Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Pell Grants for Prisoners: New Bill Restores Hope of Reinstating College Programs

Pell Grants for Prisoners: New Bill Restores Hope of Reinstating College Programs

by Christopher Zoukis

It’s been over 20 years since Jon Marc Taylor, Ph.D., a Missouri state prisoner and author of the Prisoners’ Guerrilla Handbook to Correspondence Programs in the U.S. and Canada, published an op-ed in the New York Times urging federal lawmakers not to ban Pell grants for prisoners. In the two decades since his plea the higher education landscape in our nation’s prison system has shifted drastically due to a lack of funding and public support. However, it now appears that might change and Dr. Taylor’s dream may finally come true.

The Restoring Education and Learning Act

On May 21, 2015, U.S. Rep. Donna F. Edwards (MD) introduced the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act, H.R. 2521, which would make state and federal prisoners eligible for Pell grants – a form of federal financial aid for post-secondary education programs. Prisoners have been restricted from Pell grant eligibility since 1994, when President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (VCCLEA) into law.

The REAL Act originally had 17 co-sponsors, including Representatives Danny K. Davis (IL), Barbara Lee (CA), Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (VA), Rosa L. DeLauro (CT), Cedric L. Richmond (LA), John Conyers, Jr. (MI), Charles B. Rangel (NY), Tony Cardenas (LA), John Lewis (GA), Marcus Kaptur (OH), Raul M. Grijalava (AZ), Henry C. “Hank” Johnson (GA), Joseph P. Kennedy III (MA), Alcee L. Hastings (FL) and Ted Lieu (CA). As of the end of July the bill had attracted nine more co-sponsors.

According to Congresswoman Edwards, “The REAL Act is about restoring education opportunities for our nation’s prisoners so they will have the opportunity to reintegrate as productive members of the community post-incarceration.”

The Fight to Preserve Prison Education

The year was 1992 and Congressman Bart Gordon (TN) was standing on the tough-on-crime pulpit preaching to anyone who would listen. His objective was to stop prisoners from obtaining a college education regardless of the social or economic costs. Rep. Gordon explained to his Congressional colleagues that 100,000 prisoners were receiving Pell grants, which was taking funds away from law-abiding students. Neither of which was true. Regardless, he proposed an amendment to the VCCLEA to remove prisoners from Pell grant eligibility and his amendment passed 351 to 39. But the fight was not yet over.

In the weeks that followed, a massive grassroots movement took root. Prisoners all over the country engaged in a letter-writing campaign designed to sway their representatives to the cause of prison education. Leaders in this fight were Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE) and Missouri prisoner Dr. Taylor, who was a strong proponent for prison education both then and ever since. Colleges, correctional educators, the U.S. Department of Education and others joined the fight to preserve prison-based higher education programs. The amendment to the VCCLEA was defeated, though not for long.

Come 1994, Senator Jesse Helms, who had previously introduced legislation to end Pell grants for prisoners, took up Rep. Gordon’s call to action.

“You may teach inmates how to fix automobiles,” Helms argued. “You may teach them how to write, certainly how to read. But a college education free of charge? Such a policy is an outrage.”

In April 1994, NBC Dateline aired a segment titled “Society’s Debt?” The show featured stories of students denied Pell grants struggling to pay for college, along with crime victims who were angered that prisoners had access to college programs.

Rep. Gordon commented at the time, “Law-abiding students have every right to be outraged when a Pell grant for a policeman’s child is cut but a criminal that the officer sends to prison can get a big check.”

Once again, his remarks were untrue. The police officer he cited earned too much money for his child to qualify for need-based financial aid, including Pell grants. And as for prisoners receiving a check, they never did. The college providing the coursework received funding, not the prisoner taking the courses.

While much of the fact-checking occurred afterwards, Senator Harris Wofford (PA) asked the Government Accountability Office to study the matter. The GAO found that “inmate participation is a small part of the total Pell grant program.... Only 23,000 of the approximately 4 million Pell recipients for the 1993-94 award year were incarcerated. This represents less than 1 percent, that is, 1 out of every 500 Pell recipients.”

