Does College Education in Prison Work? Ask the 8,800 Inmates Who Got Pell Grants

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college in prison

A college-level class at the Taconic Correctional Facility for women in Bedford Hills, N.Y.. Courtesy Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison

Since 2015, about 8,800 incarcerated individuals have received federal Pell grant assistance to take college-level courses inside their correctional institutions. But has the program made a difference to their lives?

So far, the answer is unclear. Not only is the timeline too short to assess whether the grants have lowered recidivism or improved incarcerees’ chances of post-release employment; but there’s still no effective evaluation of how well the program itself is working in the 59 schools that have participated.

According to a report issued this week by the Government Accounting Office (GAO), that’s about to change.

The GAO reported that the federal Department of Education plans to conduct a “rigorous” examination of the program after first insisting that it had neither the funds nor the capacity to provide more than a “descriptive” evaluation.

“[This] will help provide policymakers with the information needed to make decisions about the future of Pell grants for incarcerated students,” wrote Gretta L. Goodwin, director of the Homeland Security and Justice division at GAO.

Pell grants have been available since 1972 to help low-income Americans benefit from higher education. But the grants were declared off-limits to incarcerated students in 1994, following passage of the Violent Crime Control and Enforcement Act in what was then a “tough-on-crime” climate.

But policymakers, faced with mounting research evidence that education is a critical factor in the rehabilitation of offenders, were persuaded to try again. In 2015, the government launched the “Second Chance Pell” pilot program in a cautious attempt to rehabilitate the concept.

Advocates hoped it would take advantage of the growing bipartisan consensus about the need to reduce mass incarceration.

Over 200 schools applied to participate, and 64 colleges in 26 states were eventually chosen for the pilot—setting off a flourishing variety of experimental and innovative approaches to educating students in the highly restricted and disciplined environment of correctional facilities.

While several successful applicants backed out of the program for different reasons, some $35.6 million in Pell grants were awarded during the first two years of the pilot to 8,769 incarcerees, who took courses administered by 59 two- and four-year colleges.

In a “performance audit” of the first two years of the pilot program, the GAO found that prison officials and college administrators needed to develop “new processes and generate creative solutions” to overcome the special limitations of providing college courses in a prison environment.

Sing Sing

Incarcerees at a college course in Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York State. Photo courtesy Hudson link for Higher Education in Prison

Many correctional facilities offered limited access to the Internet. Others struggled to find a suitable space for classes, and still others had to decide how to handle student incarcerees who were being transferred to other prisons.

One school, for example arranged for students to mail research requests to a state library, which would then send the material to the prison’s secure printer. A correctional officer then delivered the material to the student.

In some cases, state correctional administrators agreed with college officials not to transfer any student incarcerees until the end of the academic term.

The GAO conducted focused interviews with partners in three college programs, including John Jay College’s widely praised “Prison-to-College Pipeline” program (which was launched before the pilot). The program offers incarcerees who successfully pass their college courses credits that are transferable to colleges in the State or City University of New York.

EDITOR’S NOTE: John Jay College houses the Center on Media, Crime and Justice, publisher of The Crime Report. A description of the John Jay program, administered by the college’s Prisoner Reentry Institute, is available here.

Among the takeaways implicit—though not directly stated— in the GAO report was that the revival of Pell grants for incarcerees even on a limited scale appeared to meet a pent-up desire for education and self-betterment among prison populations.

“Second-Chance”-style programs are now underway in Texas, as well as several other states and correctional facilities around the country, aimed at providing incarcerees with life skills and counseling while they are still in prison, with the aim of preparing them navigate the often hostile “outside world” when they are finally released.

GAO cited several research studies showing reductions in recidivism among incarcerees who participated in some form of correctional education—including a 2013 RAND “meta-study” which found that inmates participating in educational programs had 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than non-participants, and 13 percent higher odds of getting a job post-release.

Neither the GAO nor the Department of Education set a timeline for a results-oriented evaluation of the pilot.

Read the full GAO audit here.

Additional Reading: The Trump Administration’s Renewed Interest in Prison Education

Prison Can Be a Place Where People Learn, Governors Agree

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