Obama administration to test Pell Grants for prisoners

On Friday, the Obama administration announced that it will experiment with allowing some prisoners to receive Pell Grants from a select number of colleges, the Washington Post reports. The Second Chance Pell Pilot will allow inmates with less than five years left on their sentences to work toward a college degree while incarcerated, improving both their mental wellbeing while behind bars and their job prospects once released.

According to a 2013 study commissioned by the Department of Justice, inmates who participated in educational programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison and 13 percent more likely to land a job after completing their sentence.

Prisoners have been ineligible for Pell Grants since 1994, when they fell victim to President Clinton’s “Tough on Crime” initiative. The Pell Pilot comes in the wake of other marginal changes from the Obama administration — some aesthetic, some tangible — that signal a broader shift in criminal justice policy.

The experiment aims to show that allowing inmates to have access to an education while incarcerated will reduce recidivism and save the government money in the long run, as ex-felons with college degrees are far less likely to commit additional crimes.

criminal prison orange jumpsuit jail prisoner convict

Criminal via Shutterstock

This principle guides the criminal justice system in many European countries, which have far lower rates of recidivism than the United States. Perhaps most notably, Oslo University announced earlier this year that Anders Breivik, the mass murderer who killed 77 in a bombing and shooting attack four years ago, had been accepted into its Political Science program. While many were shocked that Breivik was allowed to be admitted, especially given his noted lack of remorse for his crimes, the university said in a statement that they remained committed to admitting anyone who met their academic standards — including prisoners.

Breivik will complete all of his coursework in solitary confinement.

The administration’s proposal was met with a predictable response from Republicans in Congress, who are pushing the “Kids Before Cons Act” in an attempt to block the Pell Pilot. Contrary to what the title of the bill suggests, the Pell Pilot doesn’t touch existing Pell funding for the non-prison population. It is a small amount of separate funding that should pay for itself over time.

This being the case, the only reason to oppose the program is to intentionally make life worse than it needs to be for felons behind bars. Not only is that morally questionable, especially given the fact that only about half of our current prison population is incarcerated for violent offenses, but we know on an empirical level that it is counterproductive in the long run. We can’t act surprised at high levels of crime in our ex-felon population if we continue to dehumanize prisoners while they’re behind bars.

Pell Grants for prisoners make ethical, economic and budgetary sense. We never should have stopped making them available.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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5 Responses to “Obama administration to test Pell Grants for prisoners”

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  2. ComradeRutherford says:

    Conservatives, of course, hate this idea. How dare convicted criminals get an education that would help them no longer be criminals. The profits of the prison industry must be protected.

  3. 2karmanot says:

    Yet another vain glorious attempt to take a brilliant, progressive idea, run it through Congress and reduce it to a mediocre simulacra of Spam.

  4. nicho says:

    Damn. Beat me to it.

  5. Houndentenor says:

    Further evidence that these rules and laws are there for the benefit of the prison industrial complex and not for society. It’s in the best interest of our society for those in prison to get an education, stay connected with family, etc. so they do not return. Those running prisons have an agenda in direct opposition to the interests of the society at large. The more prisoners, the more money they make. This has to stop. Shame on all of us for allowing this to happen in the first place and for every day that it goes on.

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