country.

The REAL Act, bipartisan legislation introduced by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) in the Senate and Reps. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), Jim Banks (R-Ind.) and French Hill (R-Ark.) in the House, would restore Pell Grant eligibility to those trying to better their lives through education, even if they are doing so from a prison. Until 1994, individuals serving time in federal prison were able to apply for this needs-based federal assistance. During debate over the 1994 crime bill, however, Republicans and Democrats overwhelmingly supported an amendment to cut off people in prison.

{mosads}I was working as a staffer in the House at that time. Few members of Congress wanted to stand up on behalf of “criminals” and the “perks” they didn’t deserve, so members eliminated everything from federal assistance for education to free weights in the prison gym. Making life difficult for prisoners was the order of the day. Whether the punitive measures made communities safer or not didn’t seem to worry anyone.

We know better today, or at least we should. The benefits of correctional educational programs are established. In-prison education programs increase the chances of employment upon release from prison by 13 percent, according to one report. Does having a job reduce crime? Seems so. According to another study, people leaving prison who participated in correctional post-secondary education programs were 48 percent less likely to commit a crime again than those who did not. More education is better. A U.S. Sentencing Commission analysis found that prisoners with college degrees had a significantly lower rate of recidivism than prisoners with only high school diplomas.

The safety benefits become apparent even before a person is released. At a recent Capitol Hill briefing co-hosted by FAMM and The Education Trust, Michigan Department of Corrections Director Heidi Washington said that individuals who complete educational courses in prison are better behaved, improving the safety and overall environment in a facility.

There are other benefits to educational programs that might be harder to quantify. People in prison who complete classes and earn degrees gain purpose and hope. Their sense of self-worth and dignity increases. This benefit is not self-esteem for self-esteem’s sake; it is the dignity that comes with achievement. We need more of that, especially in prisons and jails.

Contrary to one misperception, giving Pell Grants back to prisoners who qualify won’t take this funding away from people outside of prison. When prisoners lost eligibility in 1994, the number of students outside of prison who were able to receive a Pell Grant award did not increase as a result; no one outside of prison had been deprived of a grant because someone inside prison received one. If the awards granted exceed the discretionary appropriation, the program borrows on future appropriations to ensure all eligible students receive the award. Despite having the ability to enter into a shortfall, the Pell Grant program has maintained a funding surplus since fiscal year 2012.

Sixty-four percent of people in federal and state prison are academically eligible to enroll in a post-secondary educational program. We should want as many people as possible to participate. I saw a few guys try at Cumberland without Pell. They were enrolled in correspondence classes at unaccredited colleges and, because we had no computer access, they had to mail in their papers and tests. They worked hard, yet received little help or encouragement from prison staff.

People of good faith can disagree, but returning Pell eligibility to people inside prison is just common sense. If a small group of people living in the depressing, noisy and chaotic atmosphere of prison or jail are willing to take the initiative to better themselves, shouldn’t we let them? It’s time for Congress to remove this obstacle in the path of prisoners who want to avail themselves of something we know will make their lives better and could make our communities safer.

Kevin Ring is the president of FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums), a national nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a more fair and effective justice system. He served as counsel to the Senate Judiciary’s Constitution, Federalism and Property Rights Subcommittee under former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, and was executive director for the Republican Study Committee in the U.S. House. A former lobbyist, he served time in prison because of his role in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Follow him on Twitter @KevinARing.

Tags Brian Schatz Criminology Danny Davis French Hill Mike Lee Pell Grant Penology Prison education Recidivism

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