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Bring Back the Pell Grant for Inmate Higher Education

Bring Back the Pell Grant for Inmate Higher EducationCommunity colleges have a tremendous opportunity to serve thousands of new students. A tragic mistake of the early 1990s ended hundreds of excellent associate’s degree programs for incarcerated students throughout the United States. Now is the time to correct that error and begin again to serve a growing population of potentially productive Americans.
President George W. Bush says he wants to improve education throughout this nation. Serving this vast pool of untapped human potential can be a major step forward in accomplishing such a worthy goal and, at the same time, reducing crime and building a stronger work force.
Most incarcerated people in the United States are under the age of 30, and many are first-time offenders serving mandatory sentences. But we don’t need more prisons. We need more effective college degree programs that will help to guarantee that incarcerated students will not be repeat offenders.
We should work with the American Association of Community Colleges to influence our U.S. senators and members of the U.S. House of Representatives to develop a special Pell Grant program for this nation’s young, non-violent offenders. According to The Christian Science Monitor (March 20, 1997) inmates with at least two years of college education had a 10 percent re-arrest rate, compared to a national re-arrest rate of 60 percent.
Under a special Pell Grant for incarcerated students, only the expense of tuition and books would be covered. As it is, Pell Grants are noncompetitive, need-based federal funds available to any and all qualifying low-income individuals who wish to take part in college degree programs. The pool of money available for Pell Grants is not limited and is only determined by the number of people who apply and qualify for funding.
It should be possible and very worthwhile to create a limited Pell Grant for incarcerated students. The savings to our nation would be tremendous: Crime prevention is more cost-effective than building more prisons, and recidivism rates are drastically reduced when people attend college while incarcerated.
With more than 1.6 million in prisons, America has more people incarcerated than any nation in the world. In the past 10 years, spending on new prisons in most states has eclipsed new funding for higher education. As taxpayers have paid more and more for prisons, money for higher education has continued to decline.
In most states, people in prisons no longer receive support for college tuition. Nor do they have access to college degree programs within the prison walls. Twenty-five states have reduced vocational and technical training in prisons since the Pell Grants were cut. In 1990, there were 350 higher education programs for inmates. In 1997, there were only eight.
Back in the 1980s, I taught in both men’s and women’s prisons. Those in my classes were mostly nonviolent offenders between the ages of 18 and 25. At that time, inmate students received Pell Grants to help pay for their college expenses. I witnessed how attending college can change the lives of young people who find themselves in prison. I saw firsthand that educational programs helped provide structure and reduced the need for supervision, and in the words of one prison warden, “helped to keep the prison running smoothly.” I believe that it was because of the prisoner-students’ college experience that most of my students never returned to prison. They went on to full employment, to become taxpaying citizens. Some completed bachelor’s and even master’s degrees.
Perhaps now the nation is ready for a sea change in attitude toward people behind bars. According to the Center on Crime, Communities and Culture, “With so many ex-offenders returning to prison, it is clear that the punitive, incarceration-based approach to crime prevention is not working. We need to promote policies and procedures that are successful. Education, particularly at the college level, can afford individuals with the opportunities to achieve and maintain productive and crime-free lives and help to create safer communities for all.”
The words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger are important to remember: “We must accept the reality that to confine offenders behind walls without trying to change them is an expensive folly with short-term benefits —  winning battles while losing the war.”
Community colleges can work together in a national effort to restore some type of Pell Grant funding for incarcerated students. This nation will benefit greatly from such a change.  — Dr. John Garmon is president of Vista Community College in Berkeley, Calif.

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