JESSUP, Md. — Prison education programs like the one that Goucher College runs at a medium-security prison here could help reduce crime and give inmates a better chance at making a successful reentry to society.
That was the message that top Obama administration officials delivered recently as they invited colleges and universities to submit proposals to participate in a new pilot program that restores federal Pell Grants to prisoners on a limited basis.
“When you provide postsecondary education in an institution, you provide individuals with opportunities to better themselves and to better their communities,” said U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
“To have a second chance is something that should be part and parcel of who we are as American people,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said. “That’s exactly what this pilot program is about.”
Lynch and Duncan made their statements at the Maryland Correctional Institution-Jessup — or MCI-J — to announce the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program.
Although Congress banned Pell Grants to prisoners in 1994 through the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program would restore Pell Grants to incarcerated individuals on an “experimental” basis.
“We absolutely have the legal authority to do this,” Duncan said during a press conference in the visitor’s room at MCI-J, citing a provision of the Higher Education Act that allows the Education Department to allow a limited number of institutions to participate in “experiments to test alternative methods” for administering federal financial aid.
“Anyone in Congress that says we don’t is flat out wrong,” Duncan said. He was speaking in reference to a statement put out by House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., that the Obama administration has “chosen once again to stifle an important debate by acting unilaterally and without regard for the law.”
“We can be accused of lots of things in our administration. I don’t think we can be accused of stifling debate in Congress,” Duncan retorted. “Quite frankly, moving forward, I encourage Congress to step up and have meaningful conversations about whether we want to continue to lock up staggering numbers of folks at 40,000 dollars a year or have more taxpayers become productive citizens.”
Lynch and Duncan said one of the aims of the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program is to build evidence to encourage Congress to move to restore Pell Grants to prisoners.
“This is not a Democratic idea. It’s not a Republican idea. All of us, I think, want to save taxpayers’ money,” Duncan said, citing research that has shown a link between prison education and lower rates of recidivism. “All of us want to see more folks contributing to society.”
Despite his enthusiasm for the Pell Pilot Program for those in prison, Duncan was scarce on details about how much the program would cost, how many institutions would participate or how many students would be served.
When asked about the program’s cost, Duncan said it would only be “budget dust” but did not provide an actual dollar amount.
Some details on how the program would operate were contained in a federal notice that invited colleges and universities to submit proposals to participate in the Second Chance Pell Pilot Program.
Among other things, the program would:
• Require participating institutions to submit an annual report about the experiment and their results, including the courses and programs offered, numbers and types of degrees and certificates awarded, challenges faced and how they were addressed.
• Require participating institutions to participate in an outcome evaluation upon request.
• Require applicants to show “evidence that demonstrates a strong record on student outcomes” and in the administration of federal financial aid programs. This could entail information such as cohort default rates and completion rates.
While intense discussions surround whether higher education should focus on liberal arts or practical job skills, Duncan called that a “false choice” and said there would be no such distinction in the program.
However, the federal notice about the program requires participating institutions to “only enroll students in postsecondary education and training programs that prepare them for high-demand occupations from which they are not legally barred from entering.”
The Goucher Prison Education Partnership is very much a liberal arts program. Inmates at MCI-J study things that range from political philosophy to writing to discussions of theater arts. But it also involves “pre-college” classes such as pre-algebra in order to get participating students to a college level.
“It’s about finding potential, lighting the fire and increasing imagination,” Goucher College President José Antonio Bowen said of the program, which serves 70 inmates at a cost of $350,000 — or $5,000 per student — without any government assistance.
With Pell Grants — currently set at a maximum of $5,775 — the college could offer the program without incurring any costs.
Supporters noted that, if the Pell Grants for prisoners help reduce recidivism, it pays off in the long run because if ex-offenders return to prison, it costs upwards of $35,000 per inmate to house them.
Attorney General Lynch noted that, each year, about 700,000 inmates return to society.
“It’s easy to talk about numbers,” Lynch said. “But behind every one of those numbers is a person and connected to every one of those people is a family and part of that family’s connection is a community.
“So the work that’s being done here, through Goucher College, through this pilot program, is expanding educational opportunities designed to reach not just individuals that are going to benefit from it, but their children, their families and their communities,” the attorney general said.
One MCI-J inmate who participates in the Goucher Prison Education Partnership Program said he sends copies of his transcripts home to his children and that it has had a positive effect.
Another inmate said that when his 12-year-old son told him he was “too old for school,” he responded, “School is forever.”
“I’m trying to provide a better example,” the father of three said. “I don’t want them to go down the same road I went.”
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at [email protected]. Or follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.