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Prisoners Lose Pell Grants

A provision of the $30.2 federal anti-crime bill was the elimination of prisoners from eligibility for federal Pell Grants. Much attention was given to this portion of the debate by the mainstream media. Senators and Congressional Representatives know a good sound bite when they see one. Junk-food journalism shows like ABC's Prime Time, and NBC's Dateline hyped the "shocking" idea that criminals were milking the taxpayers for Pell Grants while needy recipients in the community did without. But, as usual, there was another side to the story that got lost in the political posturing and media hype.

The federal Pell Grant was created in 1965 by Senator Claiborne Pell, D-Rhode Island, to aid low income students for college. The 1965 bill stated that no qualifying low income persons would be excluded. Prisoners were specifically mentioned in the bill and were intended to be included in the grant program. Media hypsters insinuated that prisoners were taking advantage of the opportunity for Pell Grants because of an oversight in the original Pell Grant Bill that failed to specifically exclude them.

The $6.3 billion program is considered a quasi-entitlement says the U. S. Department of Education, and receives whatever funding is necessary for grants to all income eligible persons. Of that $6.3 billion in the most recent fiscal year, a total of $35 million was allotted for prisoners. Most of that amount was in the form of federal aid paid not directly to individual prisoners, but in the form of payments to state programs designed to provide educational services to their prison inmates. The $35 million allotted to prisoners represents less than six tenths of 1 percent of the $6.3 billion total. Political rhetoric has propelled the myth that the money wasted on prisoner Pell Grants will now be used to provide assistance to more worthy recipients in the community. The truth of the matter is that the $35 million saved won't stay in the education budget. It will simply be retained by the U.S. Treasury (presumably to help pay for the $9.8 billion earmarked for construction of more "anti-crime" prisons).

Forty percent of all state prisoners are unable to read. Only 25 to 30 percent have high school diplomas when they enter prison. By contrast, in the general population, 85 percent of all men aged 20 to 29 have high school diplomas. Some prisoners earn high school equivalency certificates and move on to prison college courses. The Texas prison system did a study this year of prisoners released between September 1990 and August 1991 and found a direct correlation between education levels and recidivism (those who return to crime) rates. The report stated a recidivism rate of only 13.7 percent for prisoners who had associate's degrees, and 5.6 percent for those with bachelors degrees. No prisoners who earned a masters degree returned to prison.

According to Stephen J. Steerer, director of the Maryland-based Correctional Education Association, cutting Pell Grants will kill prison college programs in some states, like Maryland, that depend entirely on the federal program for funding. In Ohio, state Senator Eugene Watts introduced legislation that would also halt the use of state funded Ohio Instructional Grants for prisoners. If approved, the bill would abruptly halt college programs in Ohio prisons.

Prisoners in almost every state prison are required to "program." Those who attend classes fulfill their programming requirement in that way. As the federal educational funding dries up and prison colleges close, prisons will have to find ways to create meaningless jobs for prisoners displaced from education. About 9% percent of Ohio's 40,000 prisoners are enrolled in college courses. If college courses are terminated, that means Ohio state prison officials will have to create 3,600 new leaf raking and sidewalk sweeping jobs in order for prisoners to fulfill the requirement that they program. Has anybody conducted a study to see what the recidivism rate is for illiterate prisoners who leave prison with degrees in leaf raking and sidewalk sweeping?

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