WASHINGTON, D.C. – Even though providing higher education to incarcerated individuals is a “no-brainer” from a public safety perspective, the current political climate makes it impractical to seek passage of legislation to restore Pell grants to those behind bars.
That was the position of speakers and organizers of a panel discussion on Monday titled “Pell Grants for Public Safety: How Higher Education in Prison Leads to Safer Communities.”
“When we think about the importance of higher education in society as a whole, there’s no controversy. Everybody in this country thinks that college is a good thing, both for individuals and society,” said panelist Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based organization that advocates for criminal justice reform.
“Yet, when it comes to thinking about (higher education in) prison, all of a sudden we throw everything up in the air,” Mauer continued. “We don’t know if it works or it’s a good idea or anything like that. There’s a significant disconnect.”
Although research already has shown that higher education reduces recidivism, Mauer said that congressional leaders still need fresh evidence so they can make the case for incarcerated individuals to regain eligibility for Pell grants—something that hasn’t been available to prisoners since the GOP led an effort to ban Pell grants to prisoners in 1994, leading to the elimination of all but a few college programs in prisons.
“We know that the prohibition that Congress placed on Pell grants (to prisoners) had nothing to do with research, nothing to do with financial priorities, and everything to do with politics,” Mauer said, noting that Pell grants to prisoners only represented one-tenth of 1 percent of all Pell grant money at the time that they were banned.
The Pell Grants for Public Safety event was organized by the Education from the Inside Out Coalition and co-hosted by the Open Society Foundations.
The coalition mounted plans to approach members of Congress last year to seek legislation that would restore Pell grants to prisoners. However, since then, coalition leaders say the Democratic lawmakers in both the House and Senate who were most friendly to the coalition’s cause have advised the coalition to build a stronger political base of support before they re-introduce bills to restore Pell grant eligibility to prisoners.
“There are people in this room who say we should go right now to Congress and tell them to (restore Pell grants to prisoners),” said Shelley Fidler, an attorney with VanNess Feldman, a firm that has been representing the coalition on Capitol Hill.
“I’ve been totally responsible for holding people back. The truth is we gotta win when we go to Congress. We want to engage people in conversation with good research, personal stories, and good information about what’s going on in states.”
However, Fidler said, “in this kind of political climate, this is not the right time to raise an issue (just) because we’re right.”
Brenda Dann-Messier, Assistant Secretary for Vocational and Adult Education at the U.S. Department of Education, told the audience that more needs to be done to expand access to higher education to those behind bars.
“It is not acceptable for the GED to be a terminal degree in correctional education,” Dann-Messier said, noting that a GED is the highest degree attained by one-third of those in prison, versus 5 percent among the general population.
She noted that Congress declined to fund the Grants to States for Workplace and Community Transition Training for Incarcerated Individuals in 2011, which the Obama administration wanted to fund with $17 million, and that she was “not optimistic” about funding for 2012.
“So access to the Pell grant becomes even more critical,” Dann-Messier said.
In the audience of the event was Dallas Pell, founder of Pell Grants for Public Safety and daughter of the late Sen. Claiborne Pell, for whom the Pell grants were named.
Other panelists included Nicole Sullivan, manager of the Office of Research and Planning at the North Carolina Department of Corrections; Amy Solomon, Senior Adviser to the Assistant Attorney General Office of Justice Programs at the Department of Justice; Judy Lewen, Executive Director of the Prison University Project; and Pat Nolan, Vice President of Prison Fellowship.
Nolan, a former California GOP lawmaker who served time after being convicted for campaign corruption, said his prison experience opened his eyes to the lack of meaningful efforts to help inmates get an education while in prison.
He said he often encounters individuals who question why lawbreakers should get a college grant when there are people who haven’t broken the law who haven’t been able to get grants.
“I answer that in a few ways,” Nolan said. “I turn it around and say why would you preclude someone who is more qualified for a college degree simply because they’ve made a mistake and were in prison. Isn’t it in our interest that they’re prepared to be good neighbors when they get out?”