U.S. Department of Education officials explained that the Pell grant program is an entitlement program that borrows from future appropriations. Every student who qualifies receives funding, whether incarcerated or not. As such, Pell grants provided to incarcerated students did not affect the number of grants available to non-incarcerated students. As it turned out, it only cost $34.6 million for those 23,000 incarcerated students to participate in college programs. According to Department of Education officials, if that money had instead been distributed to non-incarcerated Pell grant recipients, it would have amounted to just $3 per student in additional funds. No free-world student was denied funding due to a prisoner qualifying for a Pell grant.

But such facts were irrelevant to members of Congress intent on denying prisoners access to higher education.

The Demise of College Programs for Prisoners

Following heated public debate over prison-based college courses, President Clinton signed the VCCLEA into law in September 1994, barring all state and federal prisoners from federal financial aid for education programs. [See: PLN, Dec. 1994, pp.1,7]. That provision was opposed by numerous organizations, including the North American Association of Wardens and Superintendents, the American Correctional Association and the Association of State Correctional Administrators, and by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and then-Attorney General Janet Reno. After the bill became law many state legislatures followed suit, prohibiting prisoners from receiving state government-sponsored financial aid.

With the elimination of Pell grants and other need-based financial assistance for prisoners, the 350-plus prison-based college programs that existed at the time quickly collapsed. “Higher education in prisons just about tanked,” said John Dowdell, co-editor of the Journal of Correctional Education.

In the 1980s, higher education programs existed in approximately 60% of medium- and maximum-security prisons. While about 75% of those programs focused on vocational training, the remaining provided academic coursework. Only 13.5% of incarcerated students took correspondence classes; the rest enjoyed in-prison instruction by college professors and other professional educators. Even though less than $35 million was spent on incarcerated students in the year prior to the passage of the VCCLEA out of $5.6 billion in total Pell grant awards (under 1%), federal lawmakers – spurred by false and histrionic statements from Congressman Gordon and his colleagues, including then-Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (TX) – decided to bar prisoners from receiving the grants. Consequently, at the end of 1994 only eight prison-based college programs remained. By 2005 that number had grown to 12, including Bard College’s Prison Initiative in New York. [See: PLN, May 2014, p.34].

Renewed Interest in Prison Education

In recent years there has been renewed interest in reinstating higher education programs for prisoners. [See, e.g.: PLN, Dec. 2014, p.38; Aug. 2009, p.26]. One of the factors spurring that interest, and culminating in the recent introduction of the REAL Act, is the dismal state of our nation’s prison system.

While the U.S. has approximately 5% of the world’s population, it incarcerates 25% of the world’s prisoners. This currently amounts to approximately 2.2 million people held in jails and state and federal prisons. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, incarceration rates in the U.S. have increased by 700% since the 1970s. This resulted in spending on corrections soaring from about $12 billion per year in 1988 to a whopping $70 billion today. Around 95% of prisoners will eventually be released from custody; over 637,000 are released each year from state and federal prisons, based on 2012 data.

In April 2014, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 67.8% of prisoners are rearrested within three years after their release and 76.6% are arrested within five years. However, recidivism rates decrease dramatically when prisoners participate in education programs.

According to Emory University’s Department of Economics, prisoners who complete some high school recidivate at an average rate of 55%; with vocational training, recidivism falls to 20%. And the rate keeps dropping with each additional level of education obtained. Based on a 1993 Texas Department of Criminal Justice study, recidivism rates decrease significantly when post-secondary education is provided: Prisoners who earn an associate degree recidivate at a rate of 13.7%, while for those who obtain a bachelor’s degree the rate is 5.6%. Upon earning a master’s degree, the rate is effectively 0%. That research is supported by numerous other studies spanning over two decades, and is one of the strongest arguments for reinstating prison-based college programs. [See: PLN, March 2012, p.10; Jan. 1998, p.4].

