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3,338 Texas Prisoners Taking College Courses with Pell Grants

by Jo Ellen Nott   

In July 2023, the Biden White House will return the hope of education to more prisoners by restoring the financial assistance provided by Pell Grants. The federal need-based funding for college courses was severely curtailed for incarcerated students during the get-tough-on-crime mindset of the 1990s. [See: PLN, May 2022, p.44.] 

In the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), full restoration of Pell Grant funding next year will give the state prison system a much-needed chance to reduce vast differences in educational opportunity among its prisons: Just 33 of the state’s 69 prisons currently have higher education programs, which are run by twelve community colleges and two universities.

Seven of those colleges run Second Chance Pell pilot programs initiated under the Obama administration. Currently they teach 3,338 incarcerated students, a small fraction of TDCJ’s 117,876 prisoners on hand at the end of August 2021. But in 2023, that number will grow as the Biden Second Chance Pell Program gives access to 200 more schools nationwide to offer Pell Grants to the rest of the incarcerated population in the state. Two dozen of the newly selected institutions of higher learning are historically Black colleges and universities. 

Donna Zuniga, now Associate Vice President of Lee College Huntsville Center, has worked there for 35 years. At one point during her career, 78% of the college’s prison education budget had been cut. But Zuniga has worked hard to keep the program alive, believing that prison education programs reduce recidivism and make the facility safer. Her faith was not misplaced: When Lee College tracked its students who were released in 2018, it found their recidivism rate was 6%, compared with over 20% for prisoners statewide.

According to the nonprofit Vera Institute for Justice, 85% of Texas students enrolled in Second Chance Pell funding programs are men, which is not surprising since 92.6% of TDCJ prisoners are male. But when former state prisoner Jennifer Toon spoke with incarcerated women and asked if they knew Pell Grants were being reinstated, most had not even heard of them. That’s another reason criminal justice reform advocates are so excited about the Pell expansion – since offering certain programs only in certain prisons makes it easy for women prisoners and those with disabilities or medical conditions to be overlooked.  

Sources:  Texas Observer, The Hill  

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