More than 20 years ago, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 made incarcerated individuals ineligible for Pell Grants, the funds awarded to students seeking a college degree who demonstrate exceptional financial need. This policy led to dramatic decreases in higher-education offerings for those serving time in prison.
Today, lawmakers are considering the Restoring Education and Learning Act, a federal bill that would reinstate Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated individuals. Contrary to the “tough on crime” rhetoric that spurred the 1994 act, postsecondary education programs in prisons are well worth the investment.
One study found that earning a postsecondary degree while incarcerated can reduce an individual’s chances of being rearrested by 14% and their chances of returning to prison for committing a new offense by 24%. When these programs are accessible to everyone in a given prison, participation rates increase further, translating to better outcomes for those who will one day leave prison and reenter our society.
Unfortunately, since the introduction of the REAL Act, some lawmakers have been hesitant to include eligibility for those who have been sentenced to serve life sentences, or even longer-than-average sentences. This is a mistake.
Postsecondary education promotes a positive, safer community behind bars. Without adequate programming to keep prisoners mentally active and socially connected, they can experience depression as well as an increased tendency to seek out new sources of stimulation, which includes engaging in disruptive or violent outbursts. This puts other inmates, as well as prison staff, at risk.