“Research is abundantly clear that post-secondary correctional education and training are greatly needed, have tremendous effectiveness, and save taxpayer money,” stated Congressman Danny Davis.

Rep. Bobby Scott agreed, saying, “Studies have shown that reinstating Pell grant eligibility for state and federal prisoners will reduce future crime and save more in future costs of incarceration than the Pell grants cost.... We have a choice: reduce crime and save money, or suffer increased crime and spend more money.”

Prison Education Programs are Cost-Effective

Indeed, research has found that education programs for prisoners are cost-effective. The Vera Institute of Justice estimates that the average annual cost of incarceration is approximately $31,286 per prisoner. According to the Open Society Institute, it costs only $1,400 per year to provide a prisoner with college courses, which are much more cost-effective in terms of reducing recidivism rates than incarceration alone.

A 2013 study by the RAND Corporation found that for every dollar spent on correctional education, $4.55 to $5.26 was saved in future incarceration costs. The same report indicated that prisoners who participate in correctional education programs are 13% more likely to secure post-release employment and 43% less likely to recidivate than their non-educated peers.

Two other studies bear mention. A 1997 Correctional Education Association study that examined prisoners released from Ohio, Maryland and Minnesota prisons concluded that, “Translated into savings, every dollar spent on education returned more than two dollars to the citizens in reduced prison costs.” Further, a 2001 study at Bedford Hills, a maximum-security facility in New York, indicated that the lower re-incarceration rates of 100 college program graduates had resulted in savings of $900,000 over a two-year period.

Hope is on the Horizon

As advocates for prison education and criminal justice reform look to the future, they are starting to see some hope. Not only has the REAL Act been introduced in Congress, but in May 2015 the U.S. Department of Education announced it was considering a pilot program to allow a select number of colleges to provide courses to prisoners under a waiver to the current restrictions on Pell grant funding. And in December 2014, the Department of Education issued guidance to clarify that “students who are confined or incarcerated in locations that are not Federal or State penal institutions, such as juvenile justice facilities, and who otherwise meet applicable eligibility criteria, are eligible for Federal Pell Grants.” Pretrial detainees held in local jails are likewise eligible for Pell grants if they otherwise qualify.

In the words of Rep. Davis, “A lack of federal funding is the primary barrier to correctional education. This is another reason why we need to expand Pell grants and restore eligibility for the incarcerated. Expanding and restoring Pell is a common-sense federal investment that dramatically increases successful reentry and builds stronger communities and families.”

“It’s a no-brainer,” agreed Dr. Steve Steurer, executive director of the Correctional Education Association. “My personal experience working in corrections for over 40 years tells me that education often has a transformative effect on inmates, the way they think, what they feel about themselves and how they view themselves as citizens and parents,” he added.

One of the proponents for restoring Pell grant eligibility for prisoners is Dallas Pell, the daughter of the late U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell, for whom the Pell grant program is named. Ms. Pell has been advocating for the return of prison-based higher education courses for the past decade.

Yet there is still strong opposition to college programs for prisoners, as demonstrated when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced, in February 2014, plans to fund post-secondary education classes for state prisoners at an estimated cost of $1 million. Following harsh criticism from lawmakers and negative public opinion, Cuomo dropped the proposal less than two months later.

Regardless, prison education is on the federal legislative agenda in a way not seen since the mid-1990s, and for prisoners and their supporters that provides renewed hope.

It is now time to act on that hope: Prisoners and their family members and friends need to contact members of Congress and urge them to co-sponsor or support the REAL Act, H.R. 2521. The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which is chaired by Rep. John Kline. The ranking Democratic member of the committee is Rep. Robert Scott. Both can be contacted at: U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Education and the Workforce, 2181 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20515.


Sources:,,,,,,,,,,,,,,, Punishment & Society,,,,,, USA Today, Wall Street Journal,, Alternet,,,


As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login