Why the White House is bringing Pell Grants to prisoners

Obama administration announces trial program

A limited number of prisoners may begin receiving Pell Grant-funded instruction as soon as next fall, the Obama administration announced Friday.

The "Second Chance Pell Pilot Program" will serve as an experiment to determine education's role in reducing recidivism rates.

In 1994, Congress banned federal inmates from receiving federal funding. That ban remains in place, but the White House says it has the authority to form the limited program. It will likely last three to five years at a Jessup, Maryland prison, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The cost estimate is expected to be small relative to the overall Pell program, officials told the Washington Post. No funding will be taken away from non-prisoner students, and the grants will go directly to the institutions providing the courses—not to the prisoners.

"Giving people who have made mistakes in their lives a chance to get back on track and become contributing members of society is fundamental to who we are—it can also be a cost-saver for taxpayers," says Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Each prisoner in Maryland costs the state nearly $40,000 per year.

From the mid-1990s to 2013, the prison population in the United States doubled to approximately 1.6 million inmates, including many repeat offenders.

Inmates in education programs are significantly less likely to end up back in prison than those who do not participate, according to a 2013 Rand Corp study. 

"We haven't really been able to get a handle on recidivism. We have to present some training and opportunities. These are programs that work," says Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Maryland), co-sponsor of a bill to permanently reinstate Pell Grant eligibility for prisoners.

The debate has been playing out at the state level as well. Opposition from lawmakers in New York led Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to postpone a plan to provide in-prison college courses with state money. Meanwhile, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed into law a bill dedicating $12 million for initiatives such as state prison college classes (Mitchell/Palazzolo, Wall Street Journal, 7/27; Anderson, "Grade Point," Washington Post, 7/31).

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