A new proposal from the Education Department has approved extending federal Pell Grant eligibility to prisoners beginning in 2023. The proposal to codify Pell Grant eligibility came from numerous studies and experiments in the past decade indicating that inmates who receive degrees while incarcerated are better prepared to reenter society. They are also less likely to reoffend and return to prison.
The recent Pell Grant proposal is not the first time the government has turned to federal student aid and higher education to address the problem of recidivism — the rate at which a convicted person, after being released, would return to prison. President Lyndon B. Johnson first provided such aid in the 1960s. Yet despite decades of effectiveness, prisoner access to Pell Grant aid was revoked in the 1994 Crime Bill. At that time, politicians in both major parties portrayed the aid as handout to the “undeserving” to galvanize support for other small government “tough on crime” policies, and they succeeded. A look back at this history shows how the survival of federal aid programs for educating inmates has always depended more on public opinion than on the actual success of these programs, which have proved extremely effective.
Inmates first received federal assistance toward their postsecondary education because of Title IV of the 1965 Higher Education Act (HEA) signed by Johnson. The goal of the HEA was to provide federal financial assistance for college students from lower-income families. Part of the HEA established student loans as an option to cover university costs, but it also expanded federal financial assistance to offset tuition. Based on the eligibility requirements, prisoners seeking a higher education while incarcerated could take advantage of this student aid.
The HEA was one piece of legislation among many that reflected Johnson’s efforts to build a “Great Society” that could eradicate poverty, reduce crime and abolish inequality. The same year he signed the HEA, Johnson also passed the Law Enforcement Assistance Act as part of his “War on Crime,” which increased federal grants to local and state law enforcement. Although Johnson envisioned these pieces of legislation working together, these war-on-crime policies weakened the HEA’s Pell Grant initiatives in subsequent decades.
By the 1970s, the total number of Americans awarded Pell Grants ballooned, increasing from hundreds of thousands of students to more than 2 million. Most federal student aid provided opportunities to college students from low-income families outside the prison system; only about 1 percent of federal student aid went to incarcerated students. Still, the influx of aid dramatically expanded higher education programs in prisons. Between 1973 and 1982, the number of prison programs — including college extension programs offering majors in communications, criminal justice and psychology — nearly doubled from 182 to 350.
For prison officials and advocates, Pell Grants for prisoners showed promising success. Inmates participating in secondary education programs behaved better and custodial officials viewed them as “easier to manage.” These factors, including participation in and completion of a higher education program, aided attempts to seek parole. Programs throughout the United States also reported decreases in recidivism for inmate-students by as much as 57 percent. One program that once had reported 80 percent recidivism, noted rates as low as 10 percent in the early 1980s thanks to prison education opportunities. According to Jon Marc Taylor, a former inmate who became a scholar and award-winning writer, unemployment was the leading factor for increasing recidivism rates. Yet three out of four inmates who received some type of higher education were able to find sustainable employment within the critical first three years after